Action Alert

Policing the Victims: Arrest Policy for Trafficked Women

Policing the Victims: Arrest Policy for Trafficked Women

“We must have the patience to welcome [survivors] back. Once a girl realizes that she can trust you, that she has a place to go and can get help, she will return for a little longer each time.”   – Michelle Guymon, LA County Probation Department

Human Trafficking remains one of the most dangerous epidemics plaguing our nation’s youth today. In the United States there are an estimated 293,000 children at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex. Most are young girls between the ages of 12 and 14. The federal government defines human trafficking as: “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age”; or “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.” The overwhelming practice used in law enforcement today is to arrest anyone suspected of being involved in prostitution, regardless of age. Recently the policy of arresting juvenile sex work offenders has come under fire. This tactic has been criticized by many as too punitive a measure to be taken against juveniles, especially since most of those arrested were coerced into the illicit trade. Below is the story of a young girl called Tami who like so many young women was forced into sex trafficking:

A pimp kidnapped Tami on her way home from school in Los Angeles. He held her captive for six months, raping, beating and starving her. At night, he sold Tami for sex with other men. Tami tried to escape by telling every john who purchased her that she was only a kid. For months, Tami pleaded with her buyers: “I’m only 15. Can you please take me to a police station?” But none did. When she finally encountered police officers, they did not rescue her; they arrested her.

New Program in Los Angeles

To help combat child trafficking and prostitution, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office recently launched its First Step diversion program. The program is aimed at minors ranging from 12 to 17 years of age who have been arrested for sex-related crimes such as prostitution. The First Step program is a year long initiative for juveniles that would provide them with counseling, medical and social services, in an attempt to keep them off the streets. By completing the program, enrolled minors will have their original charge expunged from their records. LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey stated, “We believe that we should help these children, not detain them. We want to give these children a chance to rebuild their lives.”  She goes on to state that the traditional approach they were using in law enforcement was missing the underlying issue of the illicit trade.

The new change in strategy follows a 10-year span, from 2000 to 2010, where LA County alone saw over 2,000 arrests of juvenile offenders for prostitution or loitering for solicitation. First Step is to be a viable alternative to putting the minors in juvenile hall, but it is not the same as a foster home, which many kids often end up running away from and back to their street “handlers” or “pimps.” One victim describes her horrid experience in foster care:

“In most of my 14 different placements in foster-care homes, I was raped and attached to a check. I understood very early that I could be raped, cared for and connected to money. It was therefore easy to go from that to a pimp, and at least the pimp told me that he loved me.”

Child welfare services have been criticized for not properly identifying children who are being trafficked for sex. If there are signs of trafficking, child welfare services often shift responsibility on to law enforcement, which is also ill equipped in dealing with child victims. “These children are not routinely interviewed by sexual violence experts, as is done in other instances of child rape. Nor do prosecutors provide them the legal protections afforded to other sexually assaulted minors,”  says Malika Saada Saar, director of the Human Rights Project for Girls. Programs like LA’s First Step seek to eliminate these treacherous loopholes and pull our nation’s youth out of this vicious cycle of abuse.

The Human Trafficking Intervention Court

This novel approach to law enforcement and victim services may be catching on. In Queens, in New York, the Human Trafficking Intervention Court (HTIC) has been implementing a new approach to dealing with women arrested on prostitution charges. The 11-month-old specialized court seeks to redefine the way the law treats women who are caught prostituting. Similar to the First Step program in LA, the HTIC operates by typically offering women a deal in which they can attend a certain number of counseling sessions in exchange for having their criminal charges dismissed and the records sealed.

The difference with the HTIC is that the amnesty offer is extended to all women arrested on prostitution charges, not only juveniles. Many of the women brought before the court are immigrants from China who have been promised better lives in America, only to be duped and forced into sex work when they arrive in the U.S. The United States is widely regarded as a destination country for human trafficking, and federal data estimates between 14,500 and 17,500 victims are trafficked into the country every year.  Judge Toko Serita states, “This court is not devised to solve the problems of trafficking…but to address one of the unfortunate by products, which is the arrest of these defendants on prostitution charges.”  Due to the silence and social stigma surrounding human trafficking, many of the victims are reluctant to define themselves as having been trafficked. Many victims fear going to the police since many of them are undocumented and the justice system predominantly treats all involved in prostitution as criminals. The court does not mandate that the defendants turn in their “handlers,” rather it hopes the leeway given to the victims will allow for them to share their stories of trafficking, which in turn will perhaps lead to the arrest of their “pimps.”

