Heartland Girls' Ranch helps heal underage victims of sex trafficking

Heartland Girls' Ranch
A girl who was a victim of child sex trafficking hugs her horse Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 at Heartland Girls' Ranch in Benson, Minn. Each of the 19 girls staying at the ranch is assigned her own horse to care for and ride as part of her therapy.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

She holds her neck and shoulders tense, and barely speaks. But on a walk to the pasture to halter her horse, the girl begins to relax.

"Come on honey," she tells her horse softly, coaxing him toward the barn. "Come on."

A tan Appaloosa whose coat has grown thick for winter, Arnold is stubborn and a bit alone in the world, untrusting. So is the girl.

"We do the same things," she said. "If I'm scared, I usually isolate, and that's what he does. He stays away from horses. He goes in the barn."

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Like her horse, the 16-year-old girl has stepped away from others. But in her case, the solitude of the Heartland Girls' Ranch is a healthy refuge from sexual exploitation.

Founded more than 20 years ago as a place for abused or neglected girls, the ranch accepts girls referred by county child protection workers for a variety of reasons, but largely because they have been abused or neglected. In recent years, Minnesota counties have increasingly sent girls who are victims of sex trafficking, some of whom were sold on websites like backpage.com.

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To combat the growing problem of sex trafficking, Minnesota is changing how it views underage victims. In 2011, the state passed a Safe Harbor law that said children age 16 years and younger engaged in prostitution are victims, not delinquents.

Today at the State Capitol, lawmakers, county attorneys, police and advocates for children plan to introduce what they hope will be phase two of the plan. They're asking lawmakers to help sexually exploited children and teens, by providing more support for them, and safe housing that is not juvenile detention.

"These young brains which are forming are now skewed, and [have] a mistrust and understanding of adults and who they are as a person and what their body is for."

Four of the girls living at the ranch are recovering from those experiences, executive director CeCe Terlouw said.

"It strips them of self, it strips them of any dignity," she said of the abuse. "These young brains which are forming are now skewed, and [have] a mistrust and understanding of adults and who they are as a person and what their body is for. It's just really a warping of soul and body."

MPR News obtained permission to interview two girls living at the ranch who were forced into prostitution or sexually exploited by an adult. MPR News is not identifying them to safeguard their privacy as underage victims.

Girls ages 12 to 18 spend an average of eight or nine months living at the ranch and attend classes in their own wing of the Benson High School. Those who are ready can take classes with other students. They gain work experience fulfilling orders in the ranch's custom embroidery business. Some find jobs in town, helping at the local library or hair salon.

Counties pay $169 a day for each girl they send to the ranch, which provides a safe, therapeutic environment. Terlouw said its remote location two hours west of the Twin Cities metropolitan area is an asset.

"I don't think we've ever had a pimp come to Benson, Minn., to track down a girl," she said.


For the girls, some of the most important healing comes through working with the horses on the ranch.

Matched up
A Heartland girl who participates in the horse therapy program is matched up with one horse that is considered hers while she lives at the ranch. The girls are responsible for bringing their horses into the barn from the pasture before their lesson Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 in Benson, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

Bridget Kinnell, the horse program manager at the ranch, matches each girl with a horse based on riding ability, and her intuition.

"If I have a girl that I know has a strong personality, [who] might have some issues with bullying, or aggressiveness, I'm going to match her with horse that is high up in the herd, that is also a strong personality," Kinnell said. "If she uses those normal ways that she would interact with people, this horse is going to not respond. If they're a girl that's maybe more quiet or fearful I'm going to match them with a horse that is more kind of like them."

Girls who have difficulty trusting people will find that horses have a startling honesty. Horses respond to a rider's body language, sometimes sparking a girl's insight more quickly than a therapist could.

For example, Kinnel gave a girl who had run away a horse that no one could catch. She said the girl made the connection.

"We can ask them how it feels to be on the other side," Kinnell said. "Now they're the person having to deal with that behavior. And it gives them some empathy for the people in their lives and kind of how their behavior has affected others."

Accomplished riders
Some of the Heartland girls become accomplished riders and many win ribbons in local horse shows. Their horse therapy includes caring for the ranch's 30 horses and regular riding lessons after school Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 in Benson, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

On one frozen evening, the last girl in the barn with Kinnell rode lap after lap with a horse who wanted to go his own way.

"Don't let him destroy your plan," Kinnell told the girl, 15. "He takes a lot of mental focus. You got to stay thinking one step ahead of him."

The horse resisted the girl's effort to teach him a new pattern. But she understood, as she doesn't like to be controlled either. She began rebelling at age 11, and her grandmother, who raised her, couldn't rein her in.

"My grandma's old and she can't really enforce the rules around me, so I just do stuff without her permission," the 15-year-old said. "And it's not like she can't do much anyways, and then the law got involved for me not going to school. I had to get locked up for truancy... it just goes on and on."

To escape from difficult situations, girls like those on the ranch sometimes bolt without a plan, Terlouw said.

That makes them vulnerable to people who want to exploit them. The goal of the ranch, she said, is to make sure girls leave with new skills and self-confidence.

"They need to have a vision of what their future can hold," Terlouw said. "I see with the trafficked girls, they have felt their body was the thing they had, that they can make money. They need to be able to understand and see there can be a future for them, and there is a way they can meet their needs without that as something to fall back on."


State lawmakers are also pondering the future of young victims of sexual trafficking.

Although the Heartland Girls' Ranch isn't a dedicated space for girls victimized by sexual trafficking, it could expand to serve more of them. After the Safe Harbor law goes into effect in August of next year, the state will need more places for them to go that aren't juvenile detention, said Jeff Bauer, director of public policy for the Family Partnership, a Minneapolis service organization that provides counseling and education services.

Heartland Girls' Ranch
The girls walk out to the barn after school Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013 at Heartland Girls' Ranch in Benson, Minn.
MPR Photo/Jennifer Simonson

"There are currently two beds existing in the entire state of Minnesota specifically for sex-trafficked children, and those are both at Breaking Free here in St. Paul," said Bauer, who helped draft a series of recommendations to the Legislature. More safe housing is a big one.

"I think they recently got some funding to add two more beds, but you know, we're talking about between 35 and 40 beds, minimum, per night that we need across the state," he said. "So the gap is wide."

Breaking Free, a non-profit run by survivors of prostitution, is one of the groups that worked with law enforcement, prosecutors and state commissioners to develop the "No Wrong Door" proposal scheduled to be introduced at the Legislature today.

But the $13.5 million proposal to fund a statewide response to sex trafficked children is not in Gov. Mark Dayton's budget.

As Minnesota comes to grips with its child trafficking problem, the solutions are not easy. Advocates for sexually exploited young people say they are a difficult population to work with, even when placed in a safe environment.

The 16-year-old at the Heartland Girls' Ranch admits she still thinks about running.

"There's sometimes when I just want to walk out the door and not look back," said the girl, who wants to be a social worker. "But this is a good opportunity for me to get my life together and start over."

Starting over at age 16, however, means catching up in school after being away for a couple of years.

After the trauma she has been through in her young life, she has a chance to be a teenager. She's at peace, riding Arnold.

"I feel free," she said.