Advocates for the young victims of sex trafficking in Minnesota had hoped the 2013 Legislature would fully fund the much-needed program created by the 2011 “Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act.”
Instead, they won what proponents are calling an “incomplete and underfunded” victory — just $2.8 million of the $13.5 million they requested.
“We said over and over again that you can’t stop a statewide epidemic if you’re only treating 20 percent of the victims,” said Jeff Bauer, director of public policy at the Family Partnership in Minneapolis.
It’s not that Bauer and other Safe Harbor supporters aren’t grateful for the $2.8 million. They’re well aware that the Legislature turned down many worthwhile requests for funds while cutting $50 million from the $11.5 billion Health and Human Services budget. So even partial funding represents progress.
The $2.8 million appropriation will fund what is believed to be the nation’s first statewide director of child sex-trafficking prevention, as well as six regional coordinator positions and up to 12 beds providing safe shelter and treatment. The $13.5 million would have supported up to 40 beds across the state. There are just four secure beds available today.
Beds are so costly because safety is a primary concern. Victims are often pursued by their traffickers, and shelters for homeless youths have inadequate security. In addition, the type of trauma that victims typically have suffered requires costly specialized therapy.
There are no reliable studies on how many Minnesota kids are used in the sex trade each year, but the organizations that work on the problem report that the numbers are increasing and that the victims are getting younger. One of the key tasks of the state’s new director will be to compile and analyze data on child trafficking.
If the Legislature had committed $7 million of the $13.5 million sought for the “No Wrong Door” program, the Women’s Foundation would have made a $1 million grant to the effort. Lawmakers left the $1 million on the table, but advocates are committed to keeping the pressure on both public and private funding sources.
Elected officials at the local, state and federal levels need to recognize that child sex trafficking is a public health issue and a growing problem not just in Minnesota, but across the country.
Much like domestic violence decades ago, youth trafficking has received too little attention for too long.