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Washington Co. officials team up to fight sex trafficking, help victims

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Washington County officials have formed a coalition to fight sex trafficking following an uptick in cases in recent months.

County Attorney Pete Orput announced Wednesday that law enforcement agencies and social service organizations in the county are teaming up to better assist victims and combat sex trafficking.

In 2009, the FBI identified the Twin Cities as one of 13 cities in the U.S. with a high incidence of child prostitution. But because of social media and the Internet, sex trafficking isn't just a problem in major cities – it has spread to Washington County and other suburbs.

"We have seen a number of significant sex trafficking cases in Washington County over the past several months and we know these activities will not stop absent combined, focused attention by law enforcement, social services and prosecutors," Washington County Sheriff William Hutton said in the release.

Back in September, undercover stings in the metro led to 21 men being charged – 13 of them were in Washington County, the Star Tribune says, noting more cases are pending.

The increase in cases is why the county is putting its focus on ending sex trafficking. The new initiative establishes a Major Crimes Prosecution Section, with its highest priority being sex trafficking, and creates the Washington County Human Trafficking Unit.

The county attorney says the coalition will review closed and pending cases involving at-risk youth, create a program to identify and track potential victims, and increase investigations and prosecutions to reduce incidents of sex trafficking. It will also train law enforcement, hotel staff and others to help them recognize sex trafficking activities and potential victims.

Washington County's efforts come on the heels of the first full year of the state's Safe Harbor Law, which aims to ensure that minors who are sold for sex aren't viewed as delinquents, but are treated as victims and given assistance through various services across the state.

Just this week, an evaluation of the first year of the law was released, which showed 163 minors – ranging in age from 9-17 years old – received services through the program. The evaluation also called for more funding and additional resources that would improve the program to help more victims.

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