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MN counties join efforts to combat sex trafficking

Rural Minnesota may not come across as the prime location for sex crimes, but with Interstate 94 running through, Douglas County is more susceptible than perceived.

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Law enforcement and community leaders from around the state gathered at Arrowwood Resort Hotel and Conference Center in Alexandria April 24-25 for the Safe Harbor Kickoff Conference.

Presented by the Association of Minnesota Counties and Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, the event focused on enhancing Minnesota’s system for fighting juvenile sex trafficking.

“To be perfectly honest, I was not at all aware of the problem of sex trafficking prevalent in an area as small as ours,” said Douglas County Commissioner Bev Bales. “This conference...opened my eyes to a problem that is the responsibility of all of us.”

The main intention of the conference was to get counties on the same page in preparation for Minnesota’s Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Law to go into effect August 1.

The law is designed to ensure that juveniles who are sexually exploited or at risk of exploitation are treated as victims under Minnesota law.

Douglas County Commissioner Jim Stratton, who has 10 years of experience working with at-risk and vulnerable kids, believes that Minnesota needs to change its basic philosophy of how it addresses and treats the true victims of these crimes.

“There are slick, intelligent people out there who look for runaways or throwaways to take advantage of,” Stratton exclaimed. Throwaways refer to kids abandoned by their parents and living on the streets.

Safe Harbor creates a system of response called “No Wrong Door” to identify child victims of sexual exploitation and move them toward recovery, while holding the traffickers and purchasers responsible for their actions as the criminals.

The law will strive to pull everyone and every resource together to allow victims to feel that no matter where they are, they will be safe.

“We need to help them,” Stratton said. “No matter how many times they may slip back, we can’t treat them like what they did was wrong; that isn’t the way to break the cycle.”

U.S. Attorney for Minnesota Andy Luger spoke at the event, pledging his office to aiding in this effort.

In the coming months, systems professionals will help develop a statewide model protocol for identifying and intervening with sexually exploited and trafficked youth.

Attendees at regional conferences will build a collaborative approach in every part of the state, while law enforcement and prosecutors will receive specialized training.

The conference was attended by more than 200. Neither the Alexandria Police Department nor the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office had representatives at the event. When contacted by the Echo Press, local law enforcement representatives stated that they attend many conferences throughout the year, including ones similar to Safe Harbor, and are not able to be at every one.

“It’s going to take the commissioners to direct the law enforcement to send representatives to these trainings,” said Stratton.

“We need to get better informed...and do all we can to stop it,” Bales agreed. “Conferences such as this are a great way to begin the process.

Annie Harman
Annie Harman is a reporter for Echo Press and The Osakis Review. She grew up in Detroit Lakes and graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire with a degree in print journalism and history in May 2012. Follow her on Twitter at annieharman
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