Minneapolis City Council, local organizers: Stop selling girls on Backpage

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Men looking for underage sex partners find them at Backpage.com, according to Minneapolis police, who say that’s where all 20 child sex trafficking cases investigated so far in 2012 came from. On August 17, the Minneapolis City Council called on Village Voice Media to stop publishing Backpage.com. A city press release quoted Mayor R.T. Rybak:

“When I published the Twin Cities Reader in the 1990s, we turned down ads from Backpage.com because we refused to participate in the trafficking of women and children. It cost us a lot of money, but it was the right thing to do… [E]nding sex trafficking is a national priority, and Minneapolis police and city attorneys are doing incredible work to fight it right here. I’m pleased that today, the Minneapolis City Council joined the fight by calling on Village Voice Media to shut down the adult section of BackPage.com.”

Young female prostitution, or juvenile sex-trafficking, also was the topic at Ward 8 Councilmember Elizabeth Glidden’s “Early Mornings” discussion on July 27, where investigators from the Minneapolis police department and representatives from Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFM) and PRIDE (Prostitution to Independence, Dignity and Equality) spoke at Turtle Bread restaurant in south Minneapolis.

In summer 2010, WFM gathered about 85 community leaders, advocates, and law enforcement to discuss a way Minnesota can respond to juvenile girls in prostitution. In Nov. 2011, their five-year campaign MN Girls Are Not For Sale was launched to “galvanize resources so we can end prostitution of young girls in the state of Minnesota,” said Williams.

Terry Williams, WFM Director of External Affairs said, “We want to redefine prostituted girls as victims of a crime rather than criminals.”

Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law, passed in 2011, provides that adults who engage in sexual conduct for hire commit a criminal offense, but youth under 16 engaging in this conduct are considered victims rather than youth offenders. WFM and PRIDE want to redefine that age to be 18.

Artika Roller, PRIDE program director, says that girls at the ages of 16 -17 still don’t have certain developmental capabilities to allow them to decide to leave their pimp, the male in control of their prostitution, and receive help after being subdued into that lifestyle.

Amending the age would then be consistent with the way the Minneapolis Police Department treats these crimes. According to Lt. Greg Reinhardt, if someone selling sex is under the age of 18, their case is routed to the child abuse unit. If the individual is over 18, it’s investigated by the sex crimes unit.

Lt. Nancy Dunlap has been involved in sex crimes investigations for 12 years, and says she remembers as a new investigator seeing “this very, very vulnerable population who was not just being assaulted by the prostitution itself” but was also being subjected to violence, rape, and robbery.

Dunlap said most often, girls working for a pimp are runaways dealing with issues of their own, such as unstable home lives involving domestic abuse, violence, homelessness, personal exposure or experience with drugs, among other struggles.

“I like to feel like I’m in tune with this this,” said Dunlap. “I’ve been doing this for so long, I like to sit down with somebody and walk through how they got to this point in their lives and where they are right now. It’s very, very powerful for me.”

Asked how often prostitution occurs, Minneapolis police department Sergeant Grant Snyder investigator said, “There’s a definite number, we just don’t know what it is.”

That number is difficult to define because prostitution-related crimes are under-reported to investigators and police departments. Some girls have more than one pimp or are moved around the state through different cities, making them hard to track.

According to Snyder, the approach to these girls also happens fast. Some 75% of runaway girls report they are approached within the first day to engage in prostitution or “survival sex.”

Some of these girls “feel shame and think they’re responsible,” said Snyder, as well as still holding affection for their pimp, which may prevent them from reporting.

According to Reinhardt, prostitution rarely takes place on the street. Trafficking is also hidden online, where girls are advertised on websites such as Backpage.com as “escorts,” even outside the Twin Cities for locations such as Duluth, Walker, Albert Lea, Maple Grove, Brooklyn Park, and Eagan.

“You’ll see hundreds of [online] ads of young girls who claim to be 19 to 23 years old and many, many of those are underage,” said Reinhardt. “Our goal is to develop our skills and to learn how to do our job better to divert these victims, these young girls, into a different lifestyle and different choices.”

Mary Beth Hanson, WFM Director of Communications said there needs to be a statewide and comprehensive response to the issue, as just one entity cannot change it. The campaign hopes to raise awareness and engage the public to realize prostitution is not a victimless crime.

Hanson said the campaign is focusing on how to implement new housing services, through construction or existing locations in the city, for girls who are found engaging in prostitution but have no place to go home to. The housing would also provide treatment and trauma services, but the price tag is still an issue for the campaign’s first year.

“This is a crime that changes people’s lives, their family’s lives, [and] everyone around them, so I think it’s really important to get that message out,” said Dunlap.

PRIDE offers prevention and intervention services to young girls who have been sexually exploited, including counseling, case management and court advocacy. Rollins said they have served approximately 120 girls during the past year.

“Safety is our concern for our clients and our women that we work with,” said Roller. After being with PRIDE for eight years she notes her work is “definitely a calling. It’s where I belong.”

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