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Heartland Girls’ Ranch plays key role in efforts to address human trafficking

CeCe Terlouw, foreground, and Bridget Kinnell, use horses as part of their work with young girls at the Heartland Girls Ranch in Benson. The ranch has provided residential counseling for young girls with behavioral and emotional issues for the last 20 years by using horses as a key part of therapy. Tribune photo by Carolyn Lange

BENSON - The first thing to know about human trafficking is that it doesn't just happen to other people in distant countries.

It happens here. In Minnesota.

Every day young Minnesota girls - typically 12 to 14 years of age - are marketed by pimps and sold for sex.

The customers are oftentimes professional, middle- and upper-class white men with families - even daughters - of their own, said CeCe Terlouw, executive director of Heartland Girls' Ranch, which is playing a crucial role in providing shelter for sex-trafficked girls and developing programs that correlate with the state's new "Safe Harbor" legislation.

"I don't think very many people in the community really understand the magnitude of the problem in our state and country," said Terlouw. "It's horrific how many children are out there."

Located on the edge of Benson, Heartland Girls' Ranch has provided residential counseling for young girls with behavioral and emotional issues for the last 20 years by using horses as a key part of therapy.

Some of the girls at Heartland are victims of prostitution.

"There's maybe an old view that these are just bad girls that want to do this," said Terlouw.

"No girl has grown up and said 'I want to be a prostitute.' They are victimized and they are trapped and they don't know how to get out."

Terlouw said many of those girls - who grew up in abusive families - have post-traumatic stress disorder from being beaten, burned with cigarettes or tortured and from living in fear of being killed by their pimp. Some girls are wooed by traffickers and "tricked" into prostitution. Ironically, some still cling to the idea that their pimp is their "boyfriend," said Terlouw.

In the last several years, Heartland Girls' Ranch has increased the number of programs to specifically help sex-trafficked girls work through the trauma of their past experiences.

"These are just girls that need help. Like other girls we work with," said Terlouw, who is a member of a statewide task force on human trafficking that helped secure $2 million in funding during this year's legislative session for programs that make Minnesota first in the nation in some areas in the prevention of child exploitation.

Terlouw was also involved in a two-year process to develop a "No Wrong Door" manual that provides a model for helping serve sexually exploited children as part of the Safe Harbor legislation, which was adopted in 2011.

Under the "No Wrong Door" model, a girl involved in prostitution could be found anywhere -- such as a hotel or hospital, through social services or on the street -- and be directed to the services they need instead of being treated like a criminal, said Terlouw.

Several legal changes were made then, such as putting the definition of sexually exploited youth into the state's child protection laws, and increasing the penalty against commercial sex abusers, according to an executive summary of the legislation. More legal changes will go into effect in 2014.

What sets Minnesota apart is funding for staff, training and programs that will be implemented this summer.

With the $2 million in funding, which Terlouw said is far less than the task force had sought, the state will create a new statewide position in the Minnesota Department of Health to direct a child sex trafficking prevention program. Minnesota will be the first in the nation to have such a position.

There will also be six regional "navigators" tasked with connecting sexually exploited children with available shelter, support and services. Minnesota is also the first in the nation to create those positions.

There's also $700,000 for training of law enforcement and prosecutors and $1 million for Safe Harbor shelter and housing.

The plan is to designate 30 to 40 beds in facilities across the state, such as the Heartland Girls' Ranch, for sexually exploited children.

That could mean expanding the Benson facility, which currently has room to house 24 girls, in order to have space for trafficked girls who need shelter immediately.

Typically, girls stay at the ranch for six to nine months of therapy, but Terlouw said because of the layers of issues affecting sexually exploited girls, they may participate in therapy for two years before leaving the ranch and being matched with mentors for follow-up care.

While the state funding will help launch some of the programs outlined in the plan and puts Minnesota in the forefront of the issue, Terlouw said there will still be unmet needs.

In a letter last month to the task force members, Jeff Bauer, director of public policy for the Family Partnership, said lawmakers "bypassed a real opportunity to put Minnesota in the national spotlight, and to put an end to the trafficking of our children."

While pleased some progress was made, Bauer says in his letter that during his years as a legislative advocate, "it still never ceases to amaze me how hard it is and how long it takes to roll the wheels of government in the direction of justice."

Heartland Girls' Ranch has drawn statewide attention, in part because of its unique therapy that matches a girl with a horse that is theirs to care for during their stay. Specialized counselors use techniques that have the girls confronting their own emotional and behavioral issues by working with a horse that may have some similar behavioral habits.

A girl who ran away from home frequently was matched with a horse that was hard to catch. A girl that was a "bully" was given a horse with a similar personality.

"The light bulbs just go off," said Terlouw.

The horses seem to be able to read the emotions of the girls and there is a loving bond that's created," said Terlouw.

The process is healing and "magical" for the girls, she said. "I'm so proud of the work that's done here."

The work the ranch does with sexually exploited girls is why a Minneapolis theater group called Cardboard Productions, is staging a play in Benson on Sunday night.

"Rendezvous" is a play about a 14-year-old girl who escapes a life of prostitution. The 7 p.m. performance will be held at the First Evangelical Free Church, 900 13th Street South, Benson. (See related story on Page C1 in the Showcase section).

Prior to the public showing, the play will be shown just for the girls.

Terlouw said the play will be an opportunity to learn about the disturbing facts of child trafficking and about the positive work that's being done at the ranch to return these girls "healed and whole and with a bright future."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750