Minnesota program reaches more teens trafficked for sex

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An evaluation of the state's Safe Harbor Program found most at-risk and sexually exploited youths in the program reported feeling more hopeful and better prepared for the future.

Wilder Research completed its second evaluation of Minnesota's Safe Harbor program, a statewide system for helping at-risk and sexually exploited youths that went into full effect in 2014.

The Safe Harbor evaluation report found that from April 2015 to June 2017, Safe Harbor grantees provided services to 1,423 youths and young adults—a significant increase from the 359 youths and young adults served during the program's first year of operation.

About 60 percent of Safe Harbor participants are from greater Minnesota. Throughout the state, the average age of participants was 16. In the first years of the initiative, the age cutoff for obtaining Safe Harbor services was 18. In July 2016, the age cutoff increased to 24.

Most participants in the program are female (83 percent), but more than 150 male youths participated as well. White youths and young adults comprised 37 percent of the participants, followed by 26 percent African/African-American, 14 percent multiracial, and 9 percent American Indian/Alaska Native.

Program impacts include increased awareness of sex trafficking, increased housing options for youths and improved law enforcement response, and youths reporting improved feelings of hopefulness and satisfaction with the services they received.

"Minnesota's Safe Harbor law is a model for the nation and is helping more of our young people who are victims of sex trafficking," said Minnesota Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger in a news release. "We need to build on this program's success by working in our communities to provide our youth better opportunities and a way forward that does not involve sexual exploitation."

To help communities prevent sex trafficking, the state of Minnesota and partners have created the Safe Harbor protocol guidelines—a 300-plus page document that provides communities a set of strategies for combatting sex trafficking.

The guidelines include guidance about directly serving youths and also describe how to set up partnerships, systems and procedures for preventing and dealing with sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. For example, the guidelines advise a community how to set up a response team including representatives from law enforcement, child protection, health care, prosecution, other county human services and community-based advocacy.

"We are really proud of the collaborative effort we led, on behalf of our state, to engage hundreds of community-based stakeholders, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and other system professionals throughout Minnesota in creating these guidelines," said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi in the release. "We hope this will be a helpful resource for local communities as they work to enhance their Safe Harbor protocols and local response to better identify and serve youth who have been sexually exploited and/or trafficked."

At the request of the Minnesota Legislature, the Ramsey County Attorney's Office developed the Safe Harbor protocol guidelines in partnership with the Sexual Violence Justice Institute at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

Safe Harbor plans to roll out the protocols through community partners including Safe Harbor grantees. In September, the Minnesota Department of Health awarded eight grants to regional navigators. Regional navigators throughout Minnesota are the main points of contact for sexually exploited youths and concerned agencies. Navigators connect youths with services, build regional capacity to respond to sexual exploitation and serve as regional experts for communities. They provide training and technical assistance and assist with developing protocols.

The regional navigator for the central region, including Brainerd, is Lutheran Social Services. Reach them at 218-821-0943 or on the hotline at 218-824-3770.

Safe Harbor has also added five new supportive services grantees and now has 10 housing grantees across the state. MDH works in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Human Services to help youths and ensure they are treated as victims and survivors, not criminals. Recent changes in state law allow youths to receive counseling, safe housing, legal protection, medical and mental health services, and substance abuse treatment.

To receive help if sexually exploited or taken advantage of, call the Day One Hotline at 1-866-223-1111.