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Criminal to victim: Changing perceptions of human trafficking

Ramsey County’s Dave Pinto, MN Dept of Health’s Lauren Ryan, and The Link’s Beth Holger-Ambrose and Lateesha Coleman spoke at the School of Social Work's 2015 Room at the Table.
Ramsey County’s Dave Pinto, MN Dept of Health’s Lauren Ryan, and The Link’s Beth Holger-Ambrose and Lateesha Coleman spoke at the School of Social Work's 2015 Room at the Table.
Photo by Sharon Rolenc

More than 150 sexually-exploited Minnesota youth sought help last year, according to the Safe Harbor First Year Evaluation Report released this month. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, warn officials.

“Don’t expect prevalence data to come out of this initial report. This just shows the number of youth currently engaged in our Safe Harbor system. Human trafficking is such a hidden, misidentified type of victimization that we really don’t have a clue as to the full scope,” explained Lauren Ryan, Safe Harbor/No Wrong Door director for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Ryan was among featured panelists at the 2015 Room at the Table event, Trafficking in Minnesota: Protecting Sexually Exploited Youth, hosted by the St. Catherine University–University of St. Thomas School of Social Work. 

One of the biggest hurdles in gathering accurate prevalence numbers is the persistent perception that prostitution is a victimless crime. Minnesota law is starting to shift that landscape.

Under Minnesota’s Safe Harbor Law, initially passed in 2011 and implemented in 2014, youth involved in prostitution are viewed as victims who need services rather than criminals who need to be prosecuted. While the initial numbers of youth receiving services under the new law has increased, there are likely countless others going unserved.

“You’ve taken a population that you’ve once criminalized — that was your response to them — and you’re trying to flip that and fit it into a victim response model or child protection response model. There are a lot of messy details to work out,” says Ryan.

Charged with implementing a plan to address the shift, the Department of Public Safety created No Wrong Door.

“The theory behind this is that through any door a youth enters — through child protection, through law enforcement, through social services, through a school counselor — the person on the other side should be trained on what sexual exploitation is, and where to refer that youth for appropriate services,” explains Ryan.

Ryan says Minnesota has been good about taking a multi-disciplinary approach and making sure that everyone is involved in the response.

“This is not just a child protection issue, this is not just a community organization issue, this is not just a law enforcement issue. It takes all of us to respond to this problem,” she explains.

Ryan adds that the St. Kate’s–St. Thomas School of Social Work’s participation in the dialogue is important. “As social workers, you have professional obligations and ethics. How do you stay within that, but also conform to the victim-centered, trauma-informed, harm-reduction approach?”

Frontline services

Under Safe Harbor, the state set up eight regional navigators and two tribal navigators as front line contacts. Navigators are organizations responsible for connecting exploited youth with services, and for serving as regional experts for their communities.

Based in North Minneapolis, The Link serves as the west metro regional navigator site for Safe Harbor and provides 24/7 on-call response.

“For instance, if there’s sting in a hotel somewhere, the police may call Quisha, our Safe Harbor director, in the middle of the night. She’ll come out, work with the young person in a strength-based, non-judgmental way, help them identify what their safety needs are, and what services they need," says Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director for The Link.

If youth can’t go home safely, then they are eligible for The Link's Passageway Shelter and Housing program.

Shifting the perception of law enforcement

A human trafficker and exploiter has historically been referred to as pimp, and the buyer a John. But the victim of human trafficking is called any number of sordid names, from escort or prostitute to whore or hooker, or worse.

“We challenge officers to pause and think about those names. Think of all those awful terms for the victim. This is what society thinks of her, how society works, and where society puts her — at the bottom,” says Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Dave Pinto. “We’re trying to shift that thinking. To understand that the victim is probably there because of vulnerabilities she had that someone targeted and exploited.”

Ramsey County received funding under the Safe Harbor law to undertake protocol-development and law enforcement training.

Pinto was on hand at the event to share an update of the efforts so far. Statewide, law enforcement training is underway on three levels:

  • A series of short, 15-minute training videos for every single law enforcement officer in the state of Minnesota (about 10,000). Officers are also given a card to carry with them that lists risk factors to look for, and questions to ask victims.
  • Half-day intensive training for 2,000 frontline officers, which includes hearing directly from survivors and advocates.
  • Deeper dive to equip investigators and prosecutors the skills and perspective needed.

Pinto says the deeper level training is being developed in partnership with the Minnesota Coalition for Sexual Assault to create a model protocol, a model set of best practices and guidelines for communities around the state to use.

Taking an interprofessional approach, fifteen discipline-specific work groups are involved in developing the protocol and guidelines, everything from education and medical to juvenile corrections and prosecution.

“There’s cultural input, there’s input from survivors and families in setting up these practices,” says Pinto.

Shifting the perceptions away from the attitude of prostitution as a victimless crime is critical in the race to prevent children from being exploited.

“We need to be coming at this from the perspective of the traffickers and exploiters. Who and where are our vulnerable kids and people? This is an opportunity to reach out to them first,” adds Pinto.

Pinto likens the process to building a plane as you fly it. “We really are mid-air, so it feels pretty turbulent a lot of the time. But there are great opportunities here. It’s phenomenal to be supporting kids at risk of being exploiting, and preventing it where we can.”

Human Trafficking is the 2015-16 annual theme for the School of Social Work. Throughout the academic year, practitioners, faculty, students and community members gather during signature events to share best practices and develop strategies around an emerging critical issue in social work practice. The next event in the series is the annual spring Justice Lecture, held this year in conjunction with the Bonnie Jean and Joan Kelly lecture.


Related content:

Social work summit tackles trafficking in Minnesota

Safe Harbor: First year evaluation report


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Dec. 1, 2015 by Sharon Rolenc

See also: Healthcare, Leadership, Social Justice, Students