As one of two staff in the Minnesota Department of Human Services (DHS) who oversees child protection response to human trafficking, Sarah Ladd works with counties and tribes on cases that involve youth who have experienced exploitation or are at risk of it.
Safe Harbor legislation mandates that young people who have experienced exploitation and trafficking are victims, not criminals, and should not be held accountable, prosecuted, or even arrested. It is about holding sex sellers and buyers responsible. Legislation now gives exploited young people access to Safe Harbor services to age 24. Many hope the age limit can be removed, Ladd says, “since you do not magically stop being a victim of exploitation when you turn 25.”
Ladd works with Safe Harbor leadership in multiple departments and many statewide agencies, from prevention to case management needs related to trafficking and exploitation.
It is a big job. Since mandatory reporting of sex trafficking began on May 29, 2017, there have been 1,629 alleged child victims reported to 71 child protection agencies — incidents that cover nearly all regions in the state.
The ability of mandated reporters to recognize and spot exploited youth during the pandemic lockdown led to a decrease in reports to child protection for a period of time. DHS recognized this was likely, in part, related to the inability of teachers and others to see children in person. The DHS has been working on alternative ways to recognize children who need help.
The perception is that most trafficking is done by third-party perpetrators who take minors into hotel rooms and across state borders.
“Poverty, homelessness, drug abuse,” Ladd says, listing some of the primary conditions that can lead to child trafficking in the state. “We see families who are desperate, and sell children to pay bills.”
In other cases — with online acquaintances, classmates, neighbors — exploitation “occurs when you have a confluence of unmet needs for a person,” Ladd says. “Vulnerability creates an opportunity for traffickers to take advantage. Usually they make an offer, a promise, to fill an unmet need.” With shortages for housing, food, money, or a sense of belonging or protection met, the youth feels beholden to the person.
For example, a young person, perhaps with a disability, or who is transitioning around gender identity, may experience bullying in the community. “Young people, like all of us, need to feel a sense of belonging and acceptance,” Ladd says. “If they are feeling isolated, with harassment from people around them, it is easy for someone to come in — a peer, someone from school, online, a relative. They say ‘Hey, I have this great opportunity for you. I want to be your friend. I want to date you. I see you are special.’ It can then develop into, ‘You are so beautiful, is it okay for me to take pictures of you?’ that then becomes leverage for other forms of exploitation.”
There are specific recommendations that Ladd believes would support best practices around child welfare response to exploitation. “There is an immense need for training the workforce around child welfare, service providers, and residential care,” she says. “We should be training people to serve youth in a way that supports the child’s identity and doesn’t involve disconnecting them from their background.”
Ladd knows from partnership with community-based stakeholders that “for those who have exited trafficking, their biggest need is to rebuild a sense of belonging and identity within their community. Every single person we have talked to — from tribal governance to community organizers to individual survivors — indicates that if we can do one thing differently, it is to give true sovereignty, in every sense of the word, that elevates individuals and helps them regain a sense of belonging. Removing them from community does not work.”
Our child protection response to trafficking began as a requirement on May 29, 2017, and since that time we have had 1,629 alleged child victims of sex trafficking or sexual exploitation reported to child protection agencies across the state — that includes more than 1,800 individual reports and those reports have been made to 71 child protection agencies. That is almost all of the county and tribal child welfare agencies in the state. We see that about 45 percent of reports involve non-caregiver alleged offenders …
The remainder of our reports are relatives, family members, and caregivers who are alleged to be trafficking or exploiting children in Minnesota. Our initial thought when we created this child protection response was that mostly what we were going to see were the stereotypical trafficking that involves a trafficker who has a ring of young people that maybe are crossing from state to state, they are being advertised online, they are being sold in hotels. In fact, what we are seeing — that happens, trafficking happens in a million and one different ways — but that is not primarily what we see. We see poverty. We see homelessness. We see drug abuse. We see families who are desperate and sell their children to pay bills.
If we can do one thing differently it is to really — I am going to use the term sovereignty here, in multiple senses — elevate the individual tribes and their responses to this movement and to elevate the voices of the individuals who have survived trafficking, exploitation, domestic violence, sexual assault, kidnapping, whose family members have been murdered. [We need] to elevate those voices and allow those people to lead our response and to really do everything we can to help those individual survivors who have this lived experience to regain their sense of identity and belonging in their community. Removing them from their community has not worked in the past and it will not work in the future.
There are a number of mandates that the task force report sets out as recommendations. Mandates 9, 10, 14, 17, and 18 all pertain to trafficking and also speak to the child welfare response. Mandate 10 in particular talks about increasing personnel and state resources, including support for the development of a specialized response within the child welfare system for American Indian children and youth who experience trafficking and exploitation.