A bill seeking $2.3 million in funding would be the final piece of a $13.3 million statewide plan to help sex trafficking victims in Minnesota.
Since the Safe Harbor law was passed in 2011, ensuring that sexually exploited youths are viewed as survivors rather than criminals, advocates have returned to the State Capitol four times for funding.
The final $2.3 million would go toward increasing the number of shelter beds, resources and youth outreach workers to help sex trafficking victims across the state.
With the Super Bowl coming to Minnesota next year, metro prosecutors and police anticipate that hundreds of women and girls will be sold on the sex market in 2018. Experts told legislators Tuesday that they hope the big event can help increase awareness of sex trafficking.
“These programs literally help save young people’s lives,” said Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of the Link, which provides housing and services to sexually exploited youths. “We’re still turning away a lot of youth.”
After an emotional committee hearing Tuesday, the bill was referred for possible inclusion in an omnibus health and human services bill toward the end of the session.
Another bill seeks to develop a separate plan for adult victims of sex trafficking, since Safe Harbor is limited to decriminalizing only victims who are under 18 years old.
“The question will be: If Minnesota can build a better system for adult sex trafficking victims, what will it be?” said Jeff Bauer of the Family Partnership, which supports trafficked victims. “There are just more and more victims identified around the state.”
Funding and resources for sex trafficking victims have increased since Safe Harbor was passed.
The number of shelter beds has risen from two to more than 40, and there are now more than 2,000 officers trained in identifying victims when once there were none, Bauer said.
A growing number of suburbs, such as Eden Prairie, are developing proactive trafficking programs to help victims and crack down on pimps and johns.
“This problem is everywhere ... anywhere where there’s a water tower,” Rep. Bob Loonan, R-Shakopee, said at the hearing. “It’s in the little towns just as much as it’s in the big towns.”
Stearns County Attorney Janelle Kendall, who testified in support of the legislation, added there also needs to be a focus on demand and that sex buyers usually are white, middle-class employed men who are married with children.
“Sex sells ... and people buy it,” she told legislators. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”
Bauer agreed that Minnesota has come a long way but still can improve the system and begin shifting resources to prevention efforts after focusing until now on interventions.
“There’s more kids than we ever thought,” he said. “We really see sex trafficking and sex exploitation as a public health epidemic.”