WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation)--Over the past five years, 12 states in America have passed laws to stop treating young girls and boys arrested for prostitution as criminals but as victims of commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking, a shift that is starting to bring the United States into line with human rights’ norms in Europe.
Momentum is building toward a nationwide policy of treating young people as sex trafficking victims not prostitutes. Three bills are being debated in the U.S. Congress this month and six other states have legislation pending
Instead of throwing youngsters, mostly girls aged 18 or under, into the prison system for selling their bodies, the plan is for states to provide them with housing and counseling. Some are runaways who engage in “survival sex” in exchange for food and shelter; others are recruited by sex traffickers who frequently prey on girls aged 12 to 14 already in foster care or homeless.
But the money allocated for housing and the intensive support services required to help these already deeply traumatised youth is grossly inadequate, experts in child welfare and sex trafficking say. As public budgets are slashed at every level across the country, it is a struggle to find the resources needed to deliver appropriate support. Without a strong safety net, experts say, the risks for girls returning to the streets are significant.
"They continue to be trafficked, abused, living without appropriate health care services, can get pregnant, sexually transmitted diseases, mental health issues such as depression and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), a criminal record. And some of them are murdered or die as a result of the trafficking," said Beth Holger-Ambrose, executive director of The Link, an outreach group in Minnesota.
"It is a huge problem, an absolute gaping hole," agreed Malika Saada Saar, executive director of Rights4Girls, which focuses on the human rights of marginalized young women and girls in the United States. "There has to be a comprehensive system of care for trafficked girls, trauma-informed care.”
Some states are making good progress on services -- among them Georgia, Minnesota, Connecticut, Washington and parts of Oregon, said Holger-Ambrose , who recently completed a nationwide survey. But even in states with budget surpluses and a strong track record of protecting women’s rights and providing social services, like Minnesota, getting adequate funding is proving challenging. And help from churches, foundations and other private assistance is unable to fill the gap.
Minnesota delayed implementing its so-called safe harbour legislation for three years in order to survey needs and structure an effective programme. It concluded that $13.5 million was needed for the first two years to train law enforcement officials, prosecutors and child welfare officers in how to respond to victims of child sex trafficking, create a response system, provide 35 to 40 beds for victims and deliver counseling services.
The state has allocated only $2.8 million. Jeff Bauer, director of public policy for Family Partnership based in Minneapolis, expects lobbying efforts will add another $1.1 million. However, that would be less than one-third of what the evaluation showed was needed and the new law takes effect in August.
“It is dangerous to talk about passing these laws without backing them up with funding. You cannot be morally against child sex trafficking, and then not invest in the services needed, because you are actually putting them in a more vulnerable situation back on the streets and into the arms of the traffickers,” said Bauer.
New York, the first state in 2008 to adopt a safe harbour law, faces similar problems. New York County assistant district attorney John Temple said the 20 beds citywide for child sex trafficked victims is inadequate. Legislators allocated $3 million for the law in the latest budget for a state far larger than Minnesota. How much will go for the essential counseling and support services which previously have been short-changed is unclear, said Rachel Lloyd, chief executive of GEMS, which works with girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. She is concerned about how that will affect services.
“I see girls coming in every week, and it really pains me to see the waste when there is real work that needs to be done,” Lloyd said, referring to programs that don’t provide support and counseling services.
Intricately interwoven with the issue is a social services network in the United States that is so badly broken it has become a feeder system for trafficking victims, advocates say. So while changing the law to prevent sex-trafficked children from going to jail is a welcome step forward, at the same time it is exposing weaknesses in the social safety net that contributed to the problem in the first place.
“Seventy percent of our girls are coming from a child welfare system that has failed them, and 99.9 percent are coming from low-income communities. So let’s talk about poverty and class and what we are doing about it, and do something about it before we lose them,” Lloyd said.
Advocates say it would be a worthwhile investment. Holger-Ambrose estimates that shelter and housing programmes, depending on how many youth they serve and where they are located, cost about $600,000 to $800,000 a year to operate, which is not that much compared with the potential returns of children put back on the path to productive lives. And it could prove cheaper than continually putting young people in prison.