Human trafficking

Moderated by Tom Sabulis

Georgia has progressed in recent years in the fight against human sex trafficking, but there is still more to do, writes a nonprofit leader who has been instrumental in proposing new legislation. A local legal expert says the public needs to recognize the victims of these crime, many of them children, as survivors of abuse and violence; failing to do so only extends the harm they have suffered.

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Eliminate digital age sex trade

By Stephanie Davis

Georgia’s laws on human trafficking have come a long way since 2001, when the pimping of a child was punishable as a misdemeanor with a fine of $50. Public awareness has grown exponentially in the last decade, and our elected officials have responded to our advocacy.

Women’s and civic groups like the Rotary Club, immigrant and refugee organizations, faith-based groups and congregations of every religion have raised public consciousness of child prostitution and developed downstream strategies to provide services to victims and intervene with at-risk youth.

These efforts have helped move the perception of the child as a criminal—“the bad girl”— to being a victim, vulnerable and desperate to survive. The training of medical and psychological personnel and, importantly, law enforcement on how to identify a victim has begun to take place, and a clearinghouse for services, the Georgia Care Connection, has been established under the Governor’s Office of Children and Families.

So why do we still have a problem?

The Internet and cell phones keep the illegal sex trade growing and flourishing. We need new technological strategies to intervene. Safe houses for minors are slowly coming on line, but there are too few places for adult victims who are often dumped in overcrowded battered women’s shelters, where their multiple needs and trauma cannot be addressed adequately.

There is a solution. Nationally, 50 women and girls are arrested for every man who engages in the act of buying sex. If we are to end child prostitution, we must get serious about ending all prostitution and the sex industry that supports it. We must end the demand for it. This can be done with greater law enforcement focus on pimps and johns and a broader understanding that buying sex creates victims.

It will take sustained outrage and more upstream strategies if we are ever to change this course completely. But it can be done. As compassion has grown for victims, justice has followed.

Recently, we have seen bipartisan, nearly unanimous support for laws that require professionals to report apparent child exploitation, and that require adult entertainment establishments, hotels and truck stops to post the toll-free number for the national human trafficking hotline (888-373-7888 or text BeFree to 233733). Victims can more easily seek rescue and safe refuge.

Perhaps most important, landmark legislation, HB 200, provided an affirmative defense for all trafficking victims while boosting penalties for traffickers, pimps and johns.

Today, Georgia Women for a Change convenes the 23rd annual Georgia Women’s Assembly. Human trafficking is once again on our policy agenda. We will propose a Safe Harbor bill, like the law in several other states, that presumes anyone under 18 is trafficked and deserves services. It would be another inch forward in shifting criminality away from the victims of the sex trade, and perhaps toward a greater understanding of the crime.

Stephanie Davis is executive director of Georgia Women for a Change, a non-profit public policy organization.

Help victims among us

By Jonathan Todres

Child sex trafficking is a serious crime. Yet it remains largely hidden, much like its young victims. A new report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council finds that the problem occurs in all 50 states.

Reflecting the breadth of the problem, a nationwide FBI sting operation this summer led to the arrest of 159 suspected pimps and identification of more than 100 sexually exploited children. A job well done? The FBI’s efforts are to be commended, but every arrest or conviction of an individual who sexually exploits a child should remind us that we failed as a society to protect these children from harm.

And the arrest of a pimp tells us little about whether we are actually helping these children to rebuild their lives. In many states, victims have been arrested and charged with prostitution or other related crimes. Failing to recognize these children as survivors of abuse and violence perpetuates the problem and exacerbates the harm that they suffer.

The Institute of Medicine/National Research Council report seeks to reorient our understanding of, and responses to, these crimes. Even with law enforcement, policymakers and media focusing increasingly on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the U.S. is in “the very early stages of recognizing, understanding and developing solutions for these problems.” The report sets forth important recommendations to develop more effective and better-coordinated responses to at-risk and exploited children.

First, “commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors should be understood as acts of abuse and violence against children and adolescents.” That means that as a nation, we must commit to preventing such violence and abuse, and not only responding after the harm has occurred. We must hold accountable those who create the demand for such exploitation and perpetrate these crimes. We also need to ensure services are available to each child who is harmed.

Second, “minors who are commercially sexually exploited or trafficked for sexual purposes should not be considered criminals.” A sexually exploited teenager is not a criminal, but a victim and survivor of abuse and violence.

Third, “identification of victims and survivors and any intervention, above all, should do no further harm to any child.” Not only does this require ending the practice of arresting victims and charging them with crimes, it means ensuring that child welfare and other systems have the resources and training to respond effectively. No law enforcement officer should believe arrest is the only option. No social worker should believe the system cannot help a child. “Do no harm” also requires that we pursue more research to develop evidence-based services for victims and survivors.

We are still far from the ultimate goal of preventing commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of children.

Numerous sectors of society — including not only law enforcement, but social services, health care, education and the private sector — have a significant role to play.

Jonathan Todres is a law professor at Georgia State University and a member of the Institute of Medicine/National Research Council Study Committee on Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States.

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