Today's little match girls

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Although I love the Christmas message of peace, joy and goodwill to all, I am often haunted with a surrounding fragile sadness. My guess is that it has something to do with my memory of the Hans Christian Andersen tale of "The Little Match Girl" that made an everlasting impression upon me as a child. When I am asked to speak or write about the tragedy of juvenile sex trafficking in our community, I cannot help but think that these vulnerable girls, lacking in hope and the warmth of shelter and a family, truly are today's little match girls.

From her huddled position outside the walls of a home, the child sits shivering, shoeless, afraid to go home because she had not sold the matches that her father expected her to sell.

She begins to light one match and then more. She has visions of people gathering, celebrating, food, family, joy and peace. She continues to light matches until she sees her grandmother, who had died. Her grandmother was the one person whom she felt loved her. As she shivers in the cold, burning through the last of her matches, with the vision of her grandmother reaching out to her, she freezes to death and is found the next morning. Her choice to not return home but instead to stay shivering in the cold turned out to be the last decision she would make.

Everyone always asks me, "But does it happen here, this trafficking of juveniles for sexual purposes?" The sad answer is yes, it does. Just ask Duluth police officer Kim Wick, Maude Dornfeld of Lifehouse or Candy Harshner of PAVSA. They will tell you of the young girls who, with great difficulty, share with them the hell they have been through.

In a case I tried, I had a young girl seated in my office as I prepared to put her on the witness stand that afternoon. I tried to comfort and encourage her, telling her I hoped she could tell the jury what happened to her. She was so frightened and I felt torn because I did not want to make her life worse by insisting she testify. It would have to be her decision.

Her question, and the question that so many young girls ask when they report the matter to law enforcement, was, "How will you keep me safe?" They ask this question because their fear is that there will be retaliation for them coming forward and telling what has happened. This is what the Safe Harbor Act movement is all about: a community collaborative effort.

What kind of cases do we see? I have prosecuted defendants with nicknames like Hollywood and Candyman. These were men who gave teenage girls attention and drugs. Eventually the expectations grew that they would travel with them down to the Twin Cities to meet their "friends" and trade sexual activity for more drugs. Bad choices resulting in tragic circumstances.

The sad reality is that so many of these girls feel that their life is so bad at home or in school or in their community that it is somehow more attractive to engage with a stranger who they met, who then becomes their "friend." The child sees this person as the only one who cares for her. Exploitation of these girls is a form of violence. Our challenge is that we have to go upstream and address the problems underlying the bad choices made by these girls.

So in these dark days of January, I am asking our community to recommit to the hard work of reaching out to these young girls who are trapped. Provide the support they need. More importantly, let's do what we can to provide adequate support before they get into this situation. We need strong and caring families, supportive and compassionate people in our school system and a level of understanding on the part of all of us, that as difficult as it might be for these things to be talked about, they happen. And only by working together can we make changes and "keep them safe."

Mark Rubin is the St. Louis county attorney.