In the 18 months since Minnesota passed critical legislation aimed at helping victims of sex trafficking, the sad truth is that the problem has only worsened.
State legislators who will soon decide the fate of funding for the program created by the 2011 “Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act” received a disturbing reminder of that fact this week.
For the past two years, a St. Paul sex ring operated by one family allegedly preyed on especially vulnerable women and children — some as young as 15, and some bipolar or mentally challenged — in what Ramsey County authorities described as “modern day human slavery.”
The four men and one woman charged Wednesday in connection with the ring used what is becoming the key tool of the trade — ads on adult-oriented websites such as Backpage.com — to traffic the women as far away as Ely, according to the criminal complaint filed by the county attorney’s office.
The Internet is increasingly used for trafficking in Minnesota, and victims are getting younger. It’s not unusual for 13-year-old girls and boys to be recruited into sex rings today, according to Jeff Bauer, director of public policy for the Family Partnership, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group.
The Safe Harbor legislation passed in 2011 changed state law to treat sex-trafficked children under age 16 as victims of the crime, not as criminals who could be sentenced to juvenile detention. That was an important first step.
The law also required the state departments of Public Safety, Human Services and Health to work with experts to create a prevention and support model for victims.
That effort led to the first-of-its-kind “No Wrong Door” legislation now pending in the Legislature. Key elements include creating shelter and housing in six regional hubs; appointing a state Safe Harbor director and 20 additional grant-funded positions, and launching a training program to help law enforcement identify victims and prosecute traffickers.
The $13.5 million budget request to create the statewide system should find bipartisan support at the Capitol. An economic cost-benefit analysis completed last year by the University of Minnesota and Indiana State University estimated a 30-year return of $34 for every $1 spent on early intervention, housing and health care.
The savings would come from lower public costs for administering to repeated physical injuries, sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies, and fewer recurring criminal-justice expenses.
Housing is especially needed, since victims often come from broken homes and returning is not an option. For their safety, many also need to be relocated to secure housing in other parts of the state, away from traffickers who frequently try to reconnect. And victims often need specialized trauma treatment.
Other states have pieces of the proposed program in place, but Minnesota could lead the way with this comprehensive approach to victim support.
Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and House Speaker Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, are best-positioned to ensure that No Wrong Door isn’t lost in the legislative flood this session.
Without a statewide housing and treatment program, the growing number of trafficking victims in Minnesota will have no safe way to break away from the sex rings that enslave them.
Minnesota made progress on trafficking laws in 2011. By fully funding the proposed housing-plus-services model called for in that legislation, lawmakers can do even more for victims in 2013.