ROCHESTER — For years, Olmsted County has combatted human trafficking through police raids, reports and criminal charges. Local officials hope a new approach will better help the victims of those operations.

County public health inspectors will begin inspecting massage parlors in Rochester later this month as part of a pilot program officials say could help prevent sex trafficking in the area.

Inspectors are planning annual unannounced inspections of Rochester's 36 massage establishments, where they'll look for signs of sex or labor trafficking such as living quarters or bodily fluids within the business.

Health inspectors are modeling the program after a similar push in St. Cloud in 2018 and 2019, which was modeled in part on strip club inspections in Minneapolis. Sagar Chowdhury, an associate director at Olmsted County Public Health, helped start that program and saw it spread to nearby communities after St. Cloud officials cited a third of the city's massage establishments.

"I would love for this to get out to other public health departments as a method they can utilize," Chowdhury said. "It doesn't have to be a big city for trafficking to occur in. In fact, more rural areas can be easier hubs."

Olmsted County's pilot program comes as local governments around the state explore more ways to address human trafficking and help victims.

Experts and advocates say local and state officials need to expand their focus from only younger victims, which Minnesota addressed through the Safe Harbor Law of 2011. The law prevents victims younger than 18 from being charged with prostitution and offers supports for victims up to 24 years old.

"The downside is that there's not always enough systems in place to support the workers, the folks who are being exploited," said Sarah Florman, public policy manager at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "This is their livelihood. This is how they pay rent, this is how they pay child care, this is how they survive."

Olmsted County helped 184 victims of human trafficking from October 2021 to October 2022.

Officials say the massage parlor inspections are a starting point for larger efforts and more collaboration to prevent human trafficking in the area.

Andrea White, a regional navigator for Minnesota's Safe Harbor program serving southeast Minnesota, said she hopes county officials can create a better process to follow up with victims after the county identifies and helps them.

Some massage business owners are publicly criticizing the county's plan, arguing officials need to go after unlicensed massage parlors rather than legitimate businesses.

Chowdhury said he believes the inspections will ultimately help business owners. In St. Cloud, massage business owners welcomed the inspections once they started.

"None of those operators wanted these illicit operations to be running," he said. "It negatively impacted imagery for massage establishments."