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A fighting chance for exploited kids

Minnesota is trying a different tack to help young people trapped in the sex trade: Treat them like abused kids needing help and support, not like criminals.

Minnesota’s Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Law went into full effect Friday.

The law decriminalizes prostitution charges for youth under 18, increases the penalties for buyers (Johns), and creates a statewide system for helping sexually exploited youth.

The law was implemented in phases after it was passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton in 2011.

“We are giving safe harbor to young women and men by not only removing criminal charges but also by providing them with the counseling, support, and housing services they may need to fulfill their true potential and reclaim their lives,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Ed Ehlinger.

The Minnesota Department of Health has awarded grants supporting eight Safe Harbor regional navigators located across the state. Now in place, these navigators are a key part of Minnesota’s effort to help girls and boys leave behind abuse and exploitation related to prostitution or “survival sex,” where youths trade sex for food or shelter.

Navigators serve as regional experts for connecting sexually exploited youth with services. They are also central points of contact for communities, health systems, juvenile justice personnel, parents and any concerned Minnesotans seeking information or resources.

Those with questions or concerns are encouraged to reach out to one of the state’s regional navigators. In this area they are: Support within Reach, located in Bemidji and covering northwestern Minnesota.

Also, the White Earth Down on Violence Everyday (DOVE) program is serving as a navigator, in partnership with the Leech Lake and Red Lake reservations.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services now funds four organizations to provide emergency shelter and special housing for sex-trafficked minors. Two are located in the Twin Cities, one in Duluth and one in Benson.

The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in partnership with the Minnesota Coalition against Sexual Assault will develop statewide protocols for professionals working with sexually exploited youth.

Additionally, Ramsey County Attorney’s Office will train law enforcement and prosecutors on sexually exploitation beginning fall, 2014.

Safe Harbor will also help Minnesota get a better understanding of how often sexual exploitation occurs in Minnesota.

The 2006 Wilder Foundation youth homelessness study found that 12 percent of the homeless youth (16 percent of the females and 5 percent of the males) had experienced sexual exploitation at least once, and 16 percent had been approached by someone who encouraged them to enter into the sex industry.

In addition, a study by the University of Minnesota Urban Research and Outreach Center found that 50 percent of the women in the study had first been exploited at an average age of 12 to 14.

Makes it pretty clear that the young people are the victims and those exploiting them are the criminals. The state is on the right track in trying to help these kids, not punish them.