Safe Harbor Laws and The Code

In light of this problem, anti-human trafficking organizations such as ECPAT-USA have stated, “many state courts and police departments continue to treat underage victims as criminals. This may occur due to a lack of training, too few resources for victims, and misperceptions about the experience of children who are exploited in the sex trade. By turning child victims over to the juvenile justice system states perpetrate an endless cycle of arrest, detention, and abuse.”  To help address the situation, ECPAT-USA is advocating for states throughout the nation to adopt so-called Safe Harbor laws which can:

  • correct the conflicts between federal and state law by exempting children from prosecution for prostitution
  • require training for law enforcement and other first responders on how to identify and assist victims
  • increase the penalties for traffickers and purchasers of sex
  • prompt the collaboration of a multidisciplinary team to develop a statewide system of care.

Nine states have adopted Safe Harbor laws, including: Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Vermont and Washington. ECPAT-USA has also partnered with the hospitality industry to combat hotel complicity in sex trafficking by launching a campaign called The Code. The campaign is aimed at companies in the travel, tourism, hospitality, or conferencing/meeting sectors to get them to sign on to the Tourism Child-Protection Code of Conduct. Companies that endorse The Code are supported by ECPAT-USA to:

  • establish a policy and procedures against sexual exploitation of children
  • train employees in children's rights, the prevention of sexual exploitation and how to report suspected cases
  • include a clause in contracts throughout the value chain stating a common repudiation and zero tolerance policy of sexual exploitation of children
  • provide information to travelers on children's rights, the prevention of sexual exploitation of children and how to report suspected cases
  • support, collaborate and engage stakeholders in the prevention of sexual exploitation of children
  • report annually on their implementation of Code related activities.

Congress Acts

As our nation’s courts and law enforcement agencies are beginning to embrace this new practice, some members of Congress have also recognized that most of the women (especially girls) involved in prostitution have been trafficked and are doing so against their will. They have been victimized and need to receive help rather than compound their misery with legal punishment or incarceration. Congressional leaders Erik Paulsen (R-MN) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) have reintroduced anti-trafficking legislation in light of these issues: the H.R. 159 - Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (2015) and S. 166 (A bill to stop exploitation through trafficking – 2015). If adopted into law, these bills would make certain amendments to the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 and the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. The amendments seek to strengthen the services for juvenile victims of sex trafficking with such measures as prohibiting the charging of minors involved in prostitution and encouraging the diversion of such individuals to child welfare services, victim treatment programs, child advocacy centers and rape crisis centers.

Hopefully, with the help of advocates for the victims of human trafficking, more states and localities will begin to adopt the new laws and policies like Safe Harbor and companies will endorse and sign onto The Code. Programs like LA’s First Step diversion program and New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Court are effective models that can be replicated in other localities and districts. With your help we can defeat the scourge of human trafficking in the 21st century, because all victims of human trafficking deserve to have their rights protected and be given the opportunity to live a life free from exploitation.

Posted or updated: 2/27/2015 11:00:00 PM
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Suggested Pages:

*Human Trafficking

*Action Alerts

Take Action:

  • Contact your Congressional Representative (Congressional Switchboard: 202-224-3121) and urge them to put their support behind H.R. 159 – Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (2015). Push your state lawmakers and representatives to adopt Safe Harbor legislation throughout your state and urge hotel chains to sign The Code and support anti-human trafficking efforts in their businesses.
  • Visit the National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s referral directory page. Utilize this valuable resource to locate and refer human trafficking services in your area.
  • Watch the short documentary film, What I Have Been Through Is Not Who I Am to learn more about the personal experiences of victims of human trafficking.
  • Download the report, “Blueprint: A Multidisciplinary Approach to the Domestic Sex Trafficking of Girls,” produced by the Georgetown Law School’s Center on Poverty and Inequality, which offers novel and innovative ways to combat sex trafficking.
  • Read “Abolition of Sex Trafficking” #6023, pages 709–712, and “The Girl Child” #3089, pages 247–250, in The Book of Resolutions of the United Methodist Church (2012).
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