Public Policy Must Address Dynamics of Trafficking

candle-flameU.S. Representative Erik Paulsen (Minnesota, Third District) testified yesterday before the United States House Ways and Means Committee’s Human Resources Subcommittee on the need to address and prevent sex trafficking in our communities and around the nation.

Prior to the hearing, Rep. Paulsen reached out to The Advocates of Human Rights, asking the organization to submit a statement to enter into the Congressional record.

The Advocates’ complete statement, written by Michelle Garnett McKenzie reads,

“The Advocates for Human Rights is a non-governmental, nonprofit organization dedicated to the promotion and protection of internationally recognized human rights. With the help of hundreds of volunteers each year, The Advocates investigates and exposes human rights violations; represents immigrants and refugees in our community who are victims of human rights abuses; trains and assists groups that protect human rights; and works through education and advocacy to engage the public, policy makers, and children about human rights.

“We thank the Subcommittee for its attention to the issue of sex trafficking of America’s youth. We offer this written statement for the record to highlight the responsibility for government to provide an effective response to sex trafficking. We also note that sex trafficking is a demand-driven crime involving two criminal perpetrators: the promoter and the purchaser of prostitution. Any public policy response to sex trafficking should recognize that prevention and accountability must accompany harm reduction strategies. Finally, we note that just as homeless and runaway youth are particularly vulnerable to sex trafficking, they are also vulnerable to labor trafficking. Data collection efforts should include both sex and labor trafficking.

“Sex trafficking is a human rights violation. It involves individuals profiting from the sexual exploitation of others and often results in brutal physical and psychological assaults and devastating injuries. Governments have an obligation to take effective measures to prevent sex trafficking, hold perpetrators accountable, and provide appropriate remedies to victims. Minnesota is a leader in adopting a human rights approach to ending sex trafficking which includes: (1) criminal accountability for perpetrators of sex trafficking (including both the promoters and the purchasers) with appropriate sanctions; (2) recognition of victims of sex trafficking as crime victims, not criminal perpetrators; and (3) ensuring services are available to victims.

“Public Policy Must Address the Dynamics of Trafficking

“Human trafficking is not new to Minnesota. Minnesota has been a place of origin, transit, and destination for sex trafficking operations long before federal or state law defined the crime of “sex trafficking.” Beginning in 2005, Minnesota adopted a strong legal framework criminalizing the human trafficking, including sex trafficking of adults and children. Unlike federal law, Minnesota defines sex trafficking to include the most common form of prostitution – that involving a “pimp” or “promoter.”[1]

“Sex trafficking is a predatory and violent crime which often results in significant harm to the victim.[2] Traffickers use manipulative and sophisticated grooming, breaking, and control tactics. Manipulated by the traffickers, victims often view their traffickers as boyfriends and quickly return to them after any legal intervention. Traffickers use violence or threats of violence against the victims and/or their families, to keep them from voluntarily leaving the trafficking situation or seeking help. Furthermore, victims of trafficking often are ashamed and fear rejection or ostracism by their families or communities if they try to return home. Due to these complex factors, appropriate housing is critical to a victim’s safety and recovery.

“Sex traffickers prey upon those they see as vulnerable. While in some cases very young children are trafficked, by and large, trafficked children are adolescents. Children who are sex trafficked often have other risk factors that make them more vulnerable to being trafficked. For example, many are runaway or homeless youth, have drug or alcohol problems, are in a gang, or are gay, lesbian, or transgender homeless youth.[3] Homeless youth are particularly susceptible, often being exploited by men extorting sex in exchange for food or shelter. On any given night, an estimated 2,500 Minnesota youth experience homelessness.[4] The children who are at the most risk for sexual exploitation are those who have run away or have been “thrown away” from their homes.[5]Between 1.6 and 2.8 million youth run away in the United States each year.[6] Traffickers prey upon runaway children because of their mental, physical, and financial vulnerability. For the trafficked children who have run away from home or have suffered physical or sexual abuse in their homes, family reunification may be difficult or impossible.

