Southwest Crisis Center, partners awarded grant
WORTHINGTON — The Southwest Crisis Center, in partnership with New Horizons Crisis Center and the Committee Against Domestic Violence, has been awarded a grant from Minnesota Department of Health to develop a program to help sexually exploited and sexually trafficked youths.
The partnering agencies received one of four grants to establish a regional navigator to implement the No Wrong Doors/Safe Harbor model. Up to six regional navigator positions will be created across the state.
The regional navigator for southwest Minnesota will work with agencies who respond to cases involving youth victims of sex trafficking. Southwest Crisis Center Director Sara Wahl said the local agency is “widening the lens” to include at-risk and sexually exploited youths as well. The position is hoped to be filled by May 1, and it is not yet known where the individual will be based. Major cities within the regional navigator’s work area include Worthington, Marshall, Mankato and New Ulm.
“Our service area (for the grant) is 15 counties, so it’s a much larger service area than what we currently have,” said Wahl. The Southwest Crisis Center serves Rock, Nobles, Pipestone, Cottonwood and Jackson counties.
In the past decade, the Southwest Crisis Center has worked with five known youth victims of sexual exploitation, said Wahl, adding that the actual number of exploited youths could be much higher. Some victims may be misidentified as victims of sexual assault or sexual abuse, she said.
“The main goal of this grant is really to help other people like social workers, schools, people in the education field, child protection, law enforcement and advocates to better identify youth victims,” Wahl said. “That’s really what the whole purpose of the grant is about.”
The regional navigator will provide trauma informed, victim-centered services to victims of sex trafficking and sexual exploitation in southwest and south central Minnesota.
“It’s those youths who are exchanging sexual acts for a place to stay, for food, for safety,” Wahl said of some of the area’s victims. “It doesn’t have to be in the context of prostitution or a sex trafficking ring.”
The regional navigator will provide support, resources and education to people of rural Minnesota so they can better identify victims, she added.
In Minnesota, the average age in which girls get involved in sex trafficking is 13.
“You’re a girl — you don’t have this development of a sense of self,” Wahl said of the victims.
In July 2011, the Minnesota Legislature approved a Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth law, recognizing that sexually exploited children and those at risk for exploitation be treated as victims rather than juvenile delinquents.
The legislature also appropriated funding for the regional navigators, and Wahl anticipates the funding will continue to be available to maintain the positions “given the knowledge of what’s happening in Minnesota.”
A 2013 report released by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ranked Minnesota as the 13th leading state in the nation in youth victims of sex trafficking.
“There’s a huge problem,” Wahl said, adding that online connections through social media, and risk factors such as homelessness, missing school and sexual abuse in the home can lead to a young girl becoming a victim.
Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.