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Creating a ‘Safe Harbor’

Published (4/1/2011)
By Hank Long
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Heather Boyum is 31. She says she was deprived of the last 15 years of her life after a man she initially considered her boyfriend exploited her and led her to a lifestyle of many “false promises and broken dreams.”

Boyum delved into prostitution at age 16, and for much of her life as a young adult she saw multiple “johns” every day of the week. She was passed between three different pimps and admits her situation was not only traumatizing, but left emotional scars as she became isolated from family and friends. But last fall she found Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based organization that provides education and support services to victims of prostitution and sex trafficking.

“Had I known 15 years ago what I know now, that there are programs like Breaking Free available for women in prostitution, that there is a safe place to go and we are not going to be treated like criminals, especially when it’s something we have been forced into, my life would have been significantly different,” Boyum told the House Judiciary Policy and Finance Committee March 15.

As many as 14,000 young women and girls become victims of prostitution and sex trafficking every year in the United States, said Lisa Gagnier, who left a life of prostitution she began as a young adult. Although New York and California see the highest number of sex trafficking cases, the number of cases in Minnesota is growing, she said.

“Sometimes we find ourselves in situations that we don’t quite know how to get out of,” she said. “And some, even when they are arrested, don’t speak out in fear of retaliation.

“We need to show our youth out there that there are people out there who care and love for them and are fighting for their well being.”

‘Safe Harbor’ legislation

Sponsored by Rep. Steve Smith (R-Mound), HF556, known as the “Safe Harbor” bill, is included in the omnibus public safety and judiciary finance bill, SF958.

It aims to resolve a conflict between state law and child protection statutes where juveniles can be prosecuted for crimes related to prostitution while at the same time be declared in need of child protection services, said Jeff Bauer, director of public policy at The Family Partnership, a Minneapolis-based child advocacy organization.

The bill also triples fines for those found guilty of adult prostitution services and dedicates revenue from increased penalties to help fund the work of the arresting and prosecution agencies and crime victim services. It also directs the Public Safety and Human Services departments to create a victim-centered counseling model for juvenile victims of sex trafficking and prostitution, if sufficient outside funding is donated.

Bill mirrors some metro policies

In February, county attorneys from around the Twin Cities metropolitan area, along with a number of representatives from law enforcement agencies, announced changes they would make to their own policies for how they handle children exploited for prostitution. Those changes are reflected in HF556, said Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom.

“We established in the metro area, by policy, exactly what this bill will establish statewide,” Backstrom said, “which is to seek to treat these exploited young women as the victims they rightfully are and not as criminals under our system of justice.”

Currently, juveniles prosecuted for prostitution-related crimes are offered rehabilitation programs like Breaking Free as a condition of parole or reduced sentencing. Rep. John Lesch (DFL-St. Paul) asked how the “Safe Harbor” bill would affect teens that don’t consider themselves victims and don’t want to participate in such programs.

“We can certainly initiate a child protection proceeding and intervene to protect that child and accomplish, I believe, the same goals in terms of getting them the services they need and to address some of those issues even though at that time they may be unwilling to participate,” Backstrom said.

Rep. Tina Liebling (DFL-Rochester) said she supports the legislation that would “treat children as children” and give them the protection they need.

“Too often we criminalize the behavior of children and pretend they are just little adults, and they are not,” she said.

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