The nation is changing the way it thinks about teen sex trafficking. States have decriminalized it for teens and offered help, and some are attacking the demand for commercial sex.
The first time Minneapolis police Sgt. Grant Snyder found Bobbi Jo Larson, she was 17, had run from an Eau Claire, Wis., treatment center and was posting escort ads and selling sex in Minneapolis.
He didn’t arrest her but warned her that the man she was working with was a long-time pimp.
She ran away again, this time falling in with two more dangerous men. Snyder found her a second time and again delivered a lecture.
“You don’t want to be out here doing this,” Snyder told her. “It’s dangerous, you got raped this time, you got a gun put against your head. The world is filled with evil. These people aren’t your friends. We are your friends.”
Not long ago, a Minnesota teenager like Bobbi Jo might have been arrested, charged with prostitution, found to be delinquent and sent to a juvenile corrections center.
But the state and the nation are undergoing a sea change in how they understand and combat teen sex trafficking. Lawmakers, police, prosecutors and advocates in the past decade have rebranded what once was called underage prostitution.
Driven by young victims themselves and by veterans of the debate over domestic abuse, they have begun to look at sex trafficking as a public health problem instead of a criminal justice problem. Trafficked girls — like Larson — are increasingly considered victims, not criminals. Police and prosecutors in some places are focusing more on sex traffickers and johns, and advocates are finding ways to focus more resources on social problems, taking girls off the streets and offering them help.
The change isn’t universal. A patchwork of state laws reveals a country still very much in flux on the subjects of prostitution and human trafficking. Advocates draw parallels with the domestic violence movement, which over decades changed public attitudes about violence in relationships. Some skeptics say trafficking gets blurred with adult prostitution, which they would rather see legalized. Most people in the sex trade are adults, but a recent study of the U.S. sex trade found that close to 40 percent started as minors. Some researchers think the number is probably higher.
“It’s not like this is new,” said University of Minnesota researcher Lauren Martin. “It’s just that we have new eyes. And we have a fresh way of seeing.”
It’s not clear how many teens are involved in trafficking. A recent federally funded study put the number between 8,915 and 10,507. It suggested about a third of those had some type of pimp or facilitator, but the authors concluded that control by a pimp is just one of the reasons kids stay in prostitution. They found that young people faced a whole host of other social, emotional and economic challenges keeping them in the trade.
Where ‘Safe Harbor’ Laws exist
More than a dozen states have stopped charging minors with prostitution. Some have created safety nets and begun providing services for kids caught in the sex trade. But those kids often don’t see themselves as victims. And they’re not so easy to help.
“Bobbi was one of the more challenging victims I’ve had to work with,” Snyder told a crowd years later at a community training on sex trafficking. “Most victims lie to us … they get angry with us, they fight with us if they have opportunity, they’ve very distrusting … and they’re very, very difficult to like.”
In all, Snyder caught Larson five times, each time trying to convince her that her life of prostitution left her in danger and that he was there to help. Eventually, it worked.
“The number one thing that I will always remember is him saying, ‘From this day on, you will be protected,'” said Larson. She’s now 21, drug-free and out of prostitution. She and her fiancé have a new baby.
Larson has thought about what made her so vulnerable to being trafficked. Partly, it was drugs. And partly, she wanted attention and love.
“In a way I felt really beautiful that all these guys are paying to, you know, get services from me,” she said. “Or the pimps, I thought at the time they loved me.”
Getting into the sex trade
In spite of what Larson told Snyder when he first found her and what many others have told investigators, one big key in the new thinking about teen trafficking is the notion that involvement isn’t voluntary.
For many, it starts with running away from home, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In 2015, the center determined one in five of the runaways reported to it was likely a victim of sex trafficking. And every time someone runs, it gets more dangerous, said Melissa Snow, the Center’s child sex trafficking program specialist.
“The first couple times you run, you can stay with friends, you can stay with cousins, you can stay with people who are within your safe sphere,” Snow said. “Then when you get to your third run or you get to your third week, parents start asking questions, maybe you have a fight with the friend you were staying with. You are pushed into reaching out to people that you don’t know as well in order to get some of your basic needs met.”
But not every victim starts as a runaway.
Darren Edmondson met young women who lived in a group home next door and drew them into his enterprise with affection and the lure of fast cash.
Edmondson is serving a seven-year sentence in an Illinois prison for burglary and promoting prostitution of a 19-year-old.
He says he didn’t force women to sleep with men for money.
“I didn’t have to,” he said. “And you know what? I might have played a worse role than one of those guys that use violence because mental manipulation is something that can scar a person forever.”
