By Louise McLeod
Over 100,000 children are exploited through trafficking and prostitution in the United States each year. Human trafficking of children occurs in all 50 states, D.C. and U.S. territories and is a recognized form of modern slavery. Common examples of child trafficking include commercial sexual exploitation, forced labor and domestic servitude. The average age for a trafficked child is between 12 and 14 but pimps and traffickers prey on children as young as nine years old. Children and youth older than 12 are prime targets for organized crime units. They attract their young targets through social media websites, telephone chat-lines, after-school programs, at shopping malls, bus depots, in clubs or through family, friends and acquaintances. Many children fall into prostitution when they run away or are driven from their homes by abusive or neglectful parents or are already in foster care.
Children who have already been battered and abused by their parents and then their pimps are victimized a second time when they are dragged into court after being arrested on charges such as prostitution, drug possession, loitering, and other prostitution-related offenses, often times treated like criminals. Under U.S. law, traffickers can get life in prison if convicted but are rarely caught. The pimps who buy and sell them are rarely arrested or jailed.
Prosecuting sexually exploited children only re-traumatizes them and makes it much more difficult for them to find a life for themselves off the streets. Juvenile facilities at the state and local level are not equipped to meet the very specific social and emotional needs of sexually exploited youth, two-thirds of whom experience mental health problems and PTSD. What do we do about this situation?
Safe Harbor laws recognize the fact that sexually exploited children need and deserve protection, not prosecution and in many cases provide a range of specialized, community-based programs designed to help children recover from the trauma of sexual exploitation and abuse.
At the moment, Pennsylvania does not have Safe Harbor legislation. Senate Bill 851 under the sponsorship of State Senator Stewart Greenleaf, currently in Appropriations, is:
An Act amending Titles 18 (Crimes and Offenses) and 42 (Judiciary and Judicial Procedure) of the Pennsylvania Consolidated Statutes, in human trafficking, further providing for definitions; repealing provisions relating to appropriate implementation for minor victims of human trafficking; providing for special relief to restore victim’s dignity and autonomy; adding provisions relating to safe harbor for sexually exploited children by imposing duties on law enforcement officers and the Department of Human Services and establishing the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children Fund; in public indecency, further providing for the offense of prostitution and related offenses; and, in juvenile matters, further providing for definitions.
It is vitally important that we do the right thing by these exploited children and help law enforcement target the traffickers and pimps who are the real criminals.
Bill 851 will impose a duty on law enforcement officers to report to the Department of Human Services any encounter with a person under the age of 18 who has been subject to sexual exploitation while also developing and implementing a statewide protocol to deliver safe long-term housing, education and life-skills training, and counseling to the children who have been exploited and divert them from the criminal justice system to more appropriate human services.
Sponsors: GREENLEAF, LEACH, DINNIMAN, TEPLITZ, FONTANA, PILEGGI, TARTAGLIONE, COSTA, RAFFERTY, SCHWANK, YUDICHAK, AUMENT, MENSCH, BREWSTER, BLAKE, WILLIAMS, BARTOLOTTA, FARNESE, SABATINA, BAKER, YAW, BROWNE, VOGEL and SCAVELLO
Let’s get this one done. Our children and youth deserve it.