“Nationally, the average age a child enters into sexual exploitation is between 12 and 14 years.[7]In 2003, the FBI identified Minneapolis as having a high concentration of criminal enterprises exploiting children through prostitution.[8] Sexual exploitation of children often begins with physical and/or sexual abuse or neglect in the home. Research from Minneapolis, which is supported by local service providers, finds four common paths for young people[9]  into prostitution: a relationship with someone involved in prostitution; homelessness, often due to estrangement or rejection by family; drug abuse; or solicitation by an adult. American youth are the most vulnerable to becoming victims of sex trafficking in the United States.[10]Research shows that homeless or runaway youth are approached for sex within 48 hours of becoming homeless.[11] Due to their vulnerability, children are an easy target for traffickers.

Like sex trafficking, labor trafficking is a human rights abuse. According to the Polaris Project, labor trafficking often occurs in the areas of agricultural work, domestic servitude, and restaurants. Polaris Project also notes that “[y]oung adults and teenagers with few opportunities for work are recruited into traveling sales crews with a promise of travel, meeting interesting people and enjoyable, outdoor work. Many sales crews impose quotas for the sale of goods, whether magazines, candy, cleaning supplies or other items. Crew members are paid on commission or promised a wage that is rarely provided, with crew leaders deducting expenses for motel rooms, fast food and transportation. Crew leaders can be verbally, physicallym and sexually abusive, and use the threat of abandoning members penniless in unknown cities as coercion to keep members working. These crews operate throughout the United States.” A related predatory industry involves peddling and begging rings, which sometimes front as youth leadership development programs. As Congress considers the vulnerability of children to sex trafficking in the foster care, child welfare, and child protection systems, it has the opportunity to collect data to better understand children’s vulnerability to labor trafficking as well.[12]

“Public Policy Must Recognize Victims of Sex Trafficking as Crime Victims, Not as Perpetrators, to Avoid Revictimization and Unintended Consequences of Victim Identification

“The identification of victims of sex trafficking is essential to providing them with needed services and support, but victim identification that leads either to criminal prosecution of the victim herself on prostitution charges or to identification of the victim but no access to services because of inadequate resources harms the victim. In many states, sex trafficked youth may be adjudicated as delinquents for the crime of engaging in prostitution. Congress should be careful to avoid requiring the identification of victims if that will result in the prosecution of those victims. Congress should also ensure that adequate funding is available to provide services to those victims.

“In 2010, Minnesota began focusing attention on developing an appropriate legal response to sexually exploited children and children at risk of sexual exploitation. That initiative resulted in the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act, passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, which includes the decriminalization of children under 18 who are engaged in prostitution; the inclusion of “sexually exploited youth” in the definition of children in need of protection or services; and the creation of a victim-centered response system that defines successful intervention in terms of the health and wellbeing of the child.

“Until Safe Harbor, Minnesota’s legal response to sexually exploited children reflected a widely-held, longstanding ambivalence about prostitution. On the one hand, Minnesota treated the crime of engaging in prostitution with a minor as a serious crime.  On the other, minors who “engage in prostitution” were considered to be juvenile delinquents and understood to be “prostitutes” who are willing participants in consensual transactions.

“This ambivalence led to the failure of existing systems, including delinquency and child welfare and protection, to effectively address trafficking on a system-wide basis. Two factors contributed to these failures. First, public policy failed to recognize sexually exploited children as the victims of crime, instead seeing them as the perpetrators of prostitution offenses.

“Second, policy makers consistently failed to provide the necessary financial support to child welfare systems to effectively intervene and help sexually exploited youth return to a healthy and productive path. A more effective response is realized when society, policy makers, and systems personnel intervening with children recognize that the prostitution of children is a predatory and violent crime, and that evidence-based, victim-centered, culturally appropriate intervention has been demonstrated to help youth rebuild their lives.

