Heartland staff cited after possible assault of girl who left facility

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Editor’s note: The following story was written by Minnesota Public Radio’s Tim Nelson with comments by the Heartland Girls Ranch executive director  added by the Monitor-News.

The state’s Department of Human Services has cited staff at the Heartland Girls Ranch in Benson after a girl left the facility and was later found in Iowa, possibly the victim of a sexual assault.

The Heartland Girls Ranch of Benson was founded in 1992 and serves girls recommended for placement by county child protection workers, age 12 to 21, from around Minnesota. It has become a home in recent years for girls who are victims of sex trafficking. It has 32 beds and serves around 60 to 70 girls a year, according to its website.

The DHS report says a girl at the ranch was allowed two home visits in September, the first of which ended early when her family reported she’d used a mobile phone to contact an adult not on her approved contact list.

She was allowed a second home visit a few days later, but Heartland staff did not notify a case manager in Wright County, which had custody of the girl as of May, a state investigation found. The girl took a family member’s cellphone, ducked outside and disappeared.

The state report on the incident says she left with another person, identified only as a “community person.”

The girl was found later in Iowa, the report said, and she was sexually assaulted and bruised from an apparent choking incident. The “community person” was found by police with the girl. An investigation of what happened to the girl is ongoing, according to the state report.

Wright County officials said they weren’t told about the initial home visit or violation, and wouldn’t have allowed the second home visit if they’d known about illicit contact with an outside party.

The report says the staff member at Heartland was responsible for serious maltreatment of the girl and is barred from providing direct contact services at Heartland. The report has also been forwarded to the state Department of Corrections for review of possible licensing violations by Heartland.

Heartland Ranch says it is working on a response to the report and questions of whether the facility has changed procedures.

“State and federal privacy laws do not permit us to comment on matters relating to our residents,” Chief Executive Officer Jeannie Thompson of the Girls Ranch told the Monitor-News.

“Heartland Girls Ranch’s top priority is the safety and well-being of the vulnerable populations that we serve,” she said.  “Too often, this includes the victims of human trafficking.”

Some Heartland Girls Ranch girls interact in the community and in the Benson Public Schools, and at times, are given a degree of freedom. However, generally those who are allowed in the community have proven to be responsible while under care.

At this time, the Benson Police Department is not involved in the investigation of the person who was found with the girl in Iowa. Chief of Police Ian Hodge told the Monitor-News that the investigation would be handled by Iowa authorities.

“We may see a person being trafficked at our local café, gas station, or hotel,” Thompson said. “It is important that community members contact our police department to report any suspicious activity.  Whether we are right or wrong in our suspicions, we have done the right thing by protecting the possible victim and our community as a whole.”

Community members can help prevent human trafficking by recognizing some of the warning signs, Thompson said, which may include:
- Physical signs of abuse (bruises, burns, cuts, etc.)
- They will not make eye contact
- They may constantly scan the room or area
- Traveling with an older or unrelated adult
- Wearing clothing that is not appropriate for the weather
- Pays only in cash, not in control of own money
- Someone who looks scared or panicked, especially when approached


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