The number of sexually exploited children and young adults receiving help in Minnesota is rising significantly.

According to new data released Friday, 1,423 children and young adults received housing or other services over a two-year period — from 2015 to 2017 — under the state’s Safe Harbor program, which helps at-risk and sexually exploited victims. That’s up from 359 teens and kids over a one-year period in 2014 and 2015, when the program was first evaluated.

About 60 percent of the victims live outside the Twin Cities metro area — evidence that the popular perception of sex trafficking and prostitution happening only in urban communities isn’t true. After Hennepin County, the top counties in the state for Safe Harbor service referrals are St. Louis County in northeastern Minnesota and Olmsted County in southern Minnesota. Ramsey and Dodge counties round out the top five.

“This is a statewide problem — I think that’s the bottom line. This is not an urban issue or a rural issue,” Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said. “This is a public health issue that all of us are responsible for.”

The rising number of victims getting help, however, doesn’t necessarily mean that sex trafficking is growing in Minnesota.

Ehlinger and other experts said Friday that it’s difficult to estimate the number of people sold for sex, or pinpoint if the rise in the number of those receiving services is due to better identification of victims, more services or greater awareness.

“So often we get the question: ‘Is this happening?’ [The new data] provides that hard evidence,” said Laura Sutherland, southeastern Minnesota’s regional navigator.

Growing resources

In 2011, the state passed its Safe Harbor law, ensuring that sexually exploited youth are not criminalized.

Friday’s report was the second time since 2011 that the program has been evaluated, but it marked the first time girls and boys have weighed in on its value. Many said they were satisfied with the services and felt more hopeful after taking advantage of them.

The first evaluation by the Wilder Foundation included only one year of data about girls and boys under the age of 18. That data came from regional navigators — the main points of contact for sexually exploited victims in the state.

By contrast, Friday’s report had two years of data from regional navigators as well as data from service providers and included girls, boys and adults under the age of 24. That’s in part because the state expanded the age of victims eligible for services to 24; decriminalization remains limited to victims under 18.

According to Friday’s report, participants in Safe Harbor programs range in age from 5 to 48. The average age of those receiving services is 16. About 83 percent are female, 37 percent are white, 26 percent are black, 14 percent are multiracial and 9 percent are American Indian.

‘It’s happening everywhere’

Awareness and resources are also growing in Minnesota, state leaders have said.

Since 2011, the number of shelter beds increased from two beds to more than 40. The state has spent $2.6 million a year for regional navigators. And more than 2,000 officers have been trained in identifying victims while agencies from Eden Prairie to Mankato are shifting to crack down on pimps and johns.

With an estimated 26,000 Minnesota men — 1 percent of the population — likely to have purchased sex in the past year, even smaller police departments are becoming more involved. A St. Peter, Minn., sting earlier this year drew nearly 500 texts and calls in six hours and netted three sex buyer arrests.

“Not every sheriff or police chief or prosecutor might say this is happening in my community, but it’s changed,” said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, who is also helping lead an anti-sex trafficking Super Bowl committee. “The attitudes about whether or not this is actually happening or [is] a problem is changing.”

With Minnesota hosting the Super Bowl in 2018, local nonprofits, organizations and government also have added new efforts and urgency to awareness campaigns.

Experts said Friday there still need to be more training and research on the intersection of sex trafficking with systemic issues such as racism and mental health. There are also gaps in services for American Indians, boys and men, LGBT victims and young adults older than 24.

“It’s happening everywhere,” said Laura Schauben, a Wilder Foundation researcher, “and it could happen to anyone you can think of.”