“Effective identification of crime victims. The 2011 Safe Harbor Act required that Minnesota develop a statewide response to sex trafficked youth to replace the juvenile delinquency approach. In the course of developing Minnesota’s victim-services model, a statewide expert working group was convened by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Minnesota Department of Health, and Minnesota Department of Human Services to create a new model for effectively responding to sexually exploited youth. The Safe Harbor working group enumerated the various ways in which children may be identified as in need of protection or services.

“In some cases the victim may be identified while law enforcement is in the process of a trafficking investigation. In such cases, police must understand that the children involved in prostitution are not themselves committing a crime but are, in fact, the victims of the crime of sex trafficking. Law enforcement must also have simple screening tools available to identify trafficking victims. When law enforcement responds appropriately, their experience indicates that the victims are more likely to cooperate in the prosecution of the traffickers.

“In some cases, however, a victim may already be involved in the child welfare, child protection, or delinquency systems for other, often related, reasons. Like law enforcement, systems personnel must be equipped through training and protocols to ask the right questions and look for the right indicators to identify a victim of sex trafficking in these situations.

“In other cases, a victim may be continuing to be engaged in prostitution and still seeking other services, such as medical care or other help. Service providers therefore must also be equipped with the skills needed to identify and make appropriate referrals for services and intervention.

“Dedication of sufficient resources for crime victims. Effective victim identification and the provision of services require more than training and protocols. It requires that there are sufficient, appropriate, and effective resources for the child who is identified.

“In its 2008 Sex Trafficking Needs Assessment for the State of Minnesota (2008 Needs Assessment), The Advocates identified several key recommendations to strengthen victim safety.  The Advocates found that trafficked persons need greater access to services tailored to meet their specific needs, that Minnesota law should prioritize the protection of trafficked persons over their arrest and prosecution, and that professionals who respond to sex trafficking need effective protocols for victim identification and referral mechanisms.

“The sexual violence, manipulation, and torture children suffer at the hands of pimps and buyers results in devastating mental and physical trauma. Children often suffer from substance abuse, sexually-transmitted infections, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, isolation, suicidal ideation, and self-mutilation.  Trauma-bonding with traffickers – the “Stockholm syndrome” – also complicates the child’s rescue and recovery.

“Minnesota’s historical experience illustrates that scarce child protection resources built to intervene in familial child abuse situations have failed to address the complicated issues that arise from trafficking. In many ways, ambivalence in the legal system and in societal attitudes toward prostituted children contributed to this failure: the children were simultaneously victims of the crime of prostitution of a child, children in need of protection and services because they were engaged in prostitution, and juvenile delinquents because they were engaged in prostitution. As a result of this ambivalence, and as a means to manage already limited resources, these youth often were seen by counties as outside of their child protection mandate, leaving the children at best with the resources available through the juvenile delinquency systems and at worst without any resources at all.

“An effective government response to sexually exploited youth requires resources. Typically trafficking victims are older youth, not small children. Due to the dynamics of many sex trafficking situations where family members or close contacts are involved in the exploitation, family reunification may not be the appropriate permanent solution and instead the youth may need resources to help them move to independent living. Medical and mental health services may be needed as a result of the trauma of repeated, daily rape. Most challenging, the victim may identify with and protect her trafficker as a result of the complex, dependent relationship that traffickers intentionally create with their victims.

“While Minnesota’s Safe Harbor 2011 did not outline specific services for sex trafficked children, it did direct the state of Minnesota to engage stakeholders in creating a model for the law’s implementation, including identifying needed services. The Safe Harbor Working Group adopted the vision that no matter where a sexually exploited youth or a youth at risk of sexual exploitation seeks help – no matter which door she knocks on – she will be met with an effective victim-centered response. This vision became known to the Working Group participants as the No Wrong Door model.[13] Although the No Wrong Door model leaves many issues, such as provisions regarding confidentiality, to future implementation, it does lay the groundwork for meeting Minnesota’s obligation to provide access to services for trafficked children.

