Report: Minnesota's Safe Harbor helping more victims of sex trafficking

A Minnesota program helping fight sex trafficking across the state is reaching more and more young people.

A new Wilder Foundation study released Friday shows that from April 2015 to June 2017, 1,423 young people received services from the “Safe Harbor” program. During the program’s first year, it provided services for 359 young people.

The program was created through a state law in 2011. It provides legislation, funding and legal protections to help victims of sex trafficking.

Minnesota State Health Commissioner Dr. Ed Ehlinger believes the report comes at a crucial time.

“Certainly the news stories that have dominated this week's headlines about the exploitation and abuse of vulnerable individuals, and sexual harassment and assault by people in powerful positions, underlines the critical importance of what we will be talking about today,” said Ehlinger.

“We have no doubt, in our mind, that these numbers reflect a change in practices among service providers,” said Safe Harbor Regional Navigator Laura Sutherland.

“What we're seeing is that we have services available," said Ehlinger. "We've changed the law so people feel more comfortable coming forward, they know they are going to get some help. People don't want to be trafficked."

The study also showed that awareness about sex trafficking has grown. There is more access to shelter and housing for victims. The response from law enforcement has improved.

Ramsey County Attorney John Choi says more victims of sex trafficking are being recognized as victims instead of criminals.

“That's the magic of Minnesota," said Choi. "That's why I think that many people from around the country are saying, ‘What you are doing here is really awesome.'"

Despite the program’s success, there is room for improvement.

“There are gaps in services to address the complexity and needs of exploited individuals from underserved cultural groups,” said Julie Atella with the Wilder Foundation.

That includes people of color, tribal communities, the LGBTQ community and young men.

“This is not an urban issue or a rural issue, it is a statewide issue that we all have to be engaged with,” said Ehlinger.

The report also recommends removing the age limit for those who can access resources through Safe Harbor. Right now, the resources are only available until the age of 24.

“We as a state, especially those on the front lines, who weren't necessarily seeing it back in 2011, are better at identifying these kids,” said Choi.

The report also calls for more funding. 

“This is the only state in which, on a bipartisan basis, where the Legislature has actually funded safe harbor laws. So that's one of the reasons why I think it's working really well,” said Choi.