About 55,000 students in Minnesota are celebrating high school graduation this month.
During the same month, also in Minnesota, at least 213 girls will be sold for sex.
In recent years, Hennepin County, has made a concerted effort to take stock of work to help young people ensnared in this destructive cycle of poverty, trauma and exploitation.
Buying children for sex, also known sexual exploitation, is not a victimless crime. Most of its victims are young people from communities of color, which are still dealing with the harm of generational trauma rooted in colonization and slavery. Sexual exploitation also disproportionately harms LGBTQ youth and homeless youth.
In Minneapolis, a 2014 study found that traffickers and the young people who are trafficked tend to live in poor neighborhoods, while most buyers come from more affluent urban and suburban neighborhoods. The truth is, most of the people who buy kids for sex are taking advantage of their lives of privilege to do grievous harm to young people who often are already suffering from the effects of poverty, trauma and instability.
Fortunately, more people are recognizing that people who buy and sell children for sex also devastate young lives. Minnesota law is coming more into step with the scope of the harm, but there is so much work yet to do to change the perception of sexual exploitation to hold exploiters accountable and apply pressure to prevent the crime.
Minnesota is a national leader in the effort to end sex trafficking. Our Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth legislation guides us to treat children who have been exploited as crime victims, not criminals. As a result of this 2011 law, many partners – including Hennepin County – developed and adopted a No Wrong Door initiative, which offers resources and training to identify youth who have been sexually exploited and guide them toward effective services that take into account each person’s life experiences.
In 2017, Hennepin County staff connected 73 youth, ages 11 to 17, to housing, mental health resources, diversion opportunities and social services. We are proud of these successes, and we are committed to working proactively to prevent young people from being exploited in the first place.
Hennepin County staff work year-round to reduce children’s risk for sex trafficking and other abuse. By listening to survivors of sex trafficking, we know that young people who have experienced physical and sexual abuse, neglect, traumatic loss and violence are at greatest risk for exploitation and abuse. Hennepin County already is working with at-risk children through human services, child protection, public health and law enforcement. We have allocated more than $20 million over the past three years to double our staff in Children and Family Services, to hire additional staff and leadership in the area of Child Well-Being, and invest in promising best practices to prevent maltreatment.
And for those who seek to treat children as sexual commodities, we are committed to arrest and prosecution.
Last year, we started and staffed a two-year pilot program to better enforce laws that prohibit youth sex trafficking in Hennepin County. An investigator and a prosecutor now work exclusively on sex trafficking cases in Minneapolis and assist law enforcement agencies in the west metro suburbs.
Before the Super Bowl in Minneapolis, Hennepin County worked with our partners to strengthen Minnesota’s anti-trafficking efforts. We collaborated to increase emergency shelter beds and services; to amplify survivors’ voices; to build up law enforcement and street outreach; to engage with business owners and male allies; and to train. These efforts help prevent and interrupt sex trafficking year-round.
Our young people are not to be sold, traded, used and discarded. Each one deserves to be valued for the content of their hearts and minds, and the possibility of a bright future in Hennepin County.
If you or someone you know is being sexually exploited, call 1(866) 223-1111, a crisis and resource line that can connect you to local shelter and support services.
To learn more about Hennepin County’s work toward ending sexual exploitation, and read survivors’ stories, visit www.hennepin.us/nowrongdoor.
Marion Greene is a member of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, representing southwest Minneapolis and St. Louis Park.