While Minnesota is seen as a leader in the fight against child sex trafficking, many of the resources and much of the discussion have been devoted to protecting young girls.
But young girls aren't the only ones being exploited. Boys are vulnerable, too, although there are few services designed for them.
This fall, the Twin Cities organization the Link opened the Passageways Shelter and Housing Program in Prior Lake, becoming the first place in the state and one of only a few in the country to provide shelter not only for girls but also for boys and transgender youth who have been sexually exploited.
"Unfortunately, the majority of [local] services, until our program opened, have actually been very focused on girls and women being the victims and men being perpetrators and johns," said Beth Holger-Ambrose, the executive director of the Link.
"And so there is this definite dynamic where if you are the male gender then you must be a perpetrator. You couldn't be a victim. Unfortunately, it just makes all the male victims invisible and makes them kind of go under the radar more."
According to a recent state Department of Public Safety report, surveyed service providers reported assisting 35 boys and 119 girls who had been victims of sex trafficking.
While investigators will visit online advertisement sites such as Backpage.com and spot hundreds of ads for women and girls, boys aren't as easy to find, even though "we know it exists," said Sgt. Ray Gainey, head of the St. Paul police department's Gerald D. Vick Human Trafficking Task force.
Research has shown that boys can be victimized as often as girls but are less likely to seek help and services, Holger-Ambrose said. One reason: the false notion that boys aren't victims and shouldn't see themselves that way, she said.
"I think you sometimes create images of how victims should look like … a victim can be anybody," said Pheng Thao, a Passageways mental health therapist.
Boys also may be discouraged from seeking help because people may think that they are gay if they were sexually exploited by men. A child's sexual orientation, however, shouldn't be assumed based on who exploits them, Holger-Ambrose said.
Since August, three boys — roughly 12 to 13 percent of all service seekers — have tried to access services through the Link, Holger-Ambrose said. Since Passageways opened Sept. 15, one boy was housed at the shelter.
Similar to the way girls are used in sex trafficking, most of the boys that were referred to the organization were groomed by someone who showered them with attention — both online and in person — before exploiting them, Holger-Ambrose said. Traffickers can be patient and manipulative, she said.
Passageways has six emergency shelter beds for teenagers between the ages of 13 to 17, who can stay for up to 90 days. In addition, it has five one-bedroom apartments available to victims ages 16 to 23, who can stay as long as they need, Holger-Ambrose said.
Each teenager in the shelter has his or her own bedroom. The rooms are on the same floor and not separated, a design that Holger-Ambrose acknowledged has led to concern by some who fear that boys could take advantage of girls.
But Quisha Stewart, Safe Harbor program manager at the Link, said Passageways has two staff members working every shift to supervise the youth.
Mental health support
While Passageways aims to provide shelter and protection, Holger-Ambrose contends that it is not just a physical building but a testament to a social justice change with a focus on inclusivity. The mixed-gender approach can be helpful for those participating in the program because it allows for healthy interactions between all genders, Thao said.
"We segregate the genders a lot," he said.
Besides offering shelter, the housing program also provides mental health support, case management and a survivor-mentor program.
Passageways is working with the Prior Lake school district to apply to the state Department of Education for a licensed teacher to provide on-site schooling for the teens. It is partly funded with Safe Harbor funds that were earmarked to help four agencies around the state provide shelter and services for sexually exploited youth.
Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women's Foundation of Minnesota, which also provided grant money for Passageways, said service providers across the country will be able to learn from the program.
"Any child regardless of gender is going to have a safety net through them," she said.
Lauren Ryan, statewide Safe Harbor/No Wrong Door director, agreed.
"They are kind of being a pioneer," she said.
Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495