Emerging State Safe Harbor Responses to Sex Trafficking and Prostitution of Minors

We sat in court and Raquel doodled butterflies and rainbows and wrote a poem about feeling lost. I scribbled down our next court date and told her I would meet her in the lock-up when the court officers led her away.

She was my first young client charged with prostitution. Sitting beside me with long fake nails and extensions in her hair, she looked older than her age of 14, but not much.

The idea that our justice system charges young girls like Raquel with prostitution, and sometimes locks them up — she spent one year in detention — shocked my friends and relatives who were frequently surprised about the realities of the juvenile justice system when I shared moments from my work. Prosecuted, even though they are victims of statutory rape and usually sold by fairly organized adult operators, who post their photos on-line to solicit customers or direct them to certain areas or “tracks.”

Though a minor is too young to legally consent to sex with the person he or she is charged with soliciting, the two state courts that have ruled on the issue about whether prosecutors can still charge the minor with prostitution have come out on different sides. Fortunately, state legislators have begun to pass laws to address this problem.

Since 2008, about a dozen states have enacted different forms of legislation, referred to as “Safe Harbor” laws that address this irrationality in the law. (Michigan had previously changed the age of eligibility for prosecution for prostitution). States that have taken action, such as Illinois, New York, Minnesota, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, recognized the inconsistency in their own laws. Many incorporated, at least partially, the notion born in federal law, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that children under 18 who are sexually exploited in this manner are severe trafficking victims.

The passage of these laws is a great achievement as the bills can face difficult opposition. But even in states that have passed safe harbor laws, there are considerable gaps and shortcomings. These shortcomings result from disagreements about how to effectively address trafficking of minors and fear of “decriminalization,” which leads to too much tinkering with the initial bills.

We now have nearly a dozen different versions of state Safe Harbor laws — no two versions of the laws are the same. They vary quite significantly in terms of age eligibility, inclusion of conditions that may exclude a child from protection from prosecution, and inclusion of funding for services.

For example, the laws in Illinois and Tennessee ended the prosecution of all minors under 18 for prostitution outright, but most other laws limit how and when children will be protected from prosecution. And Florida’s law, passed in 2012, is named a “safe harbor” but does not protect minors from prosecution at all. In some states, like Vermont and Georgia, minors must prove that they are “trafficking victims” even though federal law presumes by definition that a minor who is sold for sex is a victim of a severe form of trafficking. And in Washington, one previous arrest for prostitution will bar a minor from protection from prosecution; additionally, in Massachusetts, protection applies only if the prosecutor consents.

While better than nothing, these conditions can exclude those children most in need, undermining the laws and belying the research about this population; research shows that the relationship between children and those who peddle them for their own financial gain are rife with threats and abuse that make it difficult for a juvenile to break free without a sustained intervention.

We know they need comprehensive assistance, yet some laws do not have a funding or service component, and access to help is particularly important when laws place the onus on the child to prove that he or she is “worthy” of protection from prosecution. These caveats can seem minor but in reality, it frustrates the intention and purpose of a “safe harbor” when kids continue to be prosecuted and have no reason to hope for a better situation.

To be sure, state legislatures that have taken action deserve a lot of credit for their courage and foresight. As the effective dates for some of the new state laws approach, legislators can strengthen them by amending provisions that limit which children can get assistance. Likewise, states considering laws now and in the future, such as California, should maintain the Illinois model, which provides for services and does not prosecute minor victims. (Though the November ballot initiative on trafficking in California does not include a safe harbor provision to prevent prosecution of minors, separate legislation is in the works). Legislators should refrain from diluting the effectiveness of safe harbor laws, taking a firm stance about who to prosecute — those who exploit rather than those who are exploited — and channeling the valuable time and resources of courts and prosecutors in a more effective way.

Teaching the Teachers How to Fight Sex Trafficking

Maria Velikonja speaking at the "Not in Georgia: Combating Human Sex Trafficking" conference at Georgia State University.

Teachers can be the first line of defense against child sex trafficking, according to Maria Velikonja, a former FBI agent who has worked on human trafficking issues for the United Nations. During a two-day conference on sex trafficking at Georgia State University, in Atlanta, Velikonja spoke about the warning signs educators should watch for in their students and what teachers can do to keep their students safe.

The conference, Not in Georgia: Combating Human Sex Trafficking, organized by the Georgia Department of Education, was the third part of an ongoing series of lectures on the sex trade. In a lecture titled, “Combating Human Sex Trafficking in Georgia: What Public School Educators Can Do,” Velikonja began by outlining some of the basics of sex trafficking for teachers.

“What does a potential sex trafficking victim look like?” she asked the small crowd. “They could look like anyone. They could be short, tall, fat or skinny. It doesn’t matter.”

So, if victims of sex trafficking come in all shapes and sizes, what other indicators can teachers watch for?

Teachers should be on the lookout for certain socio-economic factors, Velikonja says. Children living in poverty and children from single-parent households are at risk.

But more important is whether their parents are paying attention and this is not limited to low-income families, she says. In fact, upper- and middle- class families with busy, distracted parents are equally at risk.

The Office of Justice Programs says as many as 300,000 children are at risk for sexual exploitation each year in the U.S. According to Velikonja, they could be boys or girls.But one of the key indicators teachers should watch for is poor or failing grades.