Some pimps use rape to break a victim’s spirit. When she was 15, Joy Friedman was dating a neighborhood pimp. One night he held her hostage while he and a friend took turns raping her. She spent the next 22 years being sold by a string of men she thought of as boyfriends who used manipulation and violence to keep her in line.
A streetwalker, homeless and an addict, Friedman at 37 heard about Breaking Free, an organization trying to help women out of prostitution. It was there she met Vednita Carter, a pioneer in a survivor-led movement in the 1980s and 1990s to end prostitution.
Carter convinced her, Friedman said, that “it wasn’t my fault, I didn’t cause it and I was worth saving.”
Carter had gotten out of prostitution herself in 1973 because she had confided in a teacher. There was no other help available.
“I mean even the first battered women’s shelter, that didn’t even come around until the mid-’70s,” Carter said. “So there was literally nothing. I mean women were just dying in that life.”
Two decades later, in an old house a block from the strip club where she once danced, Carter ran group meetings, talking in raw terms. She asked the women what they liked about being in prostitution.
They told her they liked the nice cars, the money, getting dressed up and going to fancy hotels.
“But you haven’t told me anything about prostitution,” Carter challenged. “Prostitution is about an act of sex. And see that’s what people forget about. They try to think about everything surrounding that. But really it is about sex.
“I said, ‘I want you to tell me about how you felt when he told you to get down on your knees and open your mouth.’ It started getting quiet then. ‘What did you feel when he said, “lay down,” he went behind. Took it from behind.’ Then I start seeing tears come down. I said, ‘That’s what prostitution is about.'”
Carter wanted to go beyond helping prostitutes get out. She wanted police to stop arresting women she saw as victims, not criminals.
A timeline of changes in the fight against sex trafficking
Starting with foreigners
In 2000, Congress passed a law recognizing that many people in the sex trade are not willing participants. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act created new penalties for anyone who uses coercion, force or deception to make someone perform a commercial sex act. But the main idea was to combat international labor and sex trafficking.
“And more and more people, even at that early stage, started to say, ‘Well, this is also happening in our local communities,'” said Amy Farrell, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston. “In addition to people being transported across borders, there are people that are in very similar ways being moved and coerced in the United States.”
Starting in 2003, states began passing their own anti-human trafficking laws. But they were rarely used. Police continued to arrest prostitutes, including minors.
Javille Sutton was 14 when she got into a car in 1999 with a man twice her age. He took her all over the country for six years.
“I was arrested 40-some times, different states,” she said. “Never once did they ask me how old I was. Never once did they ask me, ‘Why are you giving us all these different names? Who are you for real?’ Never once did anyone ask any questions.”
Sutton is now 31 and works as a youth counselor and advocate at the Heartland Girls Ranch in Benson, Minnesota, working with girls 12 to 17 who have been trafficked.
In the mid-2000s, a group of teenagers in New York fought back against the arrests, taking their case to the state capitol in Albany.
“We were the shortest, most motley-est crew of advocates to ever descend on Albany — that bastion of integrity,” Rachel Lloyd, founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, a program in New York City to help girls who had been victims of commercial sexual exploitation, said in a speech last year in Prior Lake, Minnesota.
“It was girls and young women of color,” Lloyd said. “It was girls who’d been in the child welfare system, girls who’d been in the juvenile justice system, girls who’d been in the criminal justice system because they were being prosecuted as adults and being sent to Rikers Island. It was girls who’d been beaten by law enforcement. It was girls who’d been raped repeatedly by johns over and over again. It was girls who’d grown up in poverty and had been seen as nothing, and no one, and worthless. And this little ragtag group of phenomenal kick-ass young women changed the law.”
In 2008, New York became the first state to recognize prostituted youth as victims, not delinquents. The new law, called “Safe Harbor,” meant that young people would be offered shelter and help, not punishment.
That movement has spread, inviting, in turn, another question: If law enforcement can’t lock teens up, what do they do with them?
Providing a place to go
At a horse farm in western Minnesota, CeCe Terlouw is trying to answer the question.
Terlouw has worked with troubled girls at the Heartland Girls Ranch since the early 1990s, but recently added a program for girls who have been trafficked.
It’s one of several new shelters Minnesota is funding with Safe Harbor dollars. The goal is to give kids who have been exploited a place to go if it’s not safe for them to return home.
In Minnesota, if minors shows signs of being trafficked, they are connected with a regional navigator who tries to figure out what they need, whether it’s a safe place to sleep, drug treatment or mental health care. The state partnered with nonprofits and put up $8.5 million for resources like the beds at Heartland Ranch.
