Breaking Free adds new East Side location for teen victims of sex trafficking

Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, introduced a new East Side house dubbed Jerry’s Place that will be the home for four girls ages 16 and 17 who are recovering victims of sex trafficking. The home is named after fallen East Side cop Gerald Vick. The home comes thanks to new Safe Harbor laws and funding that came with them. (Patrick Larkin/Review)

The rooms in Jerry’s Place are decked out with new furniture donated by community members. Vednita Carter, founder of Breaking Free, said Jerry’s Place is a place where victims of sex trafficking can “come home, take off (their) shoes, and kick back.” (Patrick Larkin/Review)

State funding means a safe home for girls to recover

Standing on the porch of an East Side home, Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, recalled back in 2002 when the late East Side cop Gerald Vick had just taken a badly beaten teenage girl to the hospital. She'd been beaten up by a pimp.

The girl had told Vick she was 18, but it eventually came out that she was only 15.

The realization, and the experience of seeing the girl as a victim, stuck with Vick, Carter said.

"That helped Jerry to see sex trafficking out of a different lens," she said. "He said 'This is truly violence, and we need to do something about this. We need to put an end to it.'"

Local officials and staff at Breaking Free are hoping that Jerry's Place, a new home for underage victims of sex trafficking, can help with that. The home is certified by the Minnesota Department of Human Services and leased by Breaking Free, a St. Paul based organization devoted to helping victims of sex trafficking.

The house is named after Vick, a St. Paul Police officer who's credited for helping change the police department's stand on prostitution. Vick was shot and killed on the East Side near the now demolished Erick's Bar on East Seventh Street, in the early hours of May 6, 2005.

At the time he was working undercover with a partner investigating prostitution tips.

The two-story house will be home to four girls age 16-17 who are escaping lives of sex trafficing and sexual exploitation. Starting this week, they'll call the place home along with a full-time live-in staff member, called the "house mom." There, they'll receive counseling support, case management, and tutoring.

"It's not like an emergency shelter... this is their home," Carter emphasized. She sees it as a place where the girls can "come home, take off (their) shoes, and kick back."

They'll have their own bedrooms decked out with new furnishings and TV's, most of which were donated. They'll have a kitchen, common areas, and computer access.

Carter credited the work of Ramsey County Attorney John Choi, and others who worked on the Safe Harbor bill, for making the new house possible.

"That bill is powerful," Carter said. "Girls can no longer be taken to jail, they can no longer be treated as criminals, they are victims."

County Attorney John Choi said the house is a sort of literal embodiment of the Safe Harbor legislation -- "What this place really is -- it is that safe harbor."

Carter noted that the new housing resource only came into existence thanks to funding that came after the Safe Harbor legislation passed in 2011 and came into effect in August.

The law decriminalizes prostitution charges for youths under 18, increases the penalties for buyers (sometimes known as johns) and creates a statewide system for helping sexually exploited youth.

Jeanne Harris, the "house mom" for Jerry's Place, said she was looking forward to the experience of working and living with the girls.

She said she sees the home as another link towards having "a seamless circle of service" for victims of sex trafficking.

She said she'd look forward to cooking with the girls and helping them with homework.

Not going away

According to a statement from Breaking Free, sex trafficking and sexual exploitation are growing problems in Minnesota and the United States in general.

One study by the Schapiro Group found that in 2010 the online sales of minor girls in Minnesota grew by 55% over a six-month period it states.

A recent University of Minnesota study found that the average age of victims in Minneapolis is 15 to 16. The study indicates victims are often vulnerable young girls of color who are often impoverished, runaways, or homeless.

Katie Tuione, youth housing director at Breaking Free, said the organization has had an influx of inquiries about the new youth housing resource since word got out Jerry's Place was opening.

Taylor Mitsch, a regional navigator for the Safe Harbor laws, noted estimates about the number of sex trafficking victims in in the state "is always a conservative estimate."

She noted that there are only 26 beds for sexually exploited youth in the state, which is likely not enough.

Mitsch is employed by the State of Minnesota and housed at Breaking Free. She's one of eight regional navigators in the state assigned to help organizations like Breaking Free navigate youth sex trafficking issues.

Other new resources

Carter noted that Breaking Free is lucky to have a partnership with the East Side based 180 Degrees, a social services organization that recently opened up a short-term emergency shelter for underage victims of sexual exploitation.

That facility has medical equipment and staff on-site, so they can do initial intake for victims.

She said the facility, which opened in August, can be a first stop for girls who eventually end up living at Jerry's Place.

The shelter is aknown as Brittany’s Place in memory of Brittany Clardy, an 18-year old St. Paul woman whose frozen body was found last year in the trunk of a car in a Columbia Heights impound lot. Investigators believe she was a victim of sex trafficking.

Contact Patrick Larkin at 651-748-7816 or at Follow him on Twitter at @ESRPatrickLark.


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