A new ally joins fight to end teen sex trade

Women's Foundation of Minnesota has launched a $4 million campaign to halt trafficking of teen girls.

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Joy Friedman of the nonprofit Breaking Free hugged a woman who was working as prostitute on Lake Street Wednesday night.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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Terry Williams stood in front of guests at a swank Wayzata home on a recent evening, carrying a message that wasn't exactly cocktail party fare. Surrounded by lovely furniture and a glowing fireplace, she showed them a gritty film titled "Minnesota Girls Are Not for Sale."

For the next 45 minutes, a dozen guests sipping wine learned about a new $4 million, five-year campaign to halt sex trafficking of teenage girls.

"Most people are quite shocked that this is happening," said Williams, of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, the campaign's sponsor.

Such unlikely house parties are taking off across the metro area, as the foundation launches the first philanthropic campaign in Minnesota -- and one of a handful in the nation -- focused on teen sex trafficking.

For the first time, a state foundation has opened its vaults to create a dedicated funding stream for programs against sex trafficking. For the first time, a foundation has spearheaded a public education campaign on trafficking, handed out grants to law enforcement and prosecutors, and collaborated with state players to build a safety net for the victims.

Last week the foundation announced its first grants in Minnesota, which is becoming a national model for combating the teen sex trade.

"We first heard about the problem from some of our youth [program] grantees who were seeing an uptick in this," said Lee Roper-Batker, foundation CEO. "Then one day Susan Segal [Minneapolis city attorney] called me into her office and said, 'You're a woman's foundation. What are you going to do about this?'"

The foundation looked at some numbers. It found only 11 foundation grants nationally dedicated to "sexually exploited youth" from 2003 to 2011. Three were in Minnesota. Teens in the sex trade were no doubt helped by grants addressing runaways, prostitution and domestic violence, the foundation knew. But there was little targeted directly at vulnerable minor girls.

"I feel like we're in the same place with trafficking as we were with domestic violence 30 years ago in terms of building awareness, services and the right policies," said Roper-Batker. "What's missing is resources."

Parties and pimps

The Wayzata house party was held at the home of Katharine Priedeman, a Twin Cities banking executive who is among an unlikely array of wealthy donors, businesspeople, advocates and nonprofit leaders working on the initiative. Her guests had many questions for Williams, a foundation director.

Aren't these girls from other countries? asked one guest.

Most aren't, replied Williams. They are Minnesota girls servicing men in the port of Duluth. Rural girls lured into "just dancing" at strip clubs during hunting season, and then denied a ride home until they have sex with a few men. Desperate urban runaways. Girls from across the state sold by pimps at the click of the mouse on the Internet.

How many girls are trafficked? asked another guest.

It's impossible to quantify because it happens underground, said Williams. But police, courts and nonprofits serving teens see it regularly.

The annual Minnesota Student Survey would be an ideal tool for learning the extent of the problem, said Williams. The foundation plans to ask that a trafficking question be included in the survey. It also wants to get trafficking information into high school curriculums.

What's the biggest need? another woman asked.

Specialized housing for the traumatized girls, Williams said. Minnesota has just two beds dedicated for them. Both are sponsored by Breaking Free, a St. Paul nonprofit serving sex trafficking victims.

Julie, a client at Breaking Free, is among the teens at the heart of the campaign.

The petite young woman wound up in the sex trade after leaving home at age 17, and meeting a dubious "boyfriend." She traveled the country with her pimp and other girls, servicing men -- all under the mind-control game played by pimps. She didn't want her real name used.

Her advice for the campaign? "The cops need to be going after the pimps," she said. "If it weren't for buyers, there wouldn't be prostitution."

Grants in action

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi wants to do that. His office received a $60,000 grant from the foundation last week that will free up a senior county prosecutor to audit about 400 past cases of runaways and prostitution -- where trafficked girls often turn up -- to learn what investigators could do to strengthen their cases against pimps. The goal is to create a state model for prosecutors, he said.

Breaking Free, meanwhile, will use part of its roughly $59,000 grant from the foundation to educate police, court officials, youth workers and others about the dynamics of the teen sex trade. The American Indian Community Housing Organization in Duluth received $65,000 to build a housing-based model, which can be replicated statewide, to support American Indian teens fleeing the trade.

The Minnesota Family Partnership received funds to educate legislators about the need for funds for housing and other services. It also will work to expand the Safe Harbors Law, passed last year, which requires law enforcement to treat sexually exploited youths under 16 as victims in need of protection, not criminals. The goal is to raise the age covered under the law to 18.

Dave Ellis, who oversees the new Minnesota Alliance Against Violence for the Greater Twin Cities United Way, has been involved in the foundation's efforts. Like the Women's Foundation, Ellis said trafficking victims are showing up in United Way programs serving youths, runaways and more.

"Someone needs to call it out," said Ellis. "But it's one cog in the whole discussion of family violence, part of a machine that is moving in a direction that no one wants."

For the staff of the Women's Foundation, entering the seedy world of the sex trade has been an eye-opener. They've created files on "Pimps" and "Strip Clubs." They get e-mail notices when pimps who are trafficking teens are busted.

And they've become adept at checking out prostituted girls on backpage.com, the controversial Village Voice Media website that is a major source of trafficking. The media company operates 13 newspapers nationwide, including City Pages.

With a few clicks of the mouse, Roper-Batker pulls up ads with seductive photos and phone numbers for girls who can land at a man's door "faster than a pizza."

"How can this be legal?" she asked. "Our time to change is now."

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511

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