A study released this week by the Minnesota Department of Public Health revealed that at least 5,000 high school-age students have traded sex in order to receive money, food, drugs, alcohol, a place to stay or something else of value.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm called the findings heartbreaking.
"It is heartbreaking to think anyone would exploit our youth," Malcolm said. "The correlations that you've heard about between homelessness, food insecurity, and all those issues we know are deep concerns across are state, particularly for some populations, it truly is heartbreaking."
The results came from the 2019 Student Survey of 9th and 11th graders. Researchers based the estimate of 5,000 students on the youth population and the results from the survey question. Of those who responded to the question, 1.4% answered "yes."
There are key state and local initiatives addressing the problem. Two of the more prominent are Not a #Number, a child trafficking and exploitation prevention curriculum, and the Department of Health's Safe Harbor program, which "works with stakeholders to create a victim-centered, statewide response for sexually exploited youth."
But according to Beatriz Menanteau, supervisor of the Violence Prevention Programs Unit at Minnesota Department of Health (which runs Safe Harbor), one of the most important actors in the fight against teen exploitation are parents.
"What this study tells us is that if we really want to prevent sexual exploitation or any type of exploitation and other harms, what we really need to do is give kids the resources to be able to navigate difficult situations and then seek help when they feel that they need to. And we do that by having conversations about healthy relationships, unhealthy relationships, consent boundaries, respect, dignity," she said.
Jason Clopton, also known as "The Teen Whisperer", from Levan Counseling & Consulting Services, believes it's time for parents and guardians to start having difficult, but productive conversations with teens.
"Teens want to know more and try all of these different experiences," Clopton said. "As parents and community members, we've had a lot of experiences with these types of things directly and indirectly. We have to kind of not shy away from having those shared experiences as a community."
Clopton says that it's any parent's fear that their child could one of the 5,000 from the public health survey, but that is a reminder to talk to teens about things you've never talked to them about.
"Teens have access to more information than ever through the Internet and social media," he said. "Figuring out creative ways to reach your child and start that discussion, even if it's really difficult, is really where we need to start. If you don't know, it's hard to help."
Conversations can begin with how teens receive endless bits of information, decipher it, and apply it to their lives.
"There's so much research around developmental psychology about how our children are kind of like sponges at certain ages. They try to determine what's right and wrong, how to perceive messages, and how they make them feel," he said. "They're trying to figure out what's right and what's wrong. Try and think about that and going through it alone."
Clopton believes a key to reaching into the minds of teens is by casually bringing up conversations.
"Just bring the topics up as we see them in the news. That's a perfect opportunity to sit down with your child and maybe have that tough conversation."
One issue in communication is the lack of personal connection brought through electronic communication, which can be fixed through a more personal connection.
"It's a good idea to disconnect in order to connect," he said. "We have to have more intentional conversations. For parents, don't text these kinds of conversations. Pull your child aside, take them out somewhere, and just engage in a way they have never engaged with you before."
Clopton reminds parents, community members, and teachers aren't the problem, instead, they're part of the solution.
"We have to have a solution-focused mind and not a problem-focused mind," he said. "A solution-focused mind puts us in a different head space to come up with ways to find solutions instead of fixating on the problem. Ultimately, we just have to go for it with our children sometimes."