Opinion: Kids, not criminals

Bradley Myles

One-hundred-thousand. That is the number of children and teenagers estimated to be exploited in the commercial sex trade here in the United States.

Fourteen-year-old “Grace” was one of those teens. One day, she is hanging out with her friends in her neighborhood after school. She wants to be anywhere but inside her abusive home. Louis walks up to the girls, singles her out, and tells her she is pretty. He flirts with her and asks her out on a date.

Grace doesn’t know it yet, but her life is about to change forever.

After a few months of “courtship,” Grace believes she is in love and runs away from home to live with Louis. However, he soon becomes abusive. While most girls Grace’s age are worrying about studying for their next history exam, Louis starts taking her from state to state to sell her for commercial sex with dozens of men. She quickly learns that refusals coincide with beatings and rape. Then, one night, Grace is arrested and charged with solicitation. When she is released, she returns to her pimp because she doesn’t know where else to go. She can’t return to her family, and he has threatened to find her and beat her if she doesn’t return to him. Louis has used a toxic mixture of abuse and feigned compassion to manipulate her into believing she is fully dependent on him.

A year later, she is arrested again. She is being punished for an act that she can’t even legally consent to. She is a child who needs help and support, but instead she is treated like a criminal.

I have met countless girls with a story just like this one. At Polaris Project, a leading U.S. organization dedicated to ending human trafficking, we help these victims of sex trafficking, who find the strength to reclaim their lives after years of exploitation, hopelessness and pain.

We know that the victims of child sex trafficking are frequently only 15 to 17 years old. Some are as young as 12. Yet, all too often they are arrested and prosecuted for offenses ranging from solicitation to prostitution.

A few state legislators are actively working to change this dynamic. They recognize that victims of sexual exploitation are kids, not criminals. Policymakers in New York, Illinois, Massachusetts, Washington and four other states have shown leadership on this issue by passing Safe Harbor laws to protect and support these vulnerable youth. And now representatives in states such as Texas, Nevada, Arkansas and Nebraska are working to follow suit.

Safe Harbor laws ensure that children under 18 cannot be prosecuted for prostitution. They define sexually exploited children as victims of abuse, help them find protection and support, and where possible, increase funding for specialized services to help these children recover — services such as long-term housing, mental health care, education and job training. Safe Harbor laws help remove the stigma of prostitution and shift the response from a criminal justice perspective to a focus on the welfare of the child.

Today, we need more Safe Harbor laws across the country to protect victims of sex trafficking like Grace and to help them reclaim their lives. Polaris Project and numerous other organizations that work with survivors of sex trafficking have found this all-encompassing approach prevents these girls from returning to the very places and people who exploited them in the first place.

In the eight states where these laws are in place, girls find the strength to live on their own. They get their GEDs, go back to school, find jobs, move into their first apartments and get a second chance at normal lives. All of this is far easier to achieve without a criminal record. They also see justice served when law enforcement focuses on arresting and prosecuting their pimps — the real criminals.

January is National Human Trafficking Awareness month. Let’s translate this awareness into action. First, let’s call on every state to protect child victims of sex trafficking and exploitation by passing and implementing strong Safe Harbor laws. Second, if you see a potential case of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 where call specialists are available 24 hours a day to connect victims of trafficking to local services and support.

All of us can make a difference in the fight against human trafficking and modern-day slavery. More important, all of us can help girls like Grace find hope again.