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Our view: Outrage: Girl sold from trunk of car

The little girl was dragged to Los Angeles, Houston, Little Rock and, once, to Las Vegas — in the trunk of a car. She was sold for sex for the first time when she was just 11 years old.

“I am not an exception,” she posted online in a letter read aloud Thursday during a lunch meeting of Rotary Club 25 of Duluth. It was read by Maude Dornfeld, the executive director of Life House, a nonprofit doing all it can to help homeless and exploited children.

“The (28-year-old) man who trafficked me sold so many girls my age (that) his house was called ‘Daddy Daycare.’ All day, other girls and I sat with our laptops, posting pictures and answering ads on Craigslist. He made $1,500 a night selling my body,” the letter continued. “I am 17 now, and my childhood memories aren’t of my family, going to middle school, or dancing at the prom. They are of making my own arrangements on Craigslist to be sold for sex and answering as many ads as possible for fear of beatings and ice water baths.”

Too often in places like Duluth, human trafficking is thought of and seen as something that happens elsewhere. In far-away places. In third-world countries. But it happens here, too — and a whole lot more often than most of us realize or care to consider. In the U.S. each year, an estimated 100,000 children are sexually trafficked or exploited. In Minnesota, an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 women and children are sold for sex annually. The FBI ranked our state 13th for child prostitution and sex trafficking.

“Also, unfortunately, it’s not a problem that’s confined to the big city. Duluth, being a relatively small metropolis, an international water port and having a relatively large population of youth who are at high risk of sexual exploitation, has become one of the major hubs of trafficking and prostitution in Minnesota,” Dornfeld said. “There is quite a pipeline between Duluth and the Twin Cities.”

The average age of a child victimized for the first time by the sex trade is 13, Dornfeld said. An estimated 85 percent of kids trafficked are girls. Also vulnerable are kids from homes with dysfunction and histories of abuse and neglect; LGBT kids; kids of color; and kids with physical, cognitive or mental disabilities or illnesses.

An estimated 60 percent of trafficked kids are homeless, Dornfeld further said. Within 48 hours of being on the streets, one in three homeless youth is approached or recruited by a pimp or trafficker. One of every five kids who comes to Life House in downtown Duluth reports having experienced sexual coercion or exploitation or had engaged in “survival sex,” which is the exchange of sex for food, a warm place to stay or other necessities.

There is some good news. Minnesota is among the first states to start treating children in the sex trade as the victims they truly are rather than as criminals, which is the way they’ve been seen for too long. Our state’s new “safe harbor” law went into effect Aug. 1, providing counseling, safe shelter and other help child victims need. The new law also hits traffickers and exploiters with more severe jail sentences and other penalties.

In Duluth, Dornfeld’s Life House will be among those providing emergency shelter under the new law. Safe Haven, Lutheran Social Service, Men as Peacemakers, PAVSA (the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault), leaders of the faith and American Indian communities, and others are among those also stepping up here to take on this tragedy.

Also good is that we’re finally starting to talk about this issue here in Duluth and the Northland. On the pages of the News Tribune. At Rotary meetings. Elsewhere. The conversations, as difficult as they may be, demand to continue and become more frequent. All of us have to be aware these horrors are happening in our community and that there are things that can be done to help and to save our vulnerable children.

“We’re making progress,” Dornfeld said. “No child chooses to be sexually exploited. It’s not a career choice to become a stripper or a prostitute. We’re working hard right now to help child victims of sex trafficking find safety and get the support needed to heal. But a long-term solution requires us as a community to address the conditions that place youths at risk of sexual exploitation in the first place, including youth homelessness, poverty and social inequality.”

To that list can be added our historic lack of awareness and resistance to awareness. Little girls are being sold from the trunks of cars, for crying out loud. We have to realize that, acknowledge that, and then do all we can, together, to change that.