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Our view / Sex trafficking: Even in Minnesota more must be done

(Photo Iillustration by Ira Gelb / Flickr)

For at least the past four years, ever since the decision was made to start treating people sold for sex as the victims they truly are rather than the criminals they’re often seen as, Minnesota has been a national leader.

But even here there’s more to be done to combat sex trafficking and to extract the ugliness of exploitation from our communities.

An estimated 8,000 to 12,000 women and children are sold for sex in Minnesota — or, more typically, allow themselves to be sold. As young as 11, they maybe need a meal or a place to stay and turn to “survival sex.” Some just want to avoid a beating or are so desperate for someone in their corner, someone to love them, that they’ll do unspeakable things just because a guy showed them a little attention.

Our state was one of the first to adopt a more-enlightened, victims-rather-than-criminals attitude after the FBI identified Minnesota as one of 12 states with a high sex-trafficking problem. The state departments of Public Safety and Health and Human Services responded with 18 months of studying and strategizing. They came up with a plan that calls for $8.5 million from the state for shelter housing in as many as six communities, including in Duluth, where rescued sex-trafficked children could go, receive the services and counseling they need, and, hopefully, find a more productive path for their lives. The plan’s recommendations also included $2 million for those therapeutic and culturally specific services; $2 million to hire a first-in-the-nation state director, six regional heads and 14 youth street outreach workers; and $750,000 to train law enforcement and others on the front line.

Though researchers from the University of Minnesota and Indiana University determined $34 in tax savings for every $1 spent this way, the Minnesota Legislature last year approved only $2.8 million, about 20 percent of what was determined to be necessary. As disappointing as that was, state Sen. Tony Lourey of Kerrick called the allocation a good start in an interview with the News Tribune Opinion page.

And it will be as long as lawmakers follow through this year with additional funding. Nearly $12 million for “Safe Harbors” is in an omnibus health and human services finance bill and demands to be approved before the law goes into effect this summer that encourages police and others to rescue rather than arrest children and others being exploited.

“Minnesota will be the first state in the nation to provide comprehensive housing and treatment for child sex-trafficking victims,” Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota — whose five-year, $5 million “MN Girls Are Not For Sale” initiative already is making a difference — said in a statement. “Statewide polling shows that there is overwhelming public support for this legislation; the time to act is now.”

It’s on the Minnesota Legislature to follow through, to assure the support is there for the commitments that so rightly and appropriately have been made, and to make sure Minnesota remains a leader on an issue as important as our humanity and our future.

Get involved What: Keynote address by author and sex-trafficking abolitionist Rachel Lloyd, a nationally recognized expert on child sex trafficking in the U.S.

When: 7 p.m. today

Where: Bohannon Hall 90, University of Minnesota Duluth

Hosted by: The Duluth Trafficking Task Force

Who’s helping There are many organizations and programs in Duluth, in Minnesota and across the country that serve and support sexually exploited children and that are working to end sex trafficking. Below is only a partial list. To support efforts and to learn more about what’s being done, go to:

  • — The Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA, is a Duluth nonprofit that works with and helps victims of sexual violence
  • — The Duluth Trafficking Task Force is leading the local effort to eliminate sex trafficking in the Twin Ports
  • — The Minneapolis-based Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has a five-year, $5 million campaign called “MN Girls Are Not For Sale,” which seeks to end the sex trafficking of Minnesota girls
  • — Based in Minneapolis, Breaking Free educates and provides services to women and girls who have been victims of abuse and commercial sexual exploitation and who need assistance to escape violence
  • — Girls Educational and Mentoring Services was founded in 1998 in New York by author and sex-trafficking abolitionist Rachel Lloyd, who’s speaking Monday at the University of Minnesota Duluth
  • — CAST, or the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking, partners with government and nongovernment agencies in Los Angeles and around the globe to end trafficking and modern-day slavery