County leaders approve plan to fight youth sex trafficking

The Hennepin County Board approved a new work plan today to fight youth sex trafficking.

The county’s No Wrong Door Response Plan aligns with the state’s Safe Harbor legislation, which directs law enforcement to treat children caught in prostitution as victims, not criminals.

The county’s work plan aims to better coordinate the efforts of county employees who come into contact with trafficked youth, including mental health professionals, law enforcement and child protections services, among others. The county will also lead training for employees and partner community groups to raise awareness of the issue and provide guidance on preventing trafficking. 

Other goals outlined in the plan include implementing best practices to identify young people at risk of being sexually exploited, tailoring social services to the individual needs of a trafficked youth, finding safe places for youth to stay while they are in treatment programs and aggressively prosecuting cases against traffickers and people who pay for sex with youth. 

Former Hennepin County Commissioner Gail Dorfman, who stepped down early March to take a job as executive director at St. Stephen’s Human Services, led efforts to coordinate the county’s work on this issue.

“This is our plan to ensure that sexually exploited youth who enter our doors will receive the help and services they need,” Dorfman said. “It is our promise that we will not send them back to those who manipulate them. It is our pledge that perpetrators and purchasers will be held accountable.”

The county has prosecuted 57 felony sex traffickers since January 2012, and 34 of those cases have involved juvenile victims, according to a recent report to the County Board. Since May 2013, the county has provided services to 69 juvenile victims of sex trafficking.  

Mikkel Beckman, director of the Minneapolis/Hennepin County Office to End Homelessness, notes that youth are at risk of being approached by a sexual predator within 48 hours of becoming homeless. “The unfortunate thing we hear is that often people who reach out to the youth who are homeless are people who want to exploit them in some way,” Beckman said in the county’s plan. “If any youth leaves home for whatever reason, there should be a safe place for them to go, to get into shelter and receive services and counseling. Clearly, one of our roles is to lead on this issue.” 

Moving forward, County Commissioner Jan Callison will lead the work to implement the plan. She is chair of the county’s Sexually Exploited Youth Work Group, which also includes County Administrator David Hough, County Attorney Mike Freeman and Sheriff Rich Stanek.

The county’s key partners on fighting youth sex trafficking include the City of Minneapolis, The Link, an organization serving at-risk youth, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center and the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota.

“This represents a significant step forward,” Callison said. “I am excited to work with so many great county staff and our partners in the community and the State of Minnesota to protect our children from the scourge of sex trafficking.”