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St. Paul Police Officer Chris Stark, who works in the missing persons division, makes a call to a runaway's school to check whether or not the student is there Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 in St. Paul.

Runaway girls focus of fight to curb sex trafficking

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She was sobbing when she dialed 911 from a downtown St. Paul hotel.

"Hi, this is Barb. I'm a runaway from Des Moines, Iowa, and I'm in big trouble," she told the dispatcher. "I'm afraid I'm about to get killed!"

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Between frantic breaths, the young woman, who had just turned 18, reported that she was being held captive in Room 851 of the Hilton Garden Inn. She feared her captors would return to the room any minute.

The chilling audio recording only hints at the nightmare she was experiencing. Ramsey County authorities later learned that the teen runaway was forced to have sex with about 30 men over the course of a week at the hotel, according to a criminal complaint filed last January.

Fearing the worst, Barb had even scribbled the names of her two captors in a notebook.

For police and prosecutors in St. Paul, the case underscored a troubling link between teens who run away from home and the child-sex trade.

Research shows that Minnesota girls who run from their homes are not only more vulnerable to being sold for sex, but also face a higher risk of being raped or sexually abused in other ways.

In Ramsey County, police, prosecutors, advocates, and nurses are focusing on runaways as they take on the broader fight against juvenile prostitution.

Law enforcement and schools identify the most vulnerable runaways. Then the nurses step in to help the girls rebuild their lives.

Advocates hope to implement parts of Ramsey County's Runaway Intervention Program statewide as Minnesota tries to curb the buying and selling of young girls.

EVERY DAY A RACE FOR POLICE

A key player is the St. Paul Police Department, which deploys three officers whose job is to look for missing people. Most -- nearly 2,000 last year -- are children.

St. Paul officers Chris Stark and Benny Williams, longtime patrol partners, now scour city neighborhoods for missing girls and boys. The two men, both in their 50s and fathers, see themselves in a race to track down runaways before pimps and other criminals reach them.

Stark and Williams say many of the girls they encounter are running to escape rancorous households, alcoholic parents, or abuse by a family member.

The rush by police to find them, Williams said, can seem futile.

"They keep running and running, and you keep chasing. Sometimes we have started investigating runaway reports when these children are 12 years old, and it may go up until they're 17," he said. "Sometimes it just never stops."

The officers start their morning rounds by checking missing-person reports filed by parents and teen shelters from the night before. Then they hit the streets.

As Stark reaches the front stoop of a home on St. Paul's east side, a woman answers his knock. She tells the officers that her teenage daughter has since come home. When the girl appears, something on her neck catches Stark's attention.

"You're 15 years old," he said. "First thing I notice is you've got these tattoos. So who's giving you these tattoos?"

"When I ran away, I was with my friends," the girl replied. "They put me on drugs, so I don't remember getting these tattoos; I just woke up with them."

Though soft-spoken, the girl calmly recounts what sounds like a stint in hell. It began, she said, when she was staying at a boy's house in the neighborhood, where he and other gang members made her take codeine pills. She recalled getting high on what the teens called "lean" -- a mixture of Nyquil and Sprite, with the pills thrown in for good measure.

She stayed at the house on and off for about a month. After she told the gang members she wanted to leave, they doused her in gasoline, she said.

"I wasn't going to school because of the drugs. I just sit there all day, do the same thing over and over, go to sleep, wake up," she said.

At the end of December, she ran barefoot into the street and escaped. The gang never made her sell her body, but she told the officers she regularly had sex with an 18-year-old while at the house.

MPR News has agreed not to name the girl because she is a minor and could be a witness in a criminal investigation. At 15, she is one year too young to legally consent to sex under Minnesota law.

Moments later, the girl told Williams that she doesn't want to see the man she developed feelings for get in trouble, something Williams has often heard. Young girls routinely try to protect the men they believe have taken advantage of them sexually.

Later, the officers trade notes. As incredible as the story sounds, the two men say they've heard similar tales from other girls that turned out to be true.

The good news is that the 15-year-old will be part of the runaway program and will receive services that could help her recover.

HELPING RUNAWAYS HEAL

While it's the officers' job to catch the runaways, it's Laurel Edinburgh's job to help them heal. Edinburgh's office at the Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota in St. Paul looks like a regular doctor's office.