At the ranch, girls receive therapy, reconnect with school, and learn job skills through the Ranch’s online business. Each girl also is assigned her own horse. On a recent day, a 17-year-old who had been at the ranch for three months was doing well enough to move into the ranch’s transitional house in the nearby town of Benson.
Before coming to the ranch, the girl ran from her foster parents and bought a bus ticket to California. She was into drugs and an older boyfriend, not realizing he was exploiting her.
“I’ve been very male dependent and I learned that it’s OK to not be,” she said. “I’m going to hold off on a male relationship for a while just because I feel like it’s best for me.”
In the meantime, working with a horse named Shine was helping her gain insights about herself and how she relates to others.
“He won’t go straight,” she told horse program director Bridget Kinnell.
“So what about you?” Kinnell asked.
“I’m probably a little tight.”
“So you’re unbalancing him and what are your eyes telling him right now?”
“To go to the floor.”
“Yeah, so chin up,” Kinnell directed. “Look somewhere, send some energy out, confidence in yourself, believe that you can do it and then he will respond to that.”
In the first year of Minnesota’s Safe Harbor law, there were more than 350 requests made on behalf of young people for help.
Lauren Ryan, Safe Harbor Director for the Minnesota Department of Health, believes those numbers will increase as professionals get better at identifying likely victims and word spreads among young people that help is available.
Ryan, whose background is in domestic violence prevention, sees work on sex trafficking as a similar problem to tackle.
“If a 16-year-old was beat up by her boyfriend would it cross your mind to put that youth in detention?” she asked. “For various reasons, this population is just looked at as different.”
Right now, Safe Harbor help dries up when a victim turns 18.
“I love Safe Harbor, but we got to end it for everybody,” said Carter, whose organization, Breaking Free, works with 500 women a year.
“The majority of ladies we work with started as little kids,” Carter said. “And they all turned 18. But they started when they were 12, 15, 17. These are all kids, you know. And so something magically is supposed to happen to them at 18.”
Supporters are pushing to extend Safe Harbor shelter and services to young adults in Minnesota up through age 24.
By this spring, 14 states and the District of Columbia had stopped prosecuting all juveniles caught in prostitution, two had done the same for kids 15 and under, and several others had adopted some provisions to protect kids from serving time for being exploited.
More are expected to follow. Still, in 2014, 607 minors were arrested for prostitution in the United States.
Keeping kids out of the sex trade
A Safe Harbor response like Minnesota’s can help victims recover their lives, but advocates say what would be even better is to make sure they don’t fall into the hands of traffickers in the first place.
In Boston, the National Institute of Justice is paying for a study of the effectiveness of a program called My Life My Choice.
The program conducts 10 group sessions for girls at high-risk of being trafficked. The classes are always led by a survivor and a trained clinician. They teach girls survival skills — things like how to spot grooming behavior a pimp might use to recruit a new victim.
Audrey Morrissey, the associate director of My Life My Choice, started on the streets when she was 16. Now 53, she guides teens through conversations, warning them not to reveal too much to someone who seems to have too sympathetic an ear for their problems.
Lisa Goldblatt Grace, the co-founder of the program, said it’s not on the shoulders of girls to prevent their own exploitation, but some knowledge can help.
“There’s a multi-billion dollar sex industry that goes looking for the most vulnerable kids in our communities, and we’re trying to provide the kind of resources that they may need to make it less of an unfair fight.”
The other side of the equation: Demand for commercial sex
In New Ulm, Minnesota, a conservative small town better known for its Schell’s Brewery and Oktoberfest, officers holed up in a hotel room on a recent evening, running what they call a “John sting.”
Nicollet County Criminal Investigator Marc Chadderdon pulled up the most popular website for escort ads, Backpage.com, on his laptop. An ad showed a young woman’s face and cleavage, and the headline “Sweet brunette and ready to play!!!”
“That is our ad, which is basically asking guys if they’re ready for an amazing time,” Chadderdon said.
The ad was a fake, placed by the cops. Minutes after it went online, the phone started ringing with guys hoping to visit that sweet brunette.
Commercial sex buying has largely migrated from the streets to the internet. But online ads are sometimes described as the Achilles heel of the sex industry. They allow law enforcement a way to see what’s going on and to try to disrupt it.
This hotel room scene, where cops work through the evening to arrest commercial sex buyers, has been a rare one in the past. But as police, prosecutors and advocates shift attitudes to help young victims in the sex trade, they also are turning more attention to shutting down the demand for commercial sex.
