When a San Antonio couple was caught trafficking a 16-year-old online, their excuse was that they had no prior knowledge of her age and “were trying to help her.” Meanwhile, Jeffrey Charwick Wright, a now ex- Navy sailor, trafficked an HIV-positive 17-year old in Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina for his own good. But hey, at least he could admit it.
These horrible anecdotes are popping up all over the U.S., with underage children—both Americans and immigrants—trafficked for labor, and more often, for sexual exploitation. The most surprising issue, however, is the conversation on whether those who are trafficked are criminals themselves. Sadly, in 19 states and all of the American territories, that is the case.
The good news is that a majority of states have some form of "safe harbor laws," laws that prevent underage victims of trafficking from facing criminal charges and from being treated as culpable and willing participants. Rather than slapping a prostitution charge on young people, states such as Illinois, Mississippi, and North Carolina are giving immunity to minors from prosecution and insisting agencies and protective services are contacted for rehabilitation. New York, Ohio, and Utah have enacted laws to divert trafficking victims out of the justice system and prevent incorrect charges. And other states are beginning to take trafficking offenses more seriously, with California charging traffickers up to $500,000 on top of prison sentences.
Still, we can’t just forget about the many states falling woefully short.
Just after Christmas, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder signed a package of 21 anti-trafficking bills, hoping to push his state toward the forefront of combating human trafficking. His efforts went from hopeful to laughable when the bills were found to have virtually no funding attached, meaning, among other unmet needs, no support services or specialized housing for victims. Arizona, Minnesota, and Florida are following closely behind with regards to lack of substantial funding to support victim rehabilitation.
Policy counselor for the Polaris Project, Britanny Vanderhoof, stated, "There's an idea that once someone is rescued, they're fine. There's a disconnect with the level of trauma the victims have suffered and the incredible need for services at every level."
Victims in these states and others end up vulnerable, desperate, and susceptible to returning to their previous exploiters. Christina Sambor, coordinator for an anti-trafficking coalition called FUSE, said that prosecuting traffickers becomes all the more difficult if you don't have cooperative witnesses. “To get victims to testify, you need to support them.”
Safe harbor laws are a great step toward keeping victims safe, both from legal repercussions from their trauma and toward getting them the help they need to find mental, emotional, and physical healing. However, with less than half of U.S. states willing to put forth the effort or funds, the path forward is sullied at best.
Allowing such a blatant disregard for human rights to happen to the most innocent among us is unacceptable. Likewise, the sooner we begin to see trafficked individuals as victims and teenagers as minors, the sooner we can keep children safe. Rather than pointing fingers at the hurt, the lost, and the broken, we must lift them up, and meanwhile label traffickers for who they are – predators, seeking to take advantage of broken systems to prey on the young.
Lani Prunés is an Editorial Assistant for Sojourners magazine.