While legislators met in St. Paul Tuesday to discuss a proposed expansion of the 2011 Minnesota Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act, area leaders met to discuss the area impact of the legislation.
Tuesday’s meeting was sponsored by the Minnesota Safe Harbors Coalition and the North Central STOP Coalition and attended by area law enforcement and social services groups.
Under current law, at-risk youth who were being trafficked often end up in the juvenile justice system prosecuted for criminal activity rather than receiving needed support services.
“We set out to change that in Minnesota,” said Jeff Bauer, director of public policy and civic engagement at The Family Partnership in Minneapolis.
Minnesota is one of five states to enact legislation that focuses on similar advocacy for trafficked children.
Bauer said the Safe Harbor Act — which goes into effect in Aug. 2014 — will redefine sex-trafficked children as victims of the crimes committed against them rather than criminals themselves.
“These children are victims of crime. Period,” Bauer told area leaders Tuesday.
Currently statistics show that homeless youth in Minnesota are approached by traffickers within 48 hours of being on the street. In outstate regions such as the Brainerd lakes area trafficking may involve at-risk youth trading sex for shelter, or what is often referred to as “survivor sex.”
Bauer and Mary Beth Hansen of The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota are meeting with area leaders throughout the state to help further education about the legislation and discuss the expansion proposal presented to the Legislature Tuesday.
The new components of the legislation includes what The Family Partnership has referred to a No Wrong Door model.
“The idea is that no matter which way they go, they’ll find the help they need,” Bauer said.
Provisions under the No Wrong Door model would include new construction or renovation and operational costs for Safe Harbour shelters throughout the state, an establishment of support service funds to provide services for sex-trafficked children, funding for a statewide safe harbor director as well as 20 additional leadership positions throughout the state and training for law enforcement and other personnel to identify victims of sex trafficking.
“We have a sincere interest in the educational opportunities for our officers to look at other means to interact with this problem other than our typical enforcement method,” said Brainerd Police Chief Corky McQuiston. “We really look at this as a great opportunity to partner with other people in the community to address the problem.”
Lutheran Social Service Director of Housing, Youth and Family Resources, Kathy Sauve said child trafficking is a real issue in Crow Wing County and surrounding counties. And it seems to be getting worse not better.
“Any you person who doesn’t have a positive adult influence, regardless of economic standing is at risk,” Sauve said.
Sauve said in many cases children involved in trafficking don’t even realize they are victims.
“They think the person exploiting them is their boyfriend or someone who cares about them,” Sauve said.
Lutheran Social Service works to help find safe housing and treatment for exploited children in seven area counties including Crow Wing, Morrison, Aitkin, Wadena, Cass, Todd and Mille Lacs.
The price tag of the implementation of the No Wrong Door model is an estimated $13.5 million dollars.
“We think it’s a very modest price tag to take care of trafficked kids in out state,” Bauer said.
In light of the $1 billion projected budget deficit the state of Minnesota currently faces, Bauer acknowledged the dilemma the legislation may face.
“What’s on legislators’ minds right now more than anything is getting the budget under control,” Bauer said. “They feel as though that is their mandate and why they were elected to office.”
Bauer said making child trafficking a priority is not just a moral issue, it’s a financial one. A cost investment analysis conducted by researchers at the University of Minnesota showed that for every dollar invested in models like No Wrong Door, the state will save 34 tax dollars.
“If for no other reason, it’s just a smart investment,” Bauer said. “It saves everybody money.”
A news conference was conducted Friday to announce the bill and the details were introduced Tuesday to both the House and the Senate.
“All we can do at this point is make our strongest case that this needs to be a state investment and work with our legislators to figure out where (the money) comes from,” Bauer said.
The STOP Coalition will host a second meeting at 9 a.m. Tuesday at the Lands Services Building to offer a free educational training on the impact of sex trafficking in Minnesota. The meeting is open to the public.
SARAH NELSON KATZENBERGER may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5879.