Three years after New York passed the first Safe Harbor law, legislators and advocates continue to work on new laws to protect commercially sexually exploited children from being treated as juvenile offenders. It’s a complex issue that requires cultural change as much as it requires legal adjustments. It will take a long time and no one law will do all that is needed.
Each new bill aimed at protecting exploited children will vary in strength and depth. While advocates will push for strong protections, the legislative process often ends in compromises with legislators. Compromises are always expected. However, legislators need to identify where policies reflect a misunderstanding of the dynamics of exploitation and its effect on children. Some of the policies below, while protective, are not as strong as they could be. As a result, some children will fall through the gaps. Hopefully, each successive new law will find innovative ways to fully protect children no matter their age or previous exploitation experiences.
Requiring force, fraud or coercion. Federal human trafficking law (22 U.S.C. 7102) does not require the proof of fraud, force or coercion with regards to persons under 18. This is absolutely essential to protecting children and prosecuting traffickers. Children are easily manipulated and the federal law reflects this. No state law should require proof of coercion, duress, fraud, force or any similar burden on cases involving children.
Splitting victim demographics into under 16, and 16 and over. Commercially sexually exploited children experience incredible violence and manipulation at the hands of traffickers. Many are first victimized through physical or sexual abuse in the home. Some are vulnerable due to homelessness. It is unrealistic to believe that once a victim turns 16, beatings and rape turns into a lifestyle choice. Even if exploitation begins at 16, teens are still highly vulnerable to manipulation especially where they have little stability or a history of abuse. Protecting 13 and 14 year olds is incredibly important. Let’s give the same level of protection and understanding to our 16 and 17 year olds.
Giving a child only one chance. Traffickers are experts at developing dependency, fear and emotional bonds in the child victim. Children are isolated from healthy, stable support systems, exiled into a criminal world with its own rules. It can take a long time for a child to even recognize they were manipulated and what they experienced was not normal. Many children lack the healthy supports critical to exiting exploitation. It will usually take multiple attempts to break free. By giving a child only one chance, we tell victims they are failures if they need more than one chance. Punishment is not the proper response to a child in crisis and only increases isolation and resentment.
Immunity from prosecution for prostitution. There is no reasonable argument in favor of prosecuting a child for their exploitation. While immunity provisions are a step forward, they represent a minimum standard of protection. The juvenile justice system is not an appropriate place for a crime victim. However, reality dictates it may take a while to develop appropriate, alternative responses. If legislation is compromised down to an immunity provision, it should be coupled with other policies that promote a child’s well-being and acknowledges their status as a crime victim.
It’s not a child welfare issue. Sexually exploited children, whether sold by a parent or a stranger, are abused children. They often have a history of contact with state child welfare agencies. Therefore, child welfare has a critical role to play in prevention, identification, data collection, and assistance. When state laws are created, state Department of Children and Families must be at the table to discuss their role in addressing this abuse. While the department’s actual effort may not be defined in the legislation, the agency must do their part even if it’s a multistage, multiyear process.
Focusing on child behavior; not adult crimes. While state legislation should work to protect and assist children, it should also address any weaknesses in punishing traffickers and buyers of sex with children. It can also boost law enforcement tools by allowing wiretapping for investigations regarding human trafficking and sex crimes against children.