On a night like this, that demand seemed to be unending. In the city of just over 13,000, the fake ad generated more than 100 responses from men across the region.
An undercover police officer calling herself Amy was taking the calls.
“Are you in a house or apartment?” one caller asked.
“I’m at a hotel here,” the officer said.
“Oh, OK, cool. Your photos look nice. Can you tell me about yourself? … What’s your bra size?”
“It’s a 32C.”
“Nice. OK. Um, what’s your donation?” the caller asked. “Donation” is what people in the sex trade often say instead of price. It’s supposed to make it sound like there isn’t an illegal exchange of money for sex, but it doesn’t prevent prosecution.
“It would be $100 for a half and $175 for an hour unless there’s something else you’re looking for,” she told him. “That would just be straight sex of course.”
“Yeah, sure. Um, yeah, well, I’m kind of interested in the half hour,” the caller said.
Once the man has agreed to a sex act for a price, officers have what they need to arrest him when he shows up at the hotel.
As calls came in, a New Ulm police investigator checked the phone numbers. One caller was a doctor; another was president of a men’s service organization.
Police used whiteboards to track the calls, assigning a number for each caller and keeping tabs as phone negotiations proceeded.
“Forty-four has agreed to $175,” one officer announced.
The first caller to arrive at the hotel was in his early 40s with a slight mustache and a ballcap. He knocked on the hotel room door, and cops emerged from the room next door with handcuffs. He’d been caught previously in a prostitution sting north of the Twin Cities more than 100 miles away.
He said later he was shocked when the cops cuffed him.
“I mean, I know I need help,” he said. “Either it’s alcohol or this, you know, or drugs or something, but you know I’m not gonna do any of that stuff.”
He said he had bought sex about 10 times before.
Asked by a reporter about his thoughts regarding women in the sex industry, he said, “It’s their choice, you know. I mean I didn’t force them to do that, you know. That’s their choice.”
The sting was also designed to arrest men seeking to purchase sex with juveniles. At one point, “Amy,” the undercover officer, told a caller she had a 17-year-old girl who was also available.
“So how much would — it would be the same price for both of you?” the caller asked.
“It’d be $240 for an hour for the both of us.”
“I only have $100,” the caller responded.
“Would you rather do something with her instead and I would just watch and make sure everything’s OK?” Amy offered.
“How about both of you? As far as like, could we make less time with both of you?”
After some haggling, the man agreed to buy oral sex from someone he thought was 17.
That’s a felony. When he showed up in the parking lot, officers in bullet-proof vests handcuffed him and brought him into the room. He was 22, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and clearly scared.
He had one question. “Am I going to jail?”
“You know what?” Chadderdon said. “There’s a very good chance you’re going to go to jail.”
Minutes later, another man, 55, showed up. He wasn’t interested in a juvenile so the charge would be a gross misdemeanor.
“Three failed marriages and, yeah,” he said. “So I guess we won’t be trying this again.”
The men look hangdog. Chadderdon said that’s a typical reaction.
“The wind’s out of them and they know what they’re doing is wrong,” he said. “So they say, ‘Hey, can I go home? Am I going to have to stay?’ Everybody has a sad story.”
Stings to catch johns are expensive for police and they can be dangerous. But at least the targets are easy to catch.
Traffickers are tougher.
They tend to be more wary and more strategic in avoiding police operations, said Detective Tim Hoppock of the Austin Police Department.
Parked in a motel parking lot on the north end of town on a warm February afternoon, Hoppock explained how pimps use the terrain to their advantage. He pointed out two people hanging out on an outdoor walkway.
“See those two people are sitting on the third level?” he said. “They’ve got a great view of who all comes in.”
In this particular location, two motels sit next to one another — a perfect setup for pimps to stay in one building, out of sight, while their girls work from another.
It also can be an uphill battle to get a trafficking case through a courtroom, Hoppock said. Victims might not testify, the evidence can be complex and, because trafficking laws are relatively new, it’s often easier for juries to understand drug charges or sexual assault charges, he said.
In 2013, Farrell, the Northeastern University criminologist, published a study that found prosecutors often charged traffickers with other, lesser crimes, for example, promotion of prostitution, which has a lower burden of proof.
“Prosecutors are more leery of trying an individual they believe is guilty of a crime with a crime they’re less certain will result in a conviction,” said Farrell. In 2016, she published a follow-up that found states’ use of trafficking laws is growing, but it’s uneven. California accounted for nearly 40 percent of trafficking prosecutions.
Another idea: Get men to not seek commercial sex
In King County in Washington State, police and prosecutors are tired of simply arresting sex buyers. They want to make it unacceptable for men to buy sex in the first place.
