Study counts kids who seek help under new sex trafficking law

Heartland Girls' Ranch
Girls walk out to the barn at Heartland Girls' Ranch in Benson, Minn, a refuge for victims of sex trafficking.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2013

Numbers offering an initial glimpse of how Minnesota's new "Safe Harbor" law is working suggest that more than 150 children have sought help in the law's first year from the Minnesota Health Department's front line workers, called "regional navigators."

Additionally, there were nearly 200 requests for housing or other assistance. Numbers could include duplicates because clients' names were not shared with researchers.

The average age of a child seeking help in the Twin Cities was just under 16. In outstate Minnesota, the age was slightly younger, just over 15.

Of the children who sought help between July 2014 and July 2015, more than half came from outside the metro area.

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

The numbers were contained in an independent review, published by Wilder Research, that presented demographic information on youth served, interviewed key stakeholders and made recommendations for improvements.

Laura Schauben, one of two lead authors, said the young people receiving services ranged in age from 9 to 17.

Community talk on Lake Street
Minneapolis City Council member Alondra Cano, left, Charisma Smith of Prostitution to Independence, Dignity & Equality, and Minneapolis Assistant Police Chief Kris Arneson talked with community members on July, 29, 2015, about the problem of sex trafficking.
Emily Haavik | American RadioWorks

"There's this myth that trafficking happens in other countries or to youth from other countries who are brought into the United States," said Schauben. "And I think this data makes clear that ... this is happening to our youth, in our schools and in our neighborhoods across the state."

According to the report, Minnesota has spent more than any other state to build a statewide response for child sex trafficking victims, $8 million this biennium.

The Minnesota Department of Health directs the "No Wrong Door" approach, meaning children can be referred by law enforcement, child protection, community agencies, friends or family. Ten navigators who represent different regions of the state and American Indian tribes connect them with such services as housing, treatment and mental health counseling.

Safe Harbor Director Lauren Ryan pointed to the shift in attitude toward underage victims as an important early accomplishment of the law.

"The first thing that comes to mind when I read this report is how different this is compared to three years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago, when we were seeing these youth as criminals and pushing them through the criminal justice system," said Ryan. "And now the progress we've made ... and having identified all of these youth as sexually exploited is pretty amazing."

Ryan noted the shift was most striking among law enforcement.

"From using terminology such as 'criminals' or 'delinquents' — or that word any of us in the field really dislike, 'prostitutes' or 'child prostitutes' — you don't hear that from law enforcement anymore," said Ryan. "You hear 'victims,' you hear 'sexually exploited youth.' This isn't a bad kid, this isn't a horrible kid, this is a kid that horrible things have happened to."

Among the report's findings:

• Eighty-two percent of youth who sought services in the metro area identified as black. Outside the metro area, 55 percent identified as white.

• Those who exploited young people were most often described as either a friend (27 percent) or a partner (21 percent). Gangs were identified as exploiters less frequently (9 percent), as were family members (10 percent).

• Forty-one percent said they had engaged in "survival sex," trading sex for basic needs like food or shelter.

• The most common risk factors for at-risk or sexually exploited minors were a history of running away (69 percent), depression or PTSD (63 percent) and drug and alcohol use (59 percent). More than a quarter of youth (28 percent) had been in foster care.

The Safe Harbor law protects girls, boys and transgender youth. Four boys sought help in greater Minnesota in the past year, and none in the metro area. Ryan and Schauben both cautioned against drawing conclusions or seeing patterns in the early data. The state requires an evaluation every two years.

The report contains 11 recommendations, including full funding and increasing the age limit. Safe Harbor applies to youth 17 and younger; the most common reason for decline of services was being over the age limit.

Editor's note: This story was updated on Nov. 17, 2015 to clarify the number of children who have sought help from the Minnesota Department of Health in the first year of the "Safe Harbor" law.