They faced a political landscape turned upside-down, and didn’t get everything they wanted. But thanks to the “Safe Harbor” coalition, adolescents caught in the sex industry will be considered-in the eyes of Minnesota law-victims needing support, not criminals deserving punishment.
The new law, among other things, excludes sexually exploited children under the age of 16 from the definition of a delinquent child, establishes a mandatory first-time court diversion procedure and increases fines for offender “johns.” Forty percent of these fees will go into an account to serve sexually exploited children.
The ball began rolling when ECPAT-USA-an international network to end the commercial sexual exploitation of children-contacted the Advocates for Human Rights (AHR) in the spring of 2010 to lead a Minnesota effort to craft legislation protecting sexually exploited kids. Six states had passed such laws.
Michele Garnet McKenzie, along with Beatríz Menanteau and Women’s Program Director Cheryl Thomas, led AHR’s effort, drafting legislation and enlisting partners-the Ramsey County Attorney’s office, Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, Breaking Free, MN Coalition Against Sexual Assault, MN Indian Women’s Resource Center and others. The Minnesota Health Department’s Amy Kenzie served as a crucial connector.
Minnesota law defined juveniles “engaged in prostitution” as both victims and delinquents. Lawyers dislike contradictory laws, and these advocates knew which definition had to go.
“A victim is a victim,” Menanteau insisted -in this case, victimized not only by pimps and johns, but by criminal records hindering their futures.
As chief lobbyist for the effort, The Family Partnership’s Jeff Bauer was a natural choice. The agency runs a TeenPRIDE initiative for sexually exploited or at-risk young women. Plus, he noted, “I’m at the Capitol all the time during session-and for Safe Harbor, we needed that.”
In the summer of 2010, the coalition that was built around 2009 sex trafficking legislation seemed a natural starting point. Then came the November 2010 elections.
“The world as we knew it had flipped,” Bauer said. “Every committee chair was new; new governor, new commissioners. We had to make lots of new friends very quickly.”
Among them was Rep. Steve Smith (R-Mound), chief House author. Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), author of the 2009 trafficking legislation, led the Senate effort.
Then, as the 2011 session unfolded, “We ended up in the middle of the budget battle,” Bauer said. Safe Harbor was folded into the public safety bill-which was vetoed, along with other budget bills, in the standoff between DFL Gov. Dayton and Republican legislators.
Safe Harbor passed in July’s special session public safety bill-with a significant compromise. According to Menanteau, it “applies to all juveniles under 18, but after one encounter with the criminal justice system it applies differently to those 15 and under than it does to 16- and 17-year-olds … we wanted the law to apply equally to all under 18.” They’ll keep pushing on this, as well as other pressing business.
“While this is huge, we are by no means close to being done,” said Menanteau. Minnesota lacks places where law enforcement can bring girls to protect them from the pimps, she noted. “Now we need to create that system.”
To allow time for this, key Safe Harbor provisions take effect in 2014. Bauer is traveling the state talking to people who run shelters, asking what it would take to expand the physical space and incorporate services to help sexually exploited youth heal and thrive.
“The state needs to make a real commitment to this,” he said. “And not a short-term commitment, but a long-term one.”
Groups that will be backing that legislation as well as setting up the Safe Harbor infrastructure for sexually exploited youth include:
- The Family Partnership http://thefamilypartnership.org
- The Advocates for Human Rights: www.theadvocatesforhumanrights.org
- Breaking Free: www.breakingfree.net
- MN Coalition Against Sexual Assault: www.mncasa.org
- MN Indian Women’s Resource Center: www.miwrc.org
- Sexual Violence Prevention Network: www.health.state.mn.us/injury/topic/svp/implement/network/index.cfm
- Women’s Foundation of Minnesota: www.wfmn.org