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Washington County Announces Sex Trafficking Unit

STILLWATER, Minn. (WCCO) -- What used to be a crime centered mostly in bigger cities is now becoming more common in suburbs and other outlying areas.

A growing number of children and teenagers are being lured into prostitution and offered for sale online.

An FBI report named the Twin Cities one of 13 U.S. cities with a high incidence of child prostitution. A 2010 study found at least 213 girls are sold for sex each month in Minnesota.

On Wednesday, Washington County, which includes several communities in the east metro, announced a coordinated effort to tackle the issue.

The Internet has brought dramatic changes to the way sex trafficking is now carried out. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said online postings make it easier, more hidden and more widespread.

"Those traditional spots where we know prostitution had occurred: Lake Street, University Avenue in St. Paul and Minneapolis, it's now all done on the Internet," Orput said, "and it's done in our hotels and our neighborhoods."

Just last month in Washington County, police arrested a man they say had arranged to meet a teenage girl at a gas station for a rendezvous. But instead of arriving with cash, he had a tarp lining his trunk and a box of rubber gloves.

Woodbury Police Chief Lee Vague said the new Washington County Human Trafficking Initiative will target those exploiting young people while also offering the victims a way out.

"We really want to help these - these are kids, girls and boys whose lives are being torn apart," Vague said. "A lot of times they've been sexually abused themselves."

Jennifer Polzin, the CEO of Tubman, said many victims get involved with people they consider friends or mentors, claiming to offer them opportunities for modeling. But they ultimately become trapped in the sex trade.

"Ninety percent of the victims in Minnesota are born in Minnesota," Polzin said. "It's not a foreign mail-order bride kind of situation."

An assistant Washington County attorney, Imran Ali, will now devote all his time to these cases.

"It's a good day that we have this united partnership," said Ali, "and it's a bad day for those individuals that continue to traffic these women."

Through better coordination with community services and law enforcement, they hope to make a dent in a growing problem that few people want to talk about.

"Because none of us want to believe it occurs," said Orput, "we really don't. We don't want to think, my God, are my neighbor kids being exploited like that? But we need to have that conversation."

Minnesota's Safe Harbor Program ensures that young people involved with sex trafficking are treated as victims rather than criminals.

In its first year, the state says the program provided services to more than 160 young people.

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