Senate proposes legislation to address sex trafficking of American youth

In our own backyard, children are prostituted on main streets across America.  Instead of shying away from the uncomfortable reality that over 100,000 U.S. children are prostituted every year within U.S. borders, the Senate has instead proposed legislation to address this troubling reality.

On February 24, 2010, the Senate Judiciary Committee invited experts in the field of child sex trafficking to weigh in on recent legislation introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), and co-sponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-Tex.), Al Franken (D-Min.), and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). The Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2009 aims to provide large block grants to provide shelter and services to survivors of child sex trafficking and to provide funding to implement improvements on tracking missing and exploited children.

As the key senator behind the bill, Senator Wyden explained that child sex trafficking in the United States is a multi-billion dollar business and once a child is involved, it’s very difficult for the child to get out.  “We need to be clear that we are not going to sacrifice our children to pimps.” 

Senator Durbin (D-Ill.) drew attention to how young children are when they are recruited into sex trafficking, often in their early teens (13 is the average age). “….The scourge of human trafficking continues to plague our nation and our world,” said the Senator. “There is no more heartbreaking part of this problem than the sexual exploitation of children.”

On a well-balanced panel representing many aspect of the field, each panelist highlighted the importance of treating the child as a victim, providing appropriate services for the survivor and setting effective deterrence against buying sex with children.

What was most welcomed, however, was the voice of a survivor of child sex trafficking. Shaqwanna is a survivor of domestic minor sex trafficking and currently an outreach volunteer at GEMS (Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, founded by Rachel Lloyd, also on the panel). Shaqwanna spoke of the need to provide safe shelter for this vulnerable population.

“Girls need support, not jail,” emphasized Shaqwanna. “We need a safe place and people who will be patient and non-judgmental so we can start our lives over.”

Currently, there are very few safe places for a child to go – less than 60 beds in the entire United States. Without a safe place for a child to go, it’s easier to return to the pimp who provides basic needs like shelter and food.   Anita Alvarez, a prosecutor in Cook County, Ill., told of a child with a mother addicted to drugs. The pimp provided the child with food and clothing, and the child was reluctant to report him.  “He gives me a Subway sandwich whenever I ask,” the child said.

However, it was Senator Franken who highlighted the role of the male who is supporting the demand for commercial exploitation of children. “What about the men, the American men who are paying for sex with children?” asked Franken. “The ‘johns,’ the adult males who visit prostitutes, are the ones who should be prosecuted. They are the ones who should be in prison.”                                                                            

In response, speakers called for tougher state laws to prosecute men who pay for sex with children, language that currently isn’t strong enough in the proposed legislation.  Studies have shown that men who buy sex don’t care what age the woman/girl is, but they do care about being stigmatized and embarrassed.

The Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2009 is not only important for the safety of America’s children, but also to set a benchmark for other countries to replicate. Ambassador Luis Cdebaca, Ambassador at Large to Combat Human Trafficking, plans to assess the United States in the 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report. “We in the U.S. need to do an honest self-assessment. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that work in this area serve as the ‘conscience of the community.’”

However, until legislation is passed to strengthen our response to domestic minor sex trafficking, the Ambassador highlighted the importance of helping all victims of child sexual exploitation.  “It doesn’t matter if the victim once consented or returned to the pimp; it doesn’t matter if the chains were psychological or physical and whether the acts taken by the pimps inspired feelings of love or fear in the victim. This is still a victim.”

Please visit our website (www.sharedhope.org) to read more about the Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2009, watch the Senate Hearing and read President Linda Smith’s Testimony.

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