Others’ Opinion: State, Congress can do more to help victims of sex trafficking

Published 10:14 am Friday, February 27, 2015

Last week, a 34-year-old self-described pimp was charged with luring a 12-year-old Rochester girl into prostitution. The Minneapolis man allegedly raped the girl and sold her for sex “dates” arranged through Craigslist.

Sadly, the Rochester case joins a long list. For example, between 2011 and 2013 a family-operated St. Paul ring preyed on vulnerable women and children in what Ramsey County authorities described as “modern day human slavery.” Some of the victims were as young as 15, and some were bipolar or mentally challenged.

These kinds of horrible crimes occur far too often in Minnesota and nationally. Fortunately, this state has been at the forefront of efforts to help young victims. In 2011, legislators passed the “Safe Harbor” law to treat sex-trafficked children under age 16 as victims.

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The law required several state agencies to work with experts to create a prevention and support network for victims. Since the statute passed, the state has allocated about $5 million to support the effort — but that doesn’t cover the ever-increasing need for services.

This year, several state senators, including Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, and Julie Rosen, R-Vernon Center, have introduced a bill that would increase funding to $13.5 million. The measure should be approved.

The budget increase would support the creation of additional shelters and other housing options in eight regional hubs across Minnesota. Victims need shelter because they often come from broken, chaotic and sometimes abusive homes and cannot return. To keep them safe, many need to be relocated away from traffickers who frequently try to reconnect. And victims often need specialized counseling.

The additional funding also would expand training for law enforcement staff to help identify victims and prosecute traffickers.

It’s a smart use of public dollars. A 2012 University of Minnesota/Indiana State University cost-benefit analysis estimated a 30-year return of $34 for every $1 spent on early intervention, housing and health care. Savings accumulate through lower public costs for social and health services — including fewer sexually transmitted diseases and unintended pregnancies — and fewer recurring criminal justice expenses.

At the federal level, Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican Rep. Erik Paulsen have previously tried to pass similar legislation and are working on it again this year. The federal bill, which passed the House twice but could not clear the Senate, is known as the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act. It would discourage charges against underage trafficking victims and, in return, participating states could receive increased funding for policing.

Trafficking victims would be able to access no-cost education and training through Job Corps. By 2017, the federal government would offer grants to create a national communications system that could link victims to the service providers they need. The Senate version would also help coordinate federal, state and local programs.