Stearns County — which says it has the highest volume of sex ads in Minnesota after the Twin Cities — will intensify its human trafficking investigations next year.

The county will use a $313,000, two-year state grant to convert a year-old sex-trafficking task force to a full-time operation beginning in February.

“You think of this problem as being a large urban problem,” said Waite Park Police Chief Dave Bentrud. “It’s a big problem here in central Minnesota.”

“No community is immune to this,” St. Cloud Police Chief William Blair Anderson added. “It’s happening everywhere.”

The Department of Public Safety Office of Justice Programs grant goes to the Central Minnesota Sex Trafficking Investigative Task Force, which is made up of two Waite Park and St. Cloud police investigators, a part-time Stearns County Sheriff’s Office detective and a new crime analyst in the County Attorney’s Office.

The St. Cloud metro area, which has nearly 190,000 residents between three counties, is an hour from the Twin Cities and off Interstate 94, making it an easy target for traffickers, County Attorney Janelle Kendall said. As a result, agencies have ramped up the focus on commercial sex the past few years, arresting more than 200 sex buyers in St. Cloud and Waite Park. Since 2015, eight of 13 pimps charged with sex trafficking have been convicted.

Kendall said the grant gives the county “a shot” to address the problem. She expects the numbers of arrests and convictions to rise after boosting the task force to full time.

The task force, modeled after one in Washington County, will target sex traffickers and buyers while supporting adult and child sex workers. Task force members will also meet with schools to teach counselors, teachers and bus drivers how to identify victims and help them.

Just last month, a new statewide report said more sexually exploited children and young adults are getting help in Minnesota, with 1,423 people receiving housing or other services from 2015 to 2017.

Across the state, there’s a growing focus on helping sex-trafficking victims and going after pimps and johns. Minnesota hosting the Super Bowl in February has also helped ramp up new efforts and awareness campaigns. While local researchers say the Super Bowl isn’t expected to drive a dramatic increase in sex ads, there will likely be a bump in ads.

Like other agencies, Bentrud said St. Cloud area law enforcement will increase undercover stings during the Super Bowl. The Central Minnesota Sexual Assault Center also opened the second so-called “john school” in Minnesota in 2016, an eight-hour education program that courts can use as part of sentencing.

Competing for cash

There are nine other recipients for the Office of Justice Programs grants, but they haven’t yet been identified publicly.

Last year, Stearns County applied unsuccessfully for a share of nearly $800,000 in grants the agency gave out.

In southern Minnesota, Nicollet, Brown and Blue Earth counties lost their bid this year for $75,000 in funding to combat sex trafficking. In two years, law enforcement in the three counties made 107 arrests — most of them sex buyers — investigated runaway reports for links to exploitation, and led school programs on the dangers of social media and sexual exploitation.

From St. Peter to New Ulm and Mankato, a part-time team of three investigators focused on sex trafficking and prostitution the past three years, funded by the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota and a $40,000 state grant.

“For a big part of the state in southern Minnesota, it was working,” said Marc Chadderdon, a Nicollet County Sheriff’s Office investigator.

A spokesman for the Department of Public Safety said the grants program had $1.9 million available but got requests for more than three times that amount. The proposals were scored based on location, coordination with other entities, best practices and past performance.

Chadderdon said the state grants rely on a metro model, which excludes much of greater Minnesota, which doesn’t have the volume of crimes to justify a full-time task force or crime analyst. Without the state grant, Nicollet, Brown and Blue Earth counties won’t be able to afford to continue the work they’ve done the past three years, he added, so cases will be referred in 2018 to the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

“It’s not going to be effective,” he said. “The rural model we used worked.”