I. Is US law