Another alarm for teachers are girls with much older boyfriends, Velikonja said.

“You might see a 13-year-old girl who suddenly starts dating a 17-year-old,” she said.

But, for teachers, it may not always be as simple as having a keen eye, as a great deal of prostitution has moved to the Internet. Text messaging, Facebook and online instant messaging have given child predators easier access to young people who are often not as wary of strangers online as they would be in real life, Velikonja said.

The U.S. Department of Education says teachers should be on the lookout for the following potential indications that a child is a victim of sex trafficking:

  • Has unexplained absences from school for a period of time, and is therefore a truant
  • Demonstrates an inability to attend school on a regular basis
  • Chronically runs away from home
  • Makes references to frequent travel to other cities
  • Exhibits bruises or other physical trauma, withdrawn behavior, depression, or fear
  • Lacks control over her or his schedule or identification documents
  • Is hungry-malnourished or inappropriately dressed (based on weather conditions or surroundings)
  • Shows signs of drug addiction

However, protecting students from the sex trade extends beyond simply acting as a watchdog, Velikonja says. In the classroom, teachers should emphasize that children involved in the sex trade are victims and that the sex trade is not glamorous.

Most important is to teach kids that, reporting incidents is important. If someone they know is involved in the sex trade, not telling adults will only hurt the victim.

In the end, it’s critical parents need to be educated.

“Kids may be easily scared by this,” Velikonja said. “But speaking directly to parents may be more effective.”

Parents need to make students aware of child predators, both online and in real life, she said.

Jessica Smith, a spokesperson for Wellspring Living, a group that helps victims of sexual abuse, said it's up to parents to monitor their children's use of social media, such as Facebook and Twitter.

"Most of these transactions happen online," she wrote in an email. "It's the new 'street.'"

Equally as important for parents is to know who your children are friends with.

"Know their friends and where they are going -- always," Smith said. "We have so many stories of girls getting into this because of a friend and being trafficked right under their parent's noses. Know the parents of their friends."

As Velikonja drew her presentation to a close, audience members shared what actions they were planning to take moving forward to combat sex trafficking. Many were going to take further classes about sex trafficking.

One audience member asked the crowd if sex trafficking was being taught in sex education classes in the schools.

One teacher responded, “We’re working on it. We’re working on making it a part of curriculum in social studies classes.

Wednesday, several hundred advocates gathered in front of the Georgia capitol to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the passage of a tough, new anti-trafficking law. Supporters wore purple scarves. The bill increased penalties for those engaging in child sex trafficking.

Super Bowl Prostitution Fears Prompt Effort to Protect Kids in Indiana

Some Indiana lawmakers are scrambling to protect kids from the threat of forced prostitution by adding child trafficking to the state’s list of sex offenses in advance of  Indianapolis hosting next February’s Super Bowl.

Amid all the fanfare and its reputation as a boon to tourism, the Super Bowl has also won some infamy for attracting a sex trade that caters to fans willing to participate in the exploitation of children. From of Terre Haute, Ind.:

Before the 2011 Super Bowl in Dallas ... Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot, described the party-filled event as “one of the biggest human trafficking events in the United States.”


Law enforcement in Miami, site of the 2010 Super Bowl, also had concerns that underage prostitutes were brought in from Central America for tourists in town for the game.

Indiana state Rep. Suzanne Crouch, R-Evansville, sponsored legislation this year directing a study committee to look at whether current state law on child solicitation needs to be expanded. She’s received backing in that effort from Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller.

What’s unusual is that any bill toughening Indiana’s sex-trade laws would have to be passed early in the legislative session, which begins in January. The bill also would have to be written to take effect immediately upon the governor signing it.

Of course, all that’s assuming that the National Football League’s current labor dispute doesn’t continue long enough to cause the Feb. 5 championship game to be cancelled.


Many Pimps Were Trafficked and Abused as Children, Survey Says

A small study out of Chicago indicates that many pimps were forced into the sex industry and trafficked as children, leading to a horrible cycle of abuse.  Researchers at DePaul College of Law surveyed 25 pimps, finding that 68 percent were trafficked as children and 76 percent were sexually abused.

According to the survey by researchers Brenda Myers-Powell and Jody Raphael, many pimps now traffic kids themselves and “earn” between $150,000 and $500,000 a year, often by taking all the income of some of their prostitutes.

The authors admit the survey was imperfect, but you can read the full report here.


Law Professor Argues Against Prosecuting Minors for Prostitution

In a new article, an assistant law professor at UNC School of Law argues that children involved in commercial sexual exploitation should not be charged with crimes.  The article, “The Youngest Profession: Consent, Autonomy, and Prostituted Children,” to be published in the Washington University Law Review takes a critical look at laws that allow minors to be criminally prosecuted for prostitution.

The full article is subscription only, but a detailed abstract is available here.

Radio Series Targets Child Prostitution Problem in Georgia

A lot has been written about girls in the sex trade but less is know about boys involved in prostitution.  WABE Radio reports that an unknown number of boys work in the sex trade and advocates want to change that.

The radio station has also broadcast other stories about child prostitution in Georgia, including a two-part interview with a former child prostitute and a story about training for people who work with exploited children.

WABE and PBA television will broadcast a documentary called How to Stop the Candy Shop on January 30.