At the age of 15, Josie* was separated from her beloved brother and taken to a local shelter. An older relative had been arranging “dates” for her with adult men.
As of 2014, the state of Minnesota no longer treats minors like Josie as criminals. Under the Safe Harbor Law, sexually exploited youth cannot be charged with delinquency prostitution charges for that exploitation. Instead, they are directed to the child protection side of juvenile law.
Irene Opsahl, supervising attorney of Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s family and youth law unit, is the go-to person for Safe Harbor legal support. She brings over 25 years of experience with Legal Aid’s youth law project to the statewide network of advocates who work with sexually exploited children.
“Josie wasn’t looking to be saved,” says Opsahl. “Like many kids in ‘the life,’ she didn’t identify as a victim. The challenge is to help young people like Josie understand the services that are available, and to help the system understand which services they need. When a kid is ready to accept help, the door has to be open right now – not next week.”
Opsahl holds service providers accountable, and she empowers the kids themselves. She makes sure her clients are involved in the decisions about their lives.
Sarah Florman, program manager at Brittany’s Place, says, “Irene doesn’t just tell them, ‘This is how it’s going to be.’ She listens to their concerns and tells them the real-world truth. She’s such a strong advocate. They feel like if Irene walks into a room and says what ought to happen, the other adults might actually listen.”
In addition to regular visits to metroarea shelters, Opsahl provides statewide training and legal tips for Safe Harbor navigators. She connects youth advocates with local legal services and helps advocates, prosecutors, agency providers and law enforcement come together to explain and expand options.
“I treat my youth clients to the extent possible like any adult client,” she says. “It’s the ethical rule for lawyers. But, at the same time, you have to be aware that they are kids, and most of them are victims of trauma.”
“Irene has an aerial view,” says Quisha Stewart, Safe Harbor division director at The Link. “She sees the kids as more than their present situation. We have policies designed to protect them, and restrictions regarding cell phones, Internet access, etc. Irene is the one who is telling them what they can do under the law. She takes complex legal issues and makes them palatable to a kid with a fifth grade reading level. That kid walks out of the meeting understanding the legal concepts and feeling empowered.”
Thanks to Opsahl’s intervention, Josie voluntarily stayed at the shelter and received schooling, counseling and other services. The county kept her properly informed of her options. When it came time to determine placement, Josie participated in the decision.
“They remember Irene’s name,” says Quisha. “They call us back and ask for her number. She’s diligent. She treats these kids as though she’s billing a thousand dollars an hour.”
*A pseudonym is used to protect the privacy of the client. Leykn Schmatz