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A safe place for sexually exploited girls

CeCe Terlouw, director of the Heartland Girls’ Ranch in Benson, pats a horse in this file photo. The ranch will start a new program for female victims of sex trafficking later this month. (Tribune file photo by Carolyn Lange)

BENSON — The Heartland Girls’ Ranch in Benson this month will open its new facility and program, Hearts for Freedom, for sexually exploited girls ages 12-17.

According to a news release from the Heartland Girls’ Ranch, Hearts for Freedom will officially open in a temporary location until a new permanent home is built in 2015. This program will continue to serve girls referred from all over the state.

“As the largest facility designed for girls in the state, Heartland has served many at-risk and sexually exploited girls over our 20-year history. This new program will allow us to provide services more specifically designed to meet the unique needs of girls who have been sexually exploited and will provide an additional eight dedicated beds to serve them,” said CeCe Terlouw, Heartland’s executive director, in the news release.

Four Minnesota agencies are collaborating under the Minnesota Department of Human Services Safe Harbor Shelter and Housing grants to provide shelter and services for the state’s sexually exploited youth.

Heartland Girls’ Ranch will provide longer-term housing and supportive services specific to minor victims of sex trafficking through the state of Minnesota’s new response: “The Safe Harbor Law/No Wrong Door to Services for Sexually Exploited Youth.”

Other Safe Harbor providers across the state include Breaking Free in St. Paul, The Link in Minneapolis and Life House in Duluth.

Heartland Girls’ Ranch and its Hearts for Freedom Program will provide a safe place for female minor victims of sexual exploitation to heal while receiving critical services specific to the complex trauma of being sex trafficked, the news release states.

This facility provides eight transitional living program beds (serving girls ages 12-17).

Services include intensive case management, trauma-informed mental health therapy, on-site and off-site education options to get youth back in school and caught up on credits, a survivor mentorship program, health care services, therapeutic equine programming and direct connections to appropriate chemical dependency services.

In addition to the Hearts for Freedom Program, Heartland was also awarded funding through the Minnesota Department of Health to provide a Safe Harbor Regional Navigator for the West Central Minnesota region — a position which will respond to cases of minor sex trafficking within the 21-county region of Wilkin, Ottertail, Traverse, Grant, Douglas, Todd, Stearns, Big Stone, Stevens, Pope, Swift, Lac Qui Parle, Yellow Medicine (including the Upper Sioux Community Reservation), Chippewa, Renville, McLeod, Meeker, Kandiyohi, Benton, Sherburne and Wright counties.

The state’s Safe Harbor law went into effect August 1, and is shifting the paradigm for at-risk and sexually exploited youth — viewing them as crime victims rather than criminals, Heartland officials state in the release. Specifically, Safe Harbor laws are designed to exempt children from prostitution arrest and prosecution, train law enforcement and community members on how to identify and assist victims, increase penalties for traffickers, and promote the development of a statewide multidisciplinary response.

“The passage of the Safe Harbor Law and its resulting decriminalization of minor sex trafficking victims is a huge step in the right direction for helping sexually exploited youth,” Terlouw says in the release. “Often girls that we serve have been victimized over and over again without getting the help that they need. This law and the funding for supportive services and housing will ensure that more victims are able to escape their abusers.”

Heartland Girls’ Ranch is a residential facility for girls ages 12-21. Located in Benson since 1992, the facility serves more than 50 girls each year providing housing, education, supportive services and therapeutic equine programming.

LEARN MORE

A community forum and panel discussion to commemorate the opening of this new home and raise awareness about the prevalence of sexual exploitation of youth in rural Minnesota will take place from 6 to 8:30 p.m. Oct.11 at The First Evangelical Free Church, 900 13th St. S., Benson.

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