“The Working Group’s core values included recognition that trauma-informed, individually-responsive care, combined with prevention strategies and effective victim identification, is the most appropriate response to sexually exploited youth. Research has shown that the upfront commitment to preventing and protecting youth from trafficking is a worthwhile investment for Minnesota. In 2012, alongside the work of the Safe Harbor Working Group, the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center undertook research, conducted by Lauren Martin and Lauren Stark of the University of Minnesota and economist Richard Lotspeich of Indiana State University. The research focused on the financial benefits and costs of early intervention to prevent sex trading and trafficking of adolescent females. The researchers analyzed the projected impact on the public budget by Safe Harbor. The research indicates that for every $1 of public cost, early intervention yields $34 in benefit.[14]

“The Safe Harbor Working Group also identified as a core value the need to be responsive to the needs of individual youth and to make services available to all youth, regardless of that youth’s own characteristics or whether the youth is involved in the child welfare system. The Working Group also sought to ensure that the model it created was open and accessible to all victims without discrimination. Creating a system with the flexibility and expertise to provide services that “gender-responsive, culturally competent, age-appropriate and supportive for youth who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning”[15] was a priority.

“The Working Group recognized several basic model assumptions. Among them is that Minnesota’s model for implementing Safe Harbor will rely on existing assets and strengths and that duplication of resources must be avoided. Minnesota has developed many resources and best practices that are relevant and useful to responding to sexually exploited youth. For example, Minnesota long has led the world in developing innovative responses to domestic violence. In recent years, that system has seen significant cuts in resources resulting in shelter and program closure. Minnesota also has sophisticated sexual assault nurse examiner and sexual assault response team systems, which also have faced significant funding cuts. Finally, Minnesota is at the cusp of addressing longstanding systemic resource deficiencies for shelter and services for homeless youth, which long have been underfunded despite dramatic need.

“The Safe Harbor Working Group recognized that funds for domestic violence, sexual assault, and homeless youth shelter and services are vital to providing for the needs of Minnesota’s sexually exploited youth without creating costly bureaucracy and infrastructure. Support for existing programs must be maintained and strengthened, while at the same time making available to those and other programs funding specific to meeting the need for housing and services for sexually exploited youth.  Rather than develop a duplicative infrastructure, the Safe Harbor Working Group sought to build on these existing resources. The resource needs identified by the Safe Harbor Working Group rely on the full funding of existing services and shelter for sexually exploited youth in Minnesota through appropriations.

“One Minnesota initiative shows real promise for effective intervention. The Ramsey County Runaway Intervention Project[16] shows that victim-centered intervention far surpassed delinquency adjudications in achieving positive outcomes. The Runaway Intervention Project was created by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, responding to concerns raised by the Saint Paul Public Schools. They identified that the revolving door of juvenile delinquency adjudications for girls exploited through prostitution was not working and  they were convinced that victim-centered intervention could work to get these girls off the prostitution track. The Ramsey County Attorney’s Office worked with the Midwest Children’s Resource Center, the local children’s advocacy center, and with SOS-Ramsey County, the local sexual assault victim services organization. Together they designed a victim-centered intervention program where success was measured by improved outcomes for the youth. The Runaway Intervention Project addresses the needs of both sexually exploited girls and girls at risk of sexual exploitation.

“The Runaway Intervention Project’s documented results have been remarkable.[17] Professor Elizabeth Saewyc of the University of British Columbia, who has documented the impact of the Runaway Intervention Project, reports that girls completing the program “have shown dramatic improvement in healthy sexual behaviors, increased connectedness with family and school, higher self-esteem, improved mental health, and reduced drug use. Participants have gotten back on healthy development tracks, almost, statistically, as if they had not been abused.”[18]


“While victim identification and resources for victims is crucial to an effective government response, policy makers must recognize that sex trafficking is a demand-driven crime. Legal responses must hold accountable the perpetrators of sex trafficking, including those who promote and organize trafficking and those who purchase sex from trafficked persons. Public policy must also include measures to eliminate the tolerance and normalization of prostitution.”

