In Duluth, a campaign to reduce sex trafficking of young girls

Sex trafficking in Duluth
Sex trafficking victim advocates say they have seen their clients being trafficked outside their offices on the corner of 1st St. and 1st Ave. E. in downtown Duluth, seen here on Jan. 8, 2013. Duluth Mayor Don Ness has declared January Trafficking Awareness Month in the city.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

To raise awareness of girls being sold for sex and to honor survivors of sexual exploitation, Mayor Don Ness will sign a proclamation Wednesday declaring January as Trafficking Awareness Month.

Daily in Minnesota and across the country, young girls are bought and sold for sex. A group of advocates and law enforcement officials in Duluth is trying to increase awareness of the dangers and bring an end to the trafficking of girls.

Like most Minnesotans, Jane had not given much thought to the issue of girls being lured from home and sold for sex — until this summer, when the Duluth professional came home on her lunch hour to check in on her 18-year-old daughter, who had just graduated from high school.

"I walked in the door and I called out her name, and she wasn't there and I just knew," Jane said.

MPR News has agreed not to publish Jane's last name because she still fears for her daughter's safety. Duluth police confirm her story. One of her daughter's friends told her a Twin Cities man bought her daughter a bus ticket to St. Paul after they had met on the Internet. After an agonizing week, a Duluth police officer called Jane to say they were heading to a vacant lot in the metro area where they had traced her daughter's cell phone.

Duluth Greyhound Bus Depot
The Greyhound Bus Depot in West Duluth, on Jan. 8, 2013. This summer the 18-year-old daughter of a Duluth professional named Jane boarded a bus here for the Twin Cities, where police say at least one man attempted to sell her for sex. Police found the girl after she had been missing for two weeks.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

"And that was the lowest point literally of my life," Jane said.

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But police only found a cell phone battery. That there was no body was a relief. Jane later learned from St. Paul police that her daughter was passed to a second and then a third man, though not necessarily for money or sex.

"Ultimately this fellow tried to sell her to a fourth man for a hundred dollars," Jane said. "My daughter refused, and then number three ended up taking her back to a house. And that's where she ultimately was found by the police."

Jane said her daughter suffers from a disability, which police say made her vulnerable to someone with bad intentions.

"He said, you know, your daughter might as well have had a sign on saying, 'Pick me.' They know how to talk to young women, how to get close to them," Jane said. "They literally groom them, and girls don't understand this is where they're headed."

Sex trafficking
Women's violence advocates in Duluth say they have seen their clients being sold for sex on 1st St. E. in downtown Duluth, seen here on Jan. 8, 2013. Duluth Mayor Don Ness has declared January Trafficking Awareness Month in the city. A 2010 study conservatively estimated more than 200 Minnesota girls are sold for sex every month.
MPR photo/Dan Kraker

A 2010 study done in collaboration with the Women's Foundation of Minnesota estimates more than 200 girls in the state are sold for sex each month through the Internet and escort services. The study found others more are sold in private homes and on the street.

For many victims, it often starts out as "survival sex," said Candy Harshner, executive director of the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault in Duluth.

"Where young women were trading sex for a place to stay, or a couch to sleep on, a place to live, for money to get food," Harshner said. "Or the other scenario that's pretty common: they were doing it to thank their boyfriend. They never call it their pimp; it's their boyfriend or someone who's taking care of them."

Harshner's group three years ago helped start a Duluth sex trafficking task force that has worked to raise awareness and to reframe what many people think of prostitution.

More than 200 girls in Minnesota are sold for sex each month through the Internet and escort services.

"Most people think that's a choice for women, and we always say, what little girl says when you ask her what she wants to be when she grows up — nobody really says I want to be a prostitute," Harshner said.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average age of girls when they are first sold for sex is between 12 and 14 years. When the Minnesota Indian Women Sexual Assault Coalition recently interviewed over 100 Native trafficking victims, over half from the Duluth area, 98 percent were homeless at the time; 92 percent said they wanted to leave their situation immediately.

Sarah Curtiss of the Duluth group Mending the Sacred Hoop, which works to end violence against Native women, helped coordinate the interviews.

"In fact there were a couple of women that I got moved that day, that were in such a dangerous situation; that said, 'if I go back, I think I'm going to get hurt,'" Curtiss said.

She said some of the girls interviewed were picked up afterwards by their pimps.

It's a huge challenge to get trafficking victims to testify in a prosecution because they feel trapped and powerless, St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said.

"The one question that they always will ask us if we're trying to encourage them to go ahead and be part of this, because we'll never force someone to be part of a prosecution in this area — they'll ask us, 'can you keep me safe?'" Rubin said.

The answer has been no, Rubin said. But he says a new Duluth sex trafficking task force has begun to develop a protocol to help women.

For Jane, whose daughter is back in Duluth and getting necessary help, educating parents about the dangers girls face is crucial.

"I'm speaking out because I never dreamed this could enter my life. And I learned way more than I ever wanted to know in my life about sex trafficking, and how quickly it can happen and change everything."

— Follow Dan Kraker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/dankraker