Child sex trafficking is often viewed as a problem that only happens in other countries – such as Thailand or Cambodia. Many don’t realize that American children, often younger than 15, are coerced into prostitution in communities all over the US. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 83% of the victims in confirmed cases of human trafficking are U.S. citizens. There are also widespread misconceptions that trafficking victims ‘choose’ the prostitution ‘lifestyle’; in reality, many children who have been trafficked are only 10-14 years old when they are first victimized by pimps and well below the age of consent.
Last week the Senate Committee on Finance held a full committee hearing entitled Sex Trafficking and Exploitation in America: Child Welfare’s Role in Prevention and Intervention to explore the issue. Witness testimony highlighted:
· the need to promote public awareness of the issue of domestic child sex trafficking, especially among youth at risk of exploitation;
· the lack of housing and trauma-informed care for exploited children;
· the potential role of the child welfare system in preventing child trafficking and helping survivors;
· the importance of training for law enforcement, educators, social workers and others who work with children; and
· the need for legal recognition of children who have been trafficked as survivors of child sexual abuse, not as juvenile offenders or ‘child prostitutes’.
Although the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act of 2000 recognizes minors under 18 who have been induced to perform commercial sexual acts as human trafficking victims, child survivors of sex trafficking are still often arrested and put on probation or in juvenile detention. Some state policymakers have attempted to resolve this issue by passing legislation such as ‘Safe Harbor’ laws that protect child survivors of commercial sexual exploitation from being prosecuted for prostitution and require that agencies recognize them as survivors of sexual abuse rather than viewing them as criminals. States that have already passed such legislation include Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington State. A bill has been proposed and is currently being considered in the U.S. Senate which would extend such protections to child survivors nationwide.
In addition to concerns about the legal status of children who have been trafficked, witness testimony emphasized the need for effective, trauma-informed services to help children who have been trafficked and the role of the child welfare system in ensuring children get the services they need. In her witness testimony, Asia Graves, Maryland Outreach Services Coordinator and Survivor Advocate at FAIR Girls in Baltimore, stated that funding for emergency and transitional housing for homeless youth is urgently needed—in particular, dedicated beds for youth who have been exploited by sex traffickers. Homeless youth often have to choose either sleeping outside or returning to the pimps who have been exploiting them. Faced with the dangers of sleeping out on the streets, many children return to the adults who have been abusing and prostituting them. According to Graves, agencies and non-profits often have to ‘fight’ each other for beds so that the homeless and exploited youth they serve can have a safe place to sleep and sometimes resort to staying with sleeping children in hotel lobbies over night.
The testimony of all four witnesses emphasized that reform of the child welfare system is key. A large proportion of children who are trafficked have already been involved in the child welfare system and many are still legally in systems of care while being trafficked. According to the witness testimony of Susan Goldfarb, Executive Director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Suffolk County, over 70% of trafficked children in the Boston area had a previous history of abuse and/or neglect and child welfare involvement. The Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, The Honorable Joette Katz, stated in her testimony that in Connecticut, 98% of children who are identified as survivors of sex trafficking had previous involvement with child welfare services, and many were legally in the care and custody of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families while they were being prostituted by traffickers. Ms. Goldfarb raised concerns that when children have been abused by someone who is not a caregiver, often the child welfare system does not intervene even when a report is made. Ms. Goldfarb stated that the child welfare system needs to view survivors of child sex trafficking as ‘their kids’ in order to ensure that children get the protection and services that they need. The witnesses highlighted the crucial importance of providing trafficked youth with the specialized foster care and trauma-informed services that they need to heal and stay safe once they have escaped their exploiters.
Some states have implemented policies to better protect children from sex trafficking and address the related issues in the child welfare system. Connecticut now accepts all cases of child sex trafficking through its Careline (the child welfare intake and information center) whether or not the alleged perpetrator is the ‘entrusted’ caregiver. The state has established an Interagency Human Anti-Trafficking Response Team (HART) led by the Connecticut Department of Children and Families which reviews and monitors Careline to ensure an appropriate response to children’s needs (including for victims with still unsubstantiated cases) and coordination with FBI and Homeland Security to ensure cases of child sex trafficking are prosecuted to fullest extent of state and federal law.
To help raise awareness, the Georgia Department of Education has partnered with Street Grace, a nonprofit dedicated to ending domestic minor sex trafficking, to launch an initiative to educate teachers and students throughout the state about the exploitation of children. The Georgia Attorney General has also launched a public awareness campaign around the issue. In Texas, H.B. 4009 created a Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force to address the issue statewide and mandated that all newly-licensed law enforcement officers receive training on human trafficking.
State policymakers may want to re-examine the legal framework to protect survivors of child sex trafficking in their state, the measures currently in place to prevent sex trafficking, and the programs and policies in place to address trauma and ensure that survivors get the help they need. They may also want to consider the training and education programs currently available to professionals that work with youth and to youth themselves to reduce their vulnerability to sex traffickers.