Minnesota program reaches more teens trafficked for sex

ST. PAUL — An evaluation of the state’s Safe Harbor Program has found most at-risk and sexually exploited youth in the program reported feeling more hopeful and better prepared for the future.

Wilder Research has completed its second evaluation of Minnesota’s Safe Harbor program, a statewide system for helping at-risk and sexually exploited youth 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 youth 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 youth participated as well. White youth 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 youth and improved law enforcement response, and youth 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. “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 Safe Harbor Protocol Guidelines include guidance about directly serving youth 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. “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, MDH awarded eight grants to regional navigators. Regional navigators throughout Minnesota are the main points of contact for sexually exploited youth and concerned agencies. Navigators connect youth 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.

Here is a list of the regional navigators and how to reach them:

  • Northwest Region – Support Within Reach, 218-983-9524 or crisis 1-800-708-2727
  • West Central Region – Someplace Safe, 218-739-3359
  • Southwest Region – Southwest Crisis Center, 507-376-4311
  • Northeast Region – Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault, 218-726-1442 , crisis 218-726-1931
  • Central Region – Lutheran Social Services of Brainerd, 218-821-0943 , hotline 218-824-3770
  • East Metro Region – Midwest Children’s Resource Center, 651-220-6750
  • West Metro Region – The Link, 612-232-5428 or 612-636-4260
  • Southeast Region – Victim Services, Dodge, Fillmore and Olmsted, 507-328-7270 or 507-289-0636

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

If you or someone you know is sexually exploited or taken advantage of, help is available. Contact one of the agencies listed with the Minnesota Department of Health. These agencies can tell you about Safe Harbor options. You may also call the Day One Hotline at 1-866-223-1111.