Starting sometime this year, young victims of sex trafficking will have a safe harbor of their own in Duluth.

By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune

Starting sometime this year, young victims of sex trafficking will have a safe harbor of their own in Duluth.

"I want to be sure in this community … that they can reach people who care about them, and who will build a rapport and relationship with them,” Linda Riddle, program manager of the newly formed Safe Harbor Shelter Program, said in announcing the plans on Saturday.

Riddle spoke during a late-morning news conference led by Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., at the Life House drop-in center for homeless youth in downtown Duluth.

Klobuchar, the former Hennepin County attorney, has made a crusade of battling sex traffickers. She authored legislation aimed at helping those exploited by trafficking and, with Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced another bill that would treat those who purchase sex acts as traffickers. On Friday, she and Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., met with National Football League officials to call attention to the increase in sex trafficking that often occurs around the city where the Super Bowl is played.

The problem is real, Klobuchar said.

“Statistics on sex trafficking are incredible,” she said. “More than 27 million people around the world are victims of some kind of trafficking every single year, and the average age of a child when she first becomes a victim is 13 years old.”

The victims aren’t just in foreign nations or big cities, said Klobuchar, citing recent cases in St. Louis County and elsewhere in Minnesota.

Local figures who attended the news conference — including St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin, Duluth Mayor Don Ness and Duluth Police Chief Gordon Ramsay — highlighted efforts here to combat trafficking.

Klobuchar’s Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act is modeled, in part, after the Minnesota Safe Harbor law that went into effect this year. It requires that minors sold for sex be treated as victims, not as criminals.

Police and prosecutors in St. Louis County get that, Rubin said.

“We’re going to do a better job for the victims,” he said. “These are children who need protection; (they are) not juvenile delinquents.”

An example of that approach is the shelter program that was announced on Saturday. Financed with a two-year, $200,000 state grant via the Safe Harbor law, it will provide two beds for trafficked minors in a separate room at the Safe Haven Shelter for Battered Women, said Maude Dornfeld, Life House executive director.

Directed by Riddle, who began her work on Monday, the program is a joint project of Life House, Safe Haven and the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, Dornfeld said. Safe Haven is a good place to begin the program because it’s in a secure location and the victims it already helps have similar issues to trafficking victims, she said.

Logistical details have to be worked out, so the beds likely won’t be available until late spring or early summer, Dornfeld said.

Dornfeld is calling this Phase One of the program, with the vision of eventually having a separate facility devoted to trafficking victims. But that would require community support similar to the effort that built the Amberwing mental health treatment center, Dornfeld said.

The desire to take action seemed clear on Saturday. Ed Heisler, director of Men as Peacemakers —which will announce its own Men Against Sex Trafficking program on Tuesday — said he was proud to be among a group of community leaders seeking the best approach to combat sex trafficking, particularly of children.


The community is sending a message that sex trafficking is unacceptable, Riddle agreed.


“This is not OK in Duluth,” Riddle said. “You don’t sell people in Duluth or St. Louis County, and you don’t buy people here. You know what? You don’t do it anywhere else, either.”