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Our View: Minnesota has started treating sexually exploited children as victims, not criminals

“In terms of leadership, Duluth has been a great leader when it comes to the issue of childhood sex trafficking.” Nigel Perrote, one of Minnesota’s regional “navigators” under a new law to combat sex trafficking. (Photo by Steve Kuchera /

A new approach, a more-enlightened approach, became official this month when the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Law went into effect.

But around here, in Duluth and St. Louis County, we can be proud the approach has been standard practice for at least several years. Agencies, law enforcement and others long have been treating those sold for sex as they should be treated: as the victims they truly are rather than as the criminals they’ve historically been seen as. We can be pleased other parts of the state are now catching up.

“In terms of leadership, Duluth has been a great leader when it comes to the issue of childhood sex trafficking,” Nigel Perrote told the News Tribune Opinion page last week.

Perrote holds one of seven new regional “navigator” positions created under the new law. He’s one of the go-to officials coordinating efforts to combat sex trafficking.

Representing the northeast region, Perrote works through PAVSA, or the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault. He started at the Duluth agency July 1. He came to Duluth from Minneapolis, where he worked with homeless youth and with the American Indian population as an employee of the nonprofit Division of Indian Work. He’s originally from Green Bay, Wis.

Perrote said services that have been offered in Duluth and southern St. Louis County can be expanded as a result of the new law to all of St. Louis County as well as to Koochiching, Lake, Cook, Carlton, Pine, and Kanebec counties. Rural areas will be better served, he predicted.

The new law included $2.5 million, about $280,000 of which is earmarked for Northeastern Minnesota. That’s far short of the $13 million statewide that had been requested of the Legislature but, “It’s a good start,” said Shunu Shrestha, who coordinates the Duluth Trafficking Task Force, a PAVSA program. “This is kind of a pilot project.”

The allocation will be a good start only if the Legislature comes through with additional funding in future years as needs and costs are better determined by our now better-coordinated effort.

Reliable hard data related to trafficking has been difficult to come by. Those drawn into it are reluctant to talk about it.

But here’s some of what we do know: 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 that they’ll do unspeakable things. Also, in 2006, the Wilder Foundation found that 12 percent of homeless youth (16 percent of females and 5 percent of males) experienced sexual exploitation at least once, while another 16 percent said they’d been urged to enter the sex industry.

Our state was one of the first to adopt a 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 led to the new law.

“Of the states that have passed safe-harbor laws, Minnesota is the only one that (allocated) a dollar amount. A lot of other states are doing this work without any funding,” Perrote said.

In other words, Minnesota is a national leader — just as Duluth is a leader for Minnesota. But even here, so much more demands to be done to extract the ugliness of exploitation from our communities.