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Legal Learning: Bobbi and the Safe Harbor Law

James H. Manahan, J.D. 

Bobbi Larson of Two Harbors recently allowed the Minneapolis Star Tribune to report her history of being a victim of child sex trafficking. Local people, she says, are calling her now to tell her they’re proud of her.

Many adolescent girls in Minnesota and throughout the country are lured into prostitution by pimps who take advantage of their emotional vulnerability. Until now, these girls have been subject to arrest and prosecution as juvenile delinquents. However, Minnesota’s new “Safe Harbor” law recognizes that these children are victims, not criminals.

Bobbi was lucky, since she has a loving family in Two Harbors who welcomed her home after she was victimized. Many girls, however, come from broken or hostile homes and police have no place to send them after rescuing them from the sex trade.

The Minnesota legislature this year appropriated $2.8 million to fund the Safe Harbor law, $1 million of which went to create shelters for sex trafficking victims. Last month construction began on a new shelter in St. Paul that will be able to house 12 victims, and four other organizations have been awarded grants across the state. At the groundbreaking in St. Paul, Mayor Chris Coleman said, “Today is a gigantic leap forward. We’re not going to allow our children to be exploited.” Girls ages 10 to 17 will be able to stay at the shelter up to three months and can receive chemical dependency treatment, mental health help, and vocational training.

Also included in the funding is money for training law enforcement officers across the state to more effectively understand and work with victims.

U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar has introduced a bill called the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETT), aimed at getting all states to enact Safe Harbor laws like Minnesota’s, ensuring that minors who are trafficked are treated as victims.

According to the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, criminalizing the victim not only causes them further harm; it offers a weak and ineffective response to traffickers’ manipulative and sophisticated grooming and control. The average age a child enters prostitution, they say, is about 12 to 13 years of age – that’s 6th and 7th graders. Furthermore, a victim-centered response saves taxpayer money; one study shows a savings of $34 tax dollars for every $1 invested in victim-centered models.

Here’s what the new Minnesota law (effective next Aug. 1, 2014) says: “The term delinquent child does not include a child alleged to have engaged in conduct which would, if committed by an adult, violate any federal, state, or local law relating to being hired, offering to be hired, or agreeing to be hired by another individual to engage in sexual penetration or sexual conduct.”

Last year President Obama declared January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. As he put it, human trafficking is “one of the greatest human rights abuses of our time.” It’s a crime, he said, that “amounts to modern-day slavery”.

Here in Lake County the Sex Trafficking Task Force will be holding a public educational forum [She’s Somebody’s Daughter] to discuss what we can do, on Tuesday, Jan. 21 at 7 p.m., at the Community Center in Two Harbors. We are all invited.

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James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills, and probate in and around Lake County, and does mediation everywhere. The opinions expressed in this column are those of its author.