A program to help young runaway girls rebuild their lives could serve as a statewide model as Minnesota prepares to build a network of support services for child victims of sex trafficking.
About a decade ago, nurse practitioner Laurel Edinburgh helped create the beginnings of Ramsey County's Runaway Intervention Program. Through her work at the Midwest Children's Resource Center in St. Paul, Edinburgh was assessing the health-care needs of young girls who had been brutally assaulted.
She also began collecting data on the girls. Her research showed that after a year in the program, they showed fewer signs of emotional distress and risky behaviors. And by some measures, they began to mirror the characteristics of Minnesota teen girls who never experienced abuse.
Edinburgh shared with us her thoughts on the link between runaways and child prostitution — and what other communities across the state can learn from it.
Laura Yuen: How did the Runaway Intervention Program start?
Laurel Edinburgh: We were referred a number of girls who had been sexually exploited over the course of six months. I realized there were not services for very young girls who had been sexually exploited. I was concerned because half of these girls were no longer enrolled in school. They hadn't been reported by missing by their parents, so they weren't really on any lists where you could identify that they had run away. I felt that these were girls that were slipping through the cracks, and they shouldn't have been.
Yuen: You're trying to find these kids before they're prostituted and exploited. What does that look like?
Edinburgh: For girls who have run away from home, about 20 percent have experienced abuse. Most of the time, the abuse occurs after they've run away. We're trying to identify girls who have run away from home and ask them if they've been abused while they've been away.
The truancy-intervention program [with the St. Paul Public Schools] is hopefully picking up these kids because they've missed 10 or more days of school, and the St. Paul Police Department of Missing Persons uses a screening tool.
When a child goes back home, either the school police liaison or missing-persons [officers] can talk to the youth and say, 'Hey, what happened when you were gone? Where were you? We're really concerned.' It's sort of a different look at runaways. Rather than blaming the runaway and saying, 'You're a really bad kid,' it's saying, 'We think you're hurting. What's happening to keep you from staying home or going to school?"
Yuen: How many teen runaways are there statewide?
Edinburgh: The Minnesota Student Survey says about 9 percent of girls have run away from home at least once. It's not a small problem. But luckily, most teens who run away are relatively safe. They've gone to a friend's house, another parent's house, or a relative's house. The parents just don't know where they are, and [the kids] return on their own.
A much smaller number has run away and has missed 10 days of school. A smaller number still has run away and has been abused. [Abuse] is often the major thing that happens that leads kids to feel so badly that they end up in a relationship perpetrated on by an exploiter.
Yuen: What's a typical scenario in how a girl can become sexually exploited?
Edinburgh: I see middle schoolers. The average age in our program is 14 years old. They've run away from home. They go to one house that may be relatively safe, but then someone at that house says, 'Do you want to go to a party?" Without now having the protection of their family and a place to stay, they're in situation where they're sexually assaulted.
Then they go back home. Not surprisingly, the parents are really mad at them because they left. The [kids] are in trouble. The parents don't know this has happened. I really believe that the majority of parents, if they knew what happened, they would not have the response of, 'You're in trouble.' It would be, 'Let me figure out how to help you.'
And now the teen is probably also in trouble at school because they haven't been handing in their homework. The social supports that should be there are failing them. The teen may start using alcohol. They might start cutting. And then the teen gets sexually abused again, or sexually exploited.
Yuen: What are some of the dynamics with children of immigrants that might make them more vulnerable?
Edinburgh: Children of immigrants often have a foot in both cultures -- in their home life and in the American culture -- and they're trying to figure it out. When something horrible happens to them, who do they try to explain it to? How you're perceived by people who are supposed to care about you carries a stigma and shame. That is true in all cultures, but when you're a child of a new immigrant or someone who doesn't speak English, it's even harder to access services.
Yuen: Why do you think components of the Runaway Intervention Program could be expanded across the state?
Edinburgh: It's a public-health model, and there are public-health nursing services probably in almost every county in Minnesota. You have nurses who are experienced going into homes and working with teams of people. Additionally in Minnesota, we have child-advocacy centers that for years have been working on child sexual abuse. And probably every school has a response to truancy. If you took the missing-persons department in police stations, paired them with truancy departments in schools, and share information on kids they're worried about, they could be referred to a child-advocacy center so they could be evaluated by a healthcare professional. That's where it starts. Then you need to have avenues for treatment.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.