FARGO — A series of criminal cases moving through Cass County District Court brings into sharp focus the extreme vulnerability of runaway youth.

Since January, prosecutors in Fargo have filed five separate sexual assault cases, with all five cases mentioning the same 14-year-old girl as the victim.

The victim ran away from her Moorhead home last year and was found three months later. The girl told authorities she had sex with multiple men during that time, according to court documents.

The five men, all from Fargo and ranging in age from 18 to 24 at the time of the alleged crimes, each face a felony count of gross sexual imposition, court documents stated.

Local experts, speaking in general and not specifically about this victim, said runaways often engage in “survival sex” when important needs, like shelter and food, are not readily available.

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“Survival sex, in a nutshell, is just a way that people that live on our streets every day, both youth and adults, learn to get their basic needs met,” said Melissa Williams, a human trafficking navigator with Youthworks.

Survival sex is very prevalent among homeless and runaway youth, said Christopher Johnson, CEO of the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center in Fargo.

One of the defendants told authorities that the hotel room where the victim stayed was not because of an arrangement for sex, court documents stated. Documents for the other four cases do not indicate any arrangement between a defendant and the victim.

Runaway and homeless youth can also sometimes engage in sex as a way to belong to a group or for protection, especially if they come from a background where they didn’t feel safe or like they belonged, Williams said.

Johnson agreed with Williams, adding that adolescents often put more weight on having a social circle.

“What people don’t realize is that love and acceptance is going to take precedence over safety every single time with kids,” Williams said. Traffickers or others looking to sexually exploit minors will often coerce or trick them into thinking they can provide that acceptance or that protection, she said.

“We have to realize that when kids are on the street, they are about as vulnerable as anyone could possibly be,” Johnson said.

Prosecutor Reid Brady said there was no evidence of human trafficking in any of the five cases.

The Forum usually does not identify victims of sex crimes, and to protect the victim's identity in this instance, the newspaper is not naming the defendants.

Court documents do not indicate whether the five defendants are acquainted with one another. In one case, the victim told police she was picked up in a vehicle by the defendant and his acquaintance while she was with a friend.

The victim told another defendant that she was a runaway before having sex with him, court documents stated.

A third defendant reportedly took the victim to a Moorhead hotel after they had sex, but court documents do not say whether the victim stayed there.

In three of the five cases, the victim told the defendant she was either 16 or 18 when she was actually 14, court documents stated. Documents for the other two defendants don’t say whether or not the victim lied to them about her age.

“Nonetheless, she was sexually exploited,” Williams said, adding that the responsibility for the situation lies with the adult because the victim cannot legally consent to sex. The legal age of consent in North Dakota is 18.

Three of the defendants have pleaded guilty, an arrest warrant has been issued for one, and another defendant has a court hearing in late April.