Making the Invisible Visible: Sex Trafficking Victims

Karen*, at 14, had made her suburban Minnesota high school’s dance line when a man reached out with a Facebook Instant Message, inviting her to see the tattoo parlor he ran from his basement. His daughter’s mother was upstairs, so Karen wasn’t worried. Within minutes she was drugged. By the time police found her two days later, she had been sold “to various guys,” says Karen, now 20. 

What happens to a young woman after that?

In Karen’s case, she and her parents suffered through a two-year-ordeal trying to find the resources to help her recover. 

Originally, police referred the family to the local county, whose social services department sent Karen to Hazelden due to her drug exposure. She wasn’t an addict, so Hazelden recommended post-traumatic stress disorder treatments. The county they lived in did not offer programs for teens, which are costly, and sent her to inpatient hospital care instead. Doctors recommended aftercare, but the county offered only halfway houses. 

Karen says that in her nine months at a group home for teen victims of exploitation, she was “not allowed to work, not allowed to learn how to handle money, not taught how to live outside the lifestyle.” For her, the experience had similarities to being “bonded to the lifestyle” of a pimp. “It was [re-]traumatizing.”

The Safe Harbor legislation was a landmark sex trafficking bill passed in Minnesota in 2011 to decriminalize under-18 victims. It is only one step in a multi-pronged approach — and not always well-funded. 

“There is an overall lack of professionals with the expertise and experience to treat the multitude of physical and mental health needs of sexually exploited youth,” says Laurel Edinburgh, associate director of Midwest Children’s Resource Center at Children’s Minnesota. “Many of the resources for victims focus on shelter, advocacy, and immediate crisis care, but we have found victims have complex, ongoing needs that require long-term medical and mental health attention to address the traumas and resulting risk behaviors that commonly occur after sexual exploitation.”

* a pseudonym

Did You Know?

According to a 2017 report, “Mapping the Demand: Sex Buyers in the State of Minnesota,” sex buyers are predominantly middle-aged,  white, married men from across the whole state of Minnesota. 

Said one law enforcement officer, they tend to be “higher up on the economic scale —they have a little extra money to spend. A good majority of them, I would say 80-90 percent, are married with children.” 

The data suggests that most sex buyers travel between 30-60 miles to purchase sex. Some travel much longer to purchase minors. Travel was most commonly linked to the work day (the commute and lunch hour). Business trips and male-focused vacations (e.g. hunting, fishing, and overnight bachelor parties) were also identified.

For the full report on “Mapping the Demand,” visit

Resources for trafficking survivors and their families

• Youth Services Network,, offers a YWNMN app 
to show beds and drop-in centers available for youth shelter 
and services.
• MN Day One Crisis Line takes reports confidentially from 
anyone in the state, 866-223-1111 (phone hotline), 619-399-
9995 (text for help).
• There is a network of eight Regional Navigators across the 
state. Visit for phone numbers.