BUMC hosts panel on youth sex trafficking

Hennepin County anti-sex trafficking coordinator Amanda Koonjbeharry, left, speaks at a special panel on the local sex trade April 12 at Brooklyn United Methodist Church. (Sun Post staff photo by Christiaan Tarbox)
Hennepin County anti-sex trafficking coordinator Amanda Koonjbeharry, left, speaks at a special panel on the local sex trade April 12 at Brooklyn United Methodist Church. (Sun Post staff photo by Christiaan Tarbox)

A Brooklyn Center church hosted a discussion on the prevalence and reach of the illegal sex trade and what state and county groups are doing to combat it.

Brooklyn United Methodist Church and the Bloomington-based nonprofit Cornerstone hosted a special panel on the sex trafficking of minors April 12, featuring Women’s Foundation of Minnesota Representative Terry Williams and Hennepin County Anti-Sex Trafficking Supervisor Amanda Koonjbeharry as speakers.

The Women’s Foundation, which has been providing grants to organizations dedicated to bettering gender equity since 1983, kick-started an initiative in 2010 called “MN Girls Are Not For Sale” that ended last year. The goals for the program included the redefinition of sex-trafficked minors as victims of a crime rather than perpetrators, and that there would be services in place to assist them.

“We wanted to decrease the demand for child sex trafficking through effective law enforcement: how do we start to look at the sellers and the buyers of children?” said Williams. “And then we really wanted to educate and mobilize public support so we would have zero tolerance of sex trafficking in the state.”

In 2012, the state of Minnesota passed the Safe Harbor Act, which officially protected sexually exploited youth from being charged as criminals.

“We were the fifth state to pass it, but we were the first state to come up with a comprehensive plan called No Wrong Door, and to actually seek state funding to support that plan,” said Williams. “Today, we are still the only state that actually funds our Safe Harbor/No Wrong Door response. We have a great deal to be proud of.”

The Women’s Foundation also managed to facilitate increased housing and services for exploited peoples, with the number of dedicated state-licensed beds in Minnesota from two in 2011 to 48 in 2016. The organization also funds local law enforcement agencies and attorney’s offices to beef up their anti-trafficking resources and efforts. The Woman’s Foundation also funds youth service organizations like The Link with educational campaigns targeted at elementary schools.

Using research compiled by the University of Minnesota’s Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center’s Dr. Lauren Martin, Williams cited the systemics and trends that serve as pillars for the sex trade.

“What she basically found were the structural inequalities – racism, sexism, gender bias, poverty – that feeds this supply of young girls into this recruitment-and-capture process,” said Williams. “There are four business models in terms of the operation. There’s escort services, brothels, street-based, and the closed sex buyers’ networks, which is much more aligned with gangs and how gangs bring people into the industry.”

Williams also noted that Martin’s findings determined that it wasn’t just malls and rec centers that served as recruiting spots for sex slavery.

“I think the most alarming finding was the number of girls that are recruited within schools, because that’s a place where there should be safe, caring adults,” said Williams. “So we really started to dig a little bit into that model that is used within peer recruiting within schools.”

Koonjbeharry went on to talk about Hennepin County’s efforts to fight sex trafficking, utilizing the No Wrong Door initiative. No Wrong Door offers comprehensive resources to communities that seek to identify exploited and at-risk youth, and then provide them with protective housing and trauma-informed services.

“Hennepin County ended up developing this plan so that we could really be unique in how we address this issue for our community,” she said.

According to Koonjbeharry, the No Wrong Door plan, which was launched in 2004, features components addressing prevention, law enforcement and prosecution, training and education, identification and assessment, service delivery, and housing and residential treatment.

“We have two dedicated social workers, and we also were able to successfully secure funding for a dedicated prosecutor in our county attorney’s office, as well as money for a dedicated investigator in our sheriff’s office,” said Koonjbeharry. “The prosecutor will be specialized in prosecuting these cases regarding trafficking and buyers. Our investigator will work closely with the prosecutor to do the data analytic stuff that comes with these cases.”

Koonjbeharry also noted that the county is streamlining all relevant parties’ communications in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the program and its ins and outs.

“We ensure that the sheriff’s office, the county attorney’s office, human services, public health, corrections, and everybody (knows) what we’re doing, and how we’re working together,” she said. “Internally, I want to make sure that our staff knows what this issue is. Just getting that word out is going to be really helpful. So we’re developing e-learning for our staff to create general awareness about what this issue is.”

Koonjbeharry said she’s also working with a Humphrey Fellow based out of Bangladesh who works among local law enforcement there.

“She is doing a literature review for me, looking at investigative practices,” said Koonjbeharry. “Timing-wise, we have more resources in the sheriff’s office, so I’m hoping to use that information to help us improve the way we are working on these cases and working with victims.”

The most pressing local issue Williams and Koonjbeharry wanted to address, however, was the impending arrival of the Super Bowl in Minneapolis next year, and fears revolving around the potential for increased sex trafficking in the area. Williams cited a widely-circulated 2011 quote by then-Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who characterized the Super Bowl as “the single largest human trafficking incident” in America. Williams was quick to rebuke what she called a myth on Abbott’s part.

“We are fact-based in Minnesota, so we asked Dr. Martin to go out and really dig into what’s the reality of the Super Bowl versus this hyperbole that people engage in,” said Williams. “The reality is that there is no greater influx of sex trafficking during the Super Bowl than there is during any other major event that happens in a community.”

Williams said claims like Abbott’s would cause people to underestimate the prevalence of sex trafficking at other major events that draw in people from across the country, such as national political conventions, and therefore potentially decrease vigilance in anti-sex trafficking efforts.

“Any time you bring in large numbers of people into a community, you have about that same jump,” said Williams. “The Super Bowl doesn’t drive any more than anything else.”

Contact Christiaan Tarbox at [email protected]