Strengthening collaboration within the County to better identify survivors
Sex trafficking in the United States is not confined to large coastal cities; it thrives across urban, suburban, and rural areas across the country. Beginning in 2013, the Minnesota legislature passed a series of "safe harbor" laws requiring the justice system to treat juveniles who exchange sex for money as victims, not criminals. From April 2017 through March 2019 alone, Minnesota Safe Harbor grantees served 1,279 sexually exploited youth and young adults. And since 2014, 700 individuals received Safe Harbor support in Southeast Minnesota, including in Olmsted County.
Based in Rochester, the Olmsted County Attorney’s Office is tasked with prosecuting most of the human trafficking and sexual exploitation cases in the county. Investigations have typically arisen from undercover “sting” operations conducted by various law enforcement agencies.
Safe Harbor heads the region’s Human Trafficking Task Force, a group of 20 system partners and community organizations. Safe Harbor created a Community Needs Resource Guide that details services available in the area and how to quickly access them, as well as a Risk Assessment Tool to identify exploited individuals.
Although this Risk Assessment Tool is utilized by various agencies in Olmsted County to identify potential victims of exploitation, information collected by the tool isn't regularly shared with prosecutors, who are unable to identify indicators until it's too late to influence case decisions. As a result, it is possible that sexually exploited women and girls who interact with the criminal justice system as victims, witnesses, and defendants can be overlooked.
Galvanized to create new strategies to identify survivors and combat trafficking, the Olmsted County Attorney's Office, in partnership with Safe Harbor, applied to serve as a Just Exits pilot site. Together with AEquitas staff and the Just Exits Advisory Council, Olmsted County will create a plan to better identify survivors and ensure they're treated with care and compassion. Ultimately, the Olmsted County Attorney's Office and Safe Harbor plan to expand the approach piloted through Just Exits throughout all of Southeast Minnesota.
Members of the Advisory Council will bring years of lived and professional experience to offer insight into how employing trauma-informed techniques during field investigations, in interviews, and throughout court proceedings can increase survivor/victim trust in the system and ultimately drive effective prosecutions.
- Creating a screening tool for use within the County Attorney's Office to enable prosecutors to recognize indicators of trafficking in their cases and refer them to specialized Assistant County Attorneys
- Centralizing and sharing data and risk assessment tools that identify survivors and high-risk individuals and increasing communication among partner organizations
- Spreading public awareness of services offered in the region through wide distribution of resource manuals
- Incorporating survivor voices into the County's task force and better engaging survivors
- Michelle Olson — Manager of Safe Harbor
- Michael Walters — Senior Assistant County Attorney, Olmsted County Attorney's Office
- Andrea White — Regional Navigator in SE Minnesota (encompassing 11 counties), Safe Harbor; Olmsted County Victim Services
- Arianna Whitney — Associate County Attorney, Olmsted County Attorney's Office