Duluth, MN (Northland's NewsCenter) - It's a dirty little secret in the land of Minnesota Nice; the number of adolescent girls sold for sex on the internet increased a whopping 166% in 2010.
The Women's Foundation of Minnesota also reports some of those girls caught up in sex trafficking are sold up to six times a day.
With just a few clicks of a computer mouse Sergeant Jeremy Graves and I found women offering themselves as "escorts," here in Duluth.
Dozens more were available in the Twin Cities .
According to Candy Harshner the Executive Director of the Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault, these young girls are being moved around.
“There's a lot that goes on especially between the twin cities and Duluth. The corridor of 1–35 is going to be a huge factor,” she said.
While the photos found on sites like Backpage.com are those of adult women Sergeant Graves with the Duluth Police Department says the actual person being trafficked is often an underage girl.
“And as a John it's safer to go with a girl that's on the internet, or appears to be safer than a girl that is standing on a street corner,” he told us.
For one sex traffic survivor, whom we'll call Payton, the experience was anything but safe!
“I have been raped multiple times by client and there have been situations where I have been held in a house and not able to leave,” she explained.
A hand full of women still sell sex on First Street in Duluth. Police know who they are and work to stop them and their Johns.
Downtown Duluth is where you'll also find vulnerable and homeless girls looking for a free meal or a place to sleep. Pimps and recruiters know this and take advantage of it.
“When its 30 below and you haven't eaten in two days and this nice guy says I got a place...it's not that bad, what are you going to do?” said Kim Crawford the Executive Director of Life House Duluth.
The Women’s Foundation of Minnesota has mounted a five year campaign called “Minnesota Girls Are Not for Sale,” to fight the trafficking of young women and girls.
According to the foundation the average Pimp controls three girls and makes 24 thousand dollars a month.
Income depends on convincing girls they alone can protect them. Payton told us those are false promises.
“The pimp is supposed to be your protector...but he is really not going to come in if somebody is doing something...because he could go to jail,” she said.
With the anonymity of the internet it has become more difficult to arrest pimps and Johns.
It's even harder to build a case for prosecution without "witnesses" willing to testify about the transactions being made. “If you are going to get beaten down or anything like that you are not going to turn a person in.” explained Sergeant Graves.
According to Candy Harshner ending sex trafficking is made more difficult because in many cases, the girls don't see themselves as victims.
“As long as they are being compliant and as long as they are doing what their pimp wants there's really not a lot of fear because they are doing what they need to do to survive.” She said.
Duluth Police no longer arrest girls being trafficked; instead they refer them to the Program to Aid Victims of Sexual Assault and Life House Duluth.
“One of our primary focuses is safe and affordable housing. Working with PAVSA there is a horrible reality. there is no safe place for these kids to go,” Kim Crawford told us.
Armed with a grant from the Women's Foundation PAVSA and Life House are developing a community plan to help girls break free of their pimps.
The hope is once those girls "are" safe...they'll help police put their abusers behind bars.
To end the commercial exploitation of children the Women's Foundation of MN is working to develop a statewide intervention model.