If rural teens in Minnesota can’t get to services to help get them out of the world of sexual exploitation, mobile case managers with 180 Degrees will get to them.
The service came as a result of the Minnesota Student Survey 2019, released in January 2020, that showed 1.4% of teens across the state, including rural areas, had traded sex for drugs, alcohol, food or housing.
Students in every county in the state reported sexual exploitation. Finding ways to get services to rural counties is a challenge, said Dan Pfarr, president and CEO of 180 Degrees, a Minnesota organization that provides support to young people and adults from sexual exploitation. Lack of nearby services and lack of transportation to the services they need make rural students more vulnerable, he said.
180 Degrees runs Brittany’s Place, a home for girls under the age of 18 who are being sexually exploited and are in need of shelter services and housing. About 20% of Brittany’s Place clients are from rural areas, Pfarr said.
When young people can’t get to Brittany’s Place or other similar organizations, 180 Degrees has mobile case workers who go to them. Often, law enforcement or the court system will alert the organization that a young person is being sexually exploited. 180 Degrees sends someone to the young person to help them get the resources they need.
Mobile case managers work with regional navigators who are part of the state’s Safe Harbor system, Pfarr said. Once the young people are identified, they are assessed and given the appropriate referrals.
“Kids who do not come in to shelter or will not come in to shelter, we can identify them, and then we can move them from prevention to intervention and crisis response,” he said. “What I can tell you is that while we are serving fewer youth in our shelters during the pandemic, we are serving more youth in our outreach and mobile case-management (programs). Our numbers are growing year after year.”
The state is preparing for its next student survey, to be administered between January and June 2022. More data on the scope of sexual exploitation will prepare organizations like Pfarr’s to better address the needs of rural students.
Since 1989, the Minnesota Department of Education has surveyed students about their quality of life. The triennial survey is available to all schools – public, private, charter and tribal schools, as well as in alternative learning centers and juvenile correctional facilities. Schools that elect to participate in the survey give it to students in grades five, eight, nine, and 11. Students aren’t required to take the survey, and parents can choose to have their children opt-out.
The Minnesota Department of Health added a question to the survey for students in ninth and 11th grades in 2019 – “Have you ever traded sex or sexual activity for money, food, drugs, alcohol, a place to stay, or anything else?”
The question was a response to the state’s Safe Harbor Law, which the state passed in 2011. The law reversed how the state views sexually exploited young people (as victims and not criminals) and changed how the young people are treated. The law establishes an approach to addressing sexual exploitation of and engages multiple layers of government.
To deal with sexual exploitation, Beatriz Menanteau, a supervisor with the Violence Prevention Programs Unit with the Minnesota Department of Health, said the Department of Health first had to assess the scope of sexual exploitation in the state. Adding the question to the Minnesota Student Survey seemed like the best way to do that.
The health department then turned to the University of Minnesota School of Nursing for analysis of that data. Researchers found that every county in the state had students who answered yes to the sexual exploitation question. Researchers estimate from the responses that as many as 5,000 young people between 15 and 19 may be trading sex for drugs, food, or housing.
The number was not a shock to Menanteau.
“I don’t think it was necessarily surprising,” she said. “A lot of the data that we received in this analysis actually validated what we hear from our direct on-the-ground service providers. This gives us the foundation.”
The estimate is probably low, Menanteau said. The survey is only given to students in school on a particular day. Young people being sexually exploited are frequently absent, she said. Additionally, students may not have answered yes to the question because of shame or fear even though the results of the survey are confidential.
While statewide 1.4% of students answered yes, breaking the state down into regions showed that the percentage of students answering yes was higher in the rural northwestern and northeastern corners of the state (2% and 1.6% respectively).
Menanteau said that doesn’t necessarily mean that the sexual exploitation rates are higher in rural counties. While those regions are primarily rural, metro areas within those regions had higher rates than some of the rural counties. Also, the number of respondents to the survey varied from county to county, making comparisons difficult to analyze.
The information from the study, and the next one — slated to be released in October 2022 – is a tool for letting people across the state know that sexual exploitation of young people isn’t just an urban problem.
Pfarr said the information in the study helps raise awareness about sexual exploitation, which, in turn, helps with fund-raising. Organizations in rural areas helping sexually exploited youth said their lack of resources and their isolation from other similar organizations hinder their ability to help.
“What happens around the country is that most of the resources, either local, federal, or state, are focused on urban areas,” he said. “I can tell you that the support that we get for our rural shelters pales in comparison to the support we get for our urban shelters.”