On any given weekend night – the time when activity peaks – 45 girls under 18 are sold for sex via websites and escort services in Minnesota, according to a report prepared by The Shapiro Group for the Women’s Funding Network. The report focused on adolescent girls in the Minnesota sex trade.
Landmark “Safe Harbor” legislation – passed in 2011, with the final pieces falling into place this year – reclassified sexually exploited girls under 16 as victims needing support, not delinquents deserving punishment. Advocates wanted to cover anyone under 18, but in a compromise, left that battle for another day.
As it turned out, no battle was needed: The provision protecting 16- and 17-year-olds passed without controversy in 2013.
“The conversation in 2013 was so different than in 2011,” said Michele Garnett McKenzie of The Advocates for Human Rights. “In 2011, people were still trying to wrap their head around the idea of the girl as victim, not delinquent.” This time around, it was largely a given.
Further Safe Harbor provisions enacted in 2013 included:
• Funding for housing and supportive services for sexually exploited youth
• Funding for law enforcement and prosecution training and other systems
• Establishing a state director of child sex trafficking prevention position
• Deploying six “regional navigators” around the state to develop and implement sex trafficking prevention work plans geared to regional needs.
Many of these provisions sprang from a January 2013 report, “No Wrong Door.” The product of about 70 stakeholders who met for a year following passage of the 2011 legislation, it’s a big-picture framework for a systemic state response to the trafficking of juveniles. In the process, crucial relationships were forged among victim service providers, law enforcement, the health care and nonprofit sectors, and others.
Increasingly, policymakers are taking aim at traffickers. In November, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., announced bipartisan legislation to take “Safe Harbor” nationwide, offering exploited youth support rather than prosecution; Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., introduced companion legislation in the House. Klobuchar also introduced the End Sex Trafficking Act, bipartisan bill that targets those purchasing sex from traffickers, ensuring that they, too, are prosecuted as human traffickers.
Trafficking of girls is “a really democratic form of victimization,” McKenzie said, because it spans region, race and socioeconomic status.
“But the younger the girl, the more she fetches on the open market – so that’s a very troubling trend.”
“A trafficker will prey on someone with certain vulnerabilities,” added Beatriz Menanteau, also of The Advocates, referring to homelessness, poverty, youthfulness, past violence or sexual abuse, and family connections to prostitution, for example.
In a previous job, McKenzie worked with asylum seekers. She sees similarities in her current work.
“Breaking down your personality, obtaining control – that’s what torturers around the world do,” she said, “and it’s what pimps in Minnesota do.”
Joy Friedman, women’s program director for Breaking Free, a Twin Cities organization serving women and girls who have been involved in prostitution, knows this firsthand. At 15, she was raped by a pimp, kept in a basement for more than 24 hours by him and two other pimps, and forced to use crack cocaine.
Several factors made Friedman a vulnerable target. “Poverty made me vulnerable. Not having a father made me vulnerable,” she said. “Being a biracial child made me vulnerable – the feeling that I didn’t fit in anywhere. And I had been smoking weed and doing some drugs” at a young age.
Friedman escaped that first pimp within a year. At age 37, she escaped the life of exploitation he had led her into.
In the years between, “I ran into one trafficker after another,” she said. “I was passed along from pimp to pimp – but I did not call them that. I called them ‘my boyfriend’ or ‘my guy’ or ‘my man.’ I was conditioned to believe this was how things were, that this was who I was. I was involved in every form of sex trafficking: streetwalking, escort services, stripping.”
Friedman was jailed repeatedly and entered numerous drug treatment programs – none of which addressed the prostitution. Eventually, during a Recovery Resource Center inpatient treatment program, she told a caseworker about turning tricks and was referred to Breaking Free.
“They educated me on the vicious circle I was in,” said Friedman – low self-esteem leading to prostitution and vice versa – and helped her overcome it.
She has now worked fulltime for the agency for 13 years. And the organizations that helped her end her exploitation – Breaking Free and the Recovery Resource Center – have forged a partnership.
“Ninety-nine percent of those we serve [at Breaking Free] are addicted,” she said. “We’re talking about legal and illegal drugs, alcohol, prescription drugs. … We also have shopaholics, gamblers, women with eating disorders.”
Piece by piece, the comprehensive framework that wasn’t there for Joy Friedman is being assembled. Police, prosecutors, service providers and others are being educated and trained.
Yet we need to go beyond focusing solely on those within “the system,” Menanteau said.
“We have to get the message to the broader community,” she said – if for no other reason than the fact that “they make up our juries.”
Friedman echoed the call for public awareness: “What I want is for people to understand that we are women first. One hundred percent of us are somebody’s daughter … so see us as that, not as a prostitute.”
• Breaking Free helps exploited and/or trafficked women escape the violence in their lives. To volunteer time or donate dollars www.breakingfree.net/get_involved.aspx
• Volunteer, donate and sign up for e-updates from The Advocates for Human Rights www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org/
To learn more, follow The Advocates’ blog: theadvocatespost.org
• Contact members of Congress and state legislators about trafficking: www.house.leg.state.mn.us/hinfo/leginfo/cong.pdf