Juvenile Sex Trafficking- the Washington County Response

By: Peter Orput, Washington County Attorney, YSB Supporter and Guest Author

The selling of girls and boys for sex has been around for millennia.  This egregious scourge, however, has become far more common in the past several years to the point where it seems to be occurring frequently and everywhere.  The statistics are indeed frightening: 1 in 3 runaway children are lured into sex trafficking within 48 hours of running away. The average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old.  Estimates put 1.2 million children being trafficked each year.  

What has driven this demand?  

Experts believe it is due to the digital age where people can sit at their laptop, desk or cell phone and answer one of the ubiquitous ads marketing females and males for sale on the internet. Folks who respond to those ads seem to believe that they can engage in prostitution anonymously and with little chance of being caught.

Those children who are being exploited for sex are frequently controlled by a pimp who generally posts digital ads on websites, schedules the customers and locations for sex and always handles the money and maintains control over them.  Each child that has been found in this virtual slavery is unique but we can also make generalizations about them that may be helpful in observing warning signs of kids being trafficked. 

Some of those signs and vulnerabilities are:

  • History of Sexual Abuse
  • Runaway
  • Signs of current physical abuse and/or STDs
  • Unstable home life and/or involvement in welfare or foster care
  • Inexplicable appearance of gifts, clothing, etc.
  • Presence of an older boyfriend or girlfriend
  • Substance abuse
  • Withdrawal or lack of interest in previous activities
  • Gang involvement

The Washington County Attorney’s office has been aggressively responding to sex trafficking as we realized long ago that trafficking is not confined to large urban areas but exists in our own communities.  Our response has been to create a special human trafficking task force.  This entails a full time prosecutor and three computer analysts who scour the internet sites where traffickers advertise looking for girls and boys ad placements. 

Once a suspicious ad is reviewed, analysts use techniques to identify the location and possible identification of the person in the ad.  Often a painstaking search leads to a child victim and the county attorney’s response team then reaches out to that victim with a victim advocate, social worker, police officer and others comprising the intervention team. 

In the past 2+ years, our office, along with our law enforcement partners, has intervened with over 60 victims of sex trafficking. 

Our work has also resulted in 23 prosecutions of pimp traffickers.  We have also added to our trafficking unit a sheriff’s detective as well as full time detectives from Woodbury, Oakdale and the Department of Homeland Security.  This proactive law enforcement team not only combs local internet ads selling kids but they also create their own ads that lure in sexual predators.  Those ads-referred to as guardian angel stings, have resulted in several dozen arrests of potential “customers”.

Trafficking happens in hotels, private homes, apartments, in cars, at truck stops and at parties.  To combat this, the Washington County Attorney’s office along with the county’s public health and environment department held training for hotel staff from the 33 hotels in Washington County, training front line hotel staff in what signs to look for and whom to call when suspicious trafficking behavior occurs at a hotel.  We have also trained many teachers, school counselors, therapists and others in detecting and responding to juveniles being trafficked.

Yet, despite those efforts, the demand for juvenile prostitution continues.  To date, our analysts have reviewed over 180,000 advertisements for sex in the east metro area alone.  But they don’t stop there- our analysts, cops and prosecutors have trained thousands of law enforcement, teachers, citizens groups and others to raise awareness and begin addressing these issues in our communities.  

Hope, faith, patience and a passion for protecting our kids will go far in combating this 21st century slavery and together we can make a difference.

If you have concerns regarding your child, including unsafe Social Media use, such as: chatting with and/or meeting strangers in person, sending inappropriate images, sexting or other concerns – YSB services are available to support you and your family!

*Responsible Social Media Use* program is now available, and helps youth learn to make safe choices online.

Youth & Family Therapists are available to meet in safe, confidential settings to help address mental health and behavioral concerns, along with many of the vulnerability factors listed above.

Contact one of our offices to find out more!