[1] MN Stat. 609.321, subd. 7b (2012).

[2] See Martin, Lauren, Richard Lotspeich, and Lauren Stark, Early Intervention to Avoid Sex Trading and Trafficking of Minnesota’s Female Youth: A Benefit-Cost Analysis (2012), p. 23.

[3] See Birckhead, T.R. (2011). The “Youngest Profession”: Consent, Autonomy, Prostituted Children, 88 Wash. L. Rev. 5, cited in MN Department of Public Safety, Office of Justice Programs, No Wrong Door: A Comprehensive Approach to Safe Harbor for Minnesota’s Sexually Exploited Youth, p. 6.

[4] “Homeless Youth in Minnesota,” Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, available at (last accessed Feb. 5, 2013) (note that this study defines “youth” to include anyone under age 21).

[5] Kotrla, K. (2010). Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking in the United States. Social Work, 55(2): 181-7.

[6] National Runaway Switchboard website at, Accessed on 2/6/11.

[7] R.J. Estes, Ph.D., and N. A. Weiner, Ph.D. Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S. Canada and Mexico. 2001. (last visited Feb. 6, 2013) (noting the average age of entry into sex trafficking/prostitution as 12-14 years old). Current service providers in Minnesota, including Breaking Free and Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center, confirm this statistic, and report that they are now seeing that the average age of entry is between 11 and 14 years old based on the clients they serve.

[8] Federal Bureau of Investigation, Office of the Inspector General, Audit Report 09-08: The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Efforts to Combat Crimes Against Children, Ch. 4, Jan. 2009, available at

[9] The term “young people” refers to individuals up to age 21. See Trudee Able-Peterson & Richard A. Hooks Wyman. StreetWorks: Best Practices and Standards in Outreach Methodology to Homeless Youth. 2006. (Discussion of working with young people engaging in survival sex), pages 113-14 (citing C. Zierman. Pathways Into Prostitution: Report To Project Offstreets. 1998).

[10] Playground. Film clip. Directed by Libby Spears. Produced by Martha Adams et al. Los Angeles, CA: The Nest Foundation, 2011.

[11] The State of Minnesota, Office of the Attorney General. The Hofstede Committee Report: Juvenile Prostitution in Minnesota. 1999. (last visited April 1, 2011).

[12] While Minnesota law criminalizes labor trafficking, the state has less experience in building a systemic response to that problem.

[13] This inspired the title of the Department of Public Safety’s report to the legislature: Department of Public Safety, Office of Justice Programs, No Wrong Door: A Comprehensive Approach to Safe Harbor for Minnesota’s Sexually Exploited Youth, Jan. 2013.

[14] Lauren Martin, Richard Lotspeich, and Lauren Stark, Early Intervention to Avoid Sex Trading and Trafficking of Minnesota’s Female Youth: A Benefit-Cost Analysis (2012), p. vi, 3.

[15] MN Department of Public Safety, Office of Justice Programs, No Wrong Door: A Comprehensive Approach to Safe Harbor for Minnesota’s Sexually Exploited Youth, Jan. 2013, at 8.

[16] H.F. 4162, art. 13, sec. 4, subd. 4(b) (2006) (Authorizing legislation referred to the project as the Safe Harbor for Youth Intervention Project).

[17] Early Intervention to Avoid Sex Trading and Trafficking of Minnesota’s Female Youth: A Benefit-Cost Analysis, a report by Lauren Martin, Richard Lotspeich, and Lauren Stark (2012), p. 52, provides an excellent overview of the Runaway Intervention Project.

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