Minnesota lawmakers agreed two years ago to treat sexually exploited children as victims, not as criminals.
Now comes the hard part.
The state Department of Public Safety has released new recommendations on how to respond to the unique needs of children and teens who are sold for sex. The report recommends that the Legislature allocate nearly $10 million to help build a comprehensive system of housing and care for some of the most vulnerable juveniles.
The two-year-old Safe Harbor Act goes into effect next year, but the trickiest part has always been the question of where to put the children.
"Sometimes we have locked up juveniles because there was no safe place for them to go," said Sgt. John Bandemer of the St. Paul Police.
Bandemer, who directs the Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task Force, said law enforcement officers traditionally would take child trafficking victims to juvenile detention facilities, thinking that was the best option for them.
"We knew that they would run from a shelter. We knew that they would run back to the traffickers. That's just what happens," he said. "Our saying has been, 'A night in jail is better than a night on the streets for these kids.'"
But Bandemer said law enforcement and prosecutors now widely agree that locking the victims behind closed doors is the wrong response. The new report recommends creating a statewide network of safe places for them to go.
Building and operating the shelter space would cost more than $8 million — $4 million in construction costs and the rest for operating costs over two years. The Department of Public Safety recommends building up to 40 new beds across Minnesota designated for sexually exploited young people. It also suggests placing prostituted children with foster families who have been specially trained to care for them.
Only four housing beds in the state are specifically set aside for young trafficking victims, and they're all at Breaking Free, said Nikki Beasley, program director for the St. Paul non-profit that helps women and girls escape what she and many other advocates call "the life."
"At Breaking Free, we're almost always full," Beasley said. "We have transitional and permanent housing, but the need that we're seeing is for emergency shelter. There just aren't enough beds for the growing needs that are out there."
Beasley helped craft the recommendations. She sat on a state-convened task force of police, prosecutors, advocates, and former trafficking victims who worked on developing the proposed model for the past year and a half. The plan calls for new staffing, including a statewide director and six regional "navigators" to make sure victims get the services they need. Outreach workers would hit the streets, looking for children in need of help at places ranging from libraries to public buses.
Beasley said identifying the victims requires a concerted effort by social service agencies.
"They're not walking around saying, 'Hey, I'm a sexually trafficked youth,' " she said of the abused children. "So it's up to us as providers to be trained and know how to identify — and then how to assess what their needs are and how to get them into the right services."
Altogether, the plan would require more than $13 million in state, federal and private money.
Squeezing $10 million from a cash-strapped state would be tough alone. But state Rep. Tom Huntley, who chairs the Health and Human Services Finance Committee, said it will be a priority for him.
"I think we need it. It's a bigger problem than what we were aware of," said Huntley, DFL-Duluth. "It's sort of a longtime thing in Duluth. A lot of these women are runaways. They don't get the support they don't want, basically get kidnapped to other parts of the country, and are turned into prostitutes, if that's what you call it. We've had a number of young cases in Twin Cities where young women basically incarcerated in hotels and put up for sale."
That's why the report recommends training law enforcement officers to pursue trafficking investigations with the child's best interests in mind.
Bandemer, the St. Paul police sergeant, said it's easy for patrol officers to miss the signs that a child has been prostituted. He said even the notion that they are victims, rather than criminals, needs to be ingrained in the minds of officers.
"That's a big barrier we need to overcome," he said. "We've made missteps in the past. We've maybe not treated this as it should have been. Law enforcement is kind of like a big ship; it's kind of hard to get it to turn around and steer correctly."
But Bandemer thinks the new Safe Harbor plan is a good start.
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