The shift in thinking began with Valiant Richey, a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County. Back in 2011, he was confronted by advocates and trafficking survivors who wanted to know why he was prosecuting so many women and children. He had a look at the statistics in his county, and realized they were right.
“It was dismaying,” he said. “Because I had prosecuted many pimping cases. I knew what these girls and women had been through … yet here in front of me was a chart telling me that our community was arresting and prosecuting them far more often than the men who were buying them.”
Meanwhile that year, more than 130 websites were selling sex locally and nearly 7,000 men responded to Backpage ads in a 24-hour period. In 2011, only 39 buyers were charged the whole year.
“We cannot arrest our way out (of the problem),” Richey said. “Unfortunately there is an opinion that the root cause of trafficking is vulnerability, that there are vulnerable people out there and therefore they get trafficked. That’s totally incorrect.
“Vulnerability is what traffickers take advantage of to respond to the root cause, which is demand. If there was no demand there would be no business and traffickers would not exploit people.”
King County began attacking the problem differently.
An employers’ alliance encouraged companies to talk about the issue with their employees. A thousand high school students learned about healthy relationships as part of a trafficking prevention program. Hundreds of students in fraternities and sororities participated in discussions on three college and university campuses.
In 2014 the numbers flipped — for the first time, more buyers than sellers were charged.
Richey said when they switched from street busts to internet stings, they also saw a different type of man getting arrested and charged: more white, middle- to upper-class men.
But the county wanted to do more to deter men from buying sex in the first place and to prevent repeat offenses. So they created a 10-week sex buyer intervention program.
Peter Qualliotine, director of men’s accountability for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle, designed the program, a set of classes for men. Most people in the class have been arrested but about 20 percent enrolled voluntarily. Some found an ad for the class while searching online for sex.
Twenty years before, Qualliotine started one of the first “John schools” in the country in Portland, Oregon. But over time, his thinking changed. He saw that barraging men with stories about the harms of prostitution wasn’t getting to the heart of what makes men pursue commercial sex.
“They tend to have this little tape that runs over and over in their head that’s saying, ‘This shouldn’t be a problem, it should be legalized and regulated, it’s uptight people imposing their ideas about sex on me,'” he said. “They’re not really open to kind of taking a look at how sex buying has functioned in their lives.”
In Qualliotine’s current model, he has a one-on-one conversation with each man before they ever enter a group setting, trying to build a relationship. Through a nonjudgmental approach, he hopes to help them examine their motivations — and what they’re really getting out of buying sex.
“You talk to the men and they talk about almost immediately after the experience, having a great deal of regret,” he said. “So that’s where we start with them.”
Activists are also trying to deter men from becoming new customers. They’re using social media to reach young men at the age where they might first be making a decision about buying sex.
Robert Beiser, executive director of the non-profit organization Seattle Against Slavery, got help from allies in the tech sector to create internet memes that poked fun at the idea that buying sex is cool.
Beiser said it could be the difference “between a guy saying, ‘It’s OK if we hire someone in prostitution for a bachelor party or for a 21st birthday,’ and someone saying, ‘Why would we do that? Someone might be trafficked, they might be a victim of violence. That’s not the way I want to celebrate my birthday or celebrate getting married to someone else.'”
One person who’s changed his behavior as a result of King County’s efforts is a 62-year-old retiree named Bob, who agreed to talk about his case on the condition his last name not be used. He was arrested in March 2014 in a McDonald’s parking lot not far from Seattle’s Safeco Field, where he thought he was meeting a 16-year-old girl for sex.
“Sitting there, handcuffed to a chair, knowing my life was about to drastically change, was just very difficult,” Bob said. “I’d been pretty delusional in my thinking that I would never get caught doing something like this.”
He said his pattern was to solicit sex but then feel dirty and depressed about it, promising himself he wouldn’t do it again.
Bob was a retired mortgage banker, married, with three adult children, His arrest was like a bomb going off in his life. He avoided jail time, but got 90 days home detention and two years of community supervision, paid $15,000 and has to register as a low-level sex offender for the next 10 years. Still, he seems grateful. He credits the class with changing his mindset, and he got so much out of it that he voluntarily re-enrolled.
Two years after his arrest, he’s still working to restore his relationships. It was wrenching to tell his adult children what he had done.
“When I got to the part of what I got arrested for, my youngest daughter got up, went into the bathroom and threw up.”
Bob’s still hopeful he’ll reconcile with his wife. He says by facing what he’s done, he’s getting to a place where he can believe he’s not a horrible person. He just did a bad thing.