Waging war on youth prostitution

Women’s Foundation of Minnesota launches MN Girls Are Not For Sale campaign

The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota is spearheading a five-year, $4 million campaign to fight the prostitution of girls in the state.

The Minneapolis-based foundation has raised $2.6 million so far and plans to award its first round of grants totaling $340,000 to agencies and nonprofits in January.

While it’s difficult to determine how many girls are being sold for sex, the foundation points to recent research estimating that on average, 213 girls are sold four to six times per day through Internet listings and escort services. That number does not include prostitution occurring in hotels or on the street.

The campaign comes as law enforcement agencies around the state have reported a dramatic increase in youth prostitution. The foundation cites a study showing that the number of adolescent girls prostituted on Internet classified ads and escort services spiked by 166 percent in a 10-month period in 2010 compared to the year before.

There are a variety of problems that put young girls at risk for prostitution, said Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

The average age girls get recruited into prostitution is 13. Some start as young as 11, according to the U.S. Justice Department.

“Poverty is a common theme,” she said. “Young women who are vulnerable — maybe there is sexual abuse at home or conflict at home. There are a variety of factors that put especially vulnerable girls at risk for this.”

Law enforcement officials across the state reported that the Internet is the major driver in sex trafficking.

“The Internet has done for selling girls exactly what Amazon did for selling books,” Roper-Batker said. “There’s that increased anonymity that men have in being able to buy a girl and essentially have her delivered to their door.”

Youth prostitution is a major problem across the state, and according to the FBI, the Twin Cities ranks among the 13 largest centers in the country for the prostitution of girls.

Minneapolis City Attorney Susan Segal said she applauds the work of the foundation to tackle the problem. She met with a foundation a few years ago to see if they were interested in working on the issue after the city was noticing more girls being picked up for prostitution.

“I applaud them for doing [the campaign] because this issue of sexually exploited kids — it’s here,” she said. “It’s in Minneapolis, it’s in the suburbs, and trying to raise the profile of this issue so that we can start seeing it and really responding to it in a more effective way is critical.”

Segal said she’s convened a group with Minneapolis Police Lt. Nancy Dunlap to explore how the city can best thwart youth prostitution.

“In Hennepin County [the girls] have only rarely been charged with prostitution because law enforcement recognizes them as victims, but as a consequence they have largely just been falling through the cracks,” she said.

The MN Girls Are Not For Sale campaign is about reaching the girls before they can be victimized. Organizers have three primary goals. First, they are pushing for legislation that would include all girls under the age of 18 who have been sold for sex in the state as victims of a crime entitled to safe housing and other services. The Minnesota Safe Harbor Law passed last session grants that to girls up to age 15.

Jeff Bauer, director of public policy for The Family Partnership, a Minneapolis-based advocacy group, was involved in lobbying for the safe harbor law last session. He said national leaders working on child sex trafficking around the country are watching Minnesota closely to see what impact the law will have on protecting girls.

“Our success in implementing the Safe Harbor provisions over the next three years will not only change the lives of girls here in Minnesota, but catalyze similar change all across the country,” he said.

Campaign organizers are also working on decreasing demand for sex with girls through educational outreach and public awareness efforts. Thirdly, the foundation is working on mobilizing the public to get involved in fighting the problem.

Finding a way to shelter youth rescued from prostitution is another major goal. Currently there are only two shelter beds in the state for girls formerly involved in prostitution.

“Housing is a critical issue we hear about over and over again,” Roper-Batker said. “Homelessness is a big trigger [for prostitution].”

The foundation said there’s many ways people can get involved with the campaign, including getting educated about the issue, donating money and contacting local lawmakers.

Roper-Batker is confident campaign organizers will make a difference in the lives of girls victimized by sexual exploitation.

“We really got the spotlight on this issue now and we feel the movement has some muscle,” she said.