When the nurse practitioner helped create the beginnings of the Runaway Intervention Program 10 years ago, she largely treated Hmong girls as young as 12 who were slipping through traditional safety nets of school and law enforcement. Child-protection workers typically didn't become involved because the abuse was happening outside the home, she said.

"I thought, 'How could the most severely traumatized and abused children that I see be the ones where there were no services for them?' It just didn't make any sense to me," she said.

Edinburgh figured there was a better way to find the girls. That led her to help develop 10 questions for St. Paul police to screen runaways for physical and sexual abuse. A few officers, including Chris Stark, began to incorporate the questions into their interviews with the girls.

Stark said the first question -- Why did you leave home? -- can lead to others that aren't in the script: Are you sleeping on the floor at home? Is your mattress soiled? Are there any sheets on the bed? Any abuse going on in the house?

"If the child is experiencing that," he said, "you see it in their eyes: 'How did you know?' "

The Ramsey County Attorney's office pores over the runaway reports and searches for signs of abuse. The highest-risk girls are given the option to meet with nurses like Edinburgh for a health assessment.

Nearly a third of the girls in the program report having experienced the most extreme forms of sexual assault or exploitation, including gang rape, prostitution, and survival sex -- in other words, trading sex for food and a place to sleep. Most of the girls said they've tried to kill themselves and use drugs or alcohol.

GIRLS, STILL CHILDREN, EASILY DUPED

Edinburgh said the girls are often easily duped because they're so young and naive. She recalls one eighth-grade girl was lured into going to a hotel with a couple of strangers because they promised to take her to the Valleyfair amusement park the next day.

"They said the hotel had a swimming pool, so I even went home and got my bathing suit,' " Edinburgh recalled the girl saying.

"As an adult, as soon as I start hearing that, I'm like, 'People just don't invite you to a hotel.' But when you're 13, or 14, or 15 years old, that's not how your brain is thinking," Edinburgh said.

At the hotel, she said, the girl was raped by two men who "tried her out" for prostitution.

Girls in the program receive treatment for substance abuse, group counseling, and home visits by nurses. Over time, most of them report becoming more connected to their families and schools and show fewer signs of destructive behavior.

Edinburgh's research shows that after about a year of services, the girls report lower rates of suicide attempts and substance abuse than when they started the program.

Many youth advocates hope the federally recognized program could serve as a road map for the rest of Minnesota as the state prepares to build a system for treating child trafficking victims.

Two years ago, state lawmakers passed the so-called Safe Harbor Law, which requires authorities to handle prostituted boys and girls under 16 as kids in need of help -- not as criminals. The law was written with the Runaway Intervention Program in mind, but it won't be fully implemented until the Legislature funds a system to help sexually exploited children and teens.

Advocates plan to ask the Legislature to secure $13 million from state, federal and other sources to pay for support systems that must be in place by January 2014.

Child victims of prostitution will need not just services, but also housing, said Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of Women's Foundation of Minnesota. There are only four shelter beds in the Twin Cities metropolitan area dedicated to youth traumatized by trafficking, she said.

"The big news about this plan is we'd be the very first state in the nation to create comprehensive housing and healing services for kids who have been sex trafficked," Roper-Batker said. "The nation is watching what we're doing here in Minnesota."

SHORT SENTENCES FOR GIRL'S TRAFFICKERS

The 911 call from the 18-year-old who felt trapped in the St. Paul hotel shows how serious the problem is, police and prosecutors say.

According to the criminal complaint, the teen's captors told the girl they would beat her up if she tried to leave or call her parents.

Authorities say the girl has Asperger's syndrome, and has the developmental capacity of a 13-year-old. She ran away from her home in Iowa after meeting a man on a social media website. He paid for her bus ticket to St. Paul -- and then sold her for sex on Backpage.com.

"When people hear it, they're shocked," Ramsey County Attorney John Choi. "But the reality is this is happening on a day-to-day basis in our community."

Prosecutors charged the girl's traffickers, Bionca Mixon and Tyree Jones, with several prostitution-related charges. They pleaded guilty to promoting prostitution of a minor.

A judge ordered them to serve one year in jail. That was a disappointing outcome for Choi, whose office coordinates the Runaway Intervention Program. He said the connection between kids who run away and prostitution should alarm everyone.

"That whole spectrum of who runs away from home can be in the upper class or lower class," he said. "It really has no distinction. What we find is anyone who runs away from home is very susceptible to being exploited by very bad people out there."

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