When a 12-year-old Rochester girl received a text about a party, she thought it was from a friend. The message told her to meet at the local McDonald's.
Lee A. Paul, 34, enticed her into his vehicle and drove her to the Twin Cities, where he raped her and took sexually explicit photos of her that he advertised on Craigslist, according to charges filed in federal court. He then sold her to two Craigslist customers who also raped her, according to an indictment charging him in the alleged May 2013 incidents.
After two days, law enforcement caught Paul and the 12-year-old at a house in Alexandria, where he was arrested. Before Minnesota's 2011 Safe Harbor legislation, the child could have also faced legal consequences.
"Twelve-year-olds are not criminals," U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said. Appearing at a public forum Monday in St. Paul alongside Cindy McCain, Arizona Sen. John McCain's wife, and other human rights advocates, the senator called for "more aggressive action against sex trafficking."
Since North Dakota's oil boom in 2000, sex trafficking has been on the rise next door in Minnesota with high-profile cases of local youth transported the 500 miles between the Twin Cities and the Bakken oil fields. Minnesota had more than 2,700 trafficking-related convictions from 2007 to 2013, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, with a recent spike. A report from the U.S. Department of Justice estimated 14,500 to 17,500 people are trafficked nationwide each year.
Klobuchar has been at the forefront of national efforts to thwart trafficking crimes and increase legal support for victims. In April, a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Klobuchar , a Democrat, and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, unanimously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee. President Barack Obama signed it into law in May.
The legislation, modeled after Minnesota's Safe Harbor provision, treats minors sold for sex as victims instead of criminals. Fifteen states have safe-harbor measures that grant criminal immunity and services to young victims of sexual exploitation; another nine have laws that partially accomplish these aims, according to a 2014 report by the Washington, D.C.-Polaris Project advocacy group. The new law provides more funding to victim shelters, extends legal and health protections to exploited individuals and creates a national sex trafficking strategy run by the Department of Justice. Recently appointed U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch also pledged to prioritize sex trafficking cases during her tenure.
"This changes the landscape of how we address sex trafficking," said Malika Saada Saar, executive director of the Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), a D.C.-based human rights group focused on gender-based violence. "For the first time we're talking about going after the buyers."
As Hennepin County prosecutor, Klobuchar said she didn't work on sex trafficking cases, but remembers how young victims were labeled criminals.
"There's so little grace for our kids when every year almost 1,000 children are arrested for prostitution, even though many of them aren't of age to consent for sex," Saada Saar said.
According to Saada Saar, there's a false perception that trafficked victims are guilty and should be prosecuted. In fact, until Minnesota's Safe Harbor legislation was enacted in 2011, the number of convictions for victims outnumbered those for their traffickers, according to state records.
"Right now we've created a false distinction between raping a child and paying to rape a child," Saada Saar said. "There is no difference between those two acts."
Even with increased legal support, trafficking victims face physical and mental challenges that affect their testimonies.
Saada Saar recalled a case in Los Angeles where a girl was forced into a holding cell the night before testimony against her trafficker. The girl, who has a peanut allergy, was so scared to face the man who raped and trafficked her that she attempted suicide by eating as many peanuts as she could.
"We have to address this as a crisis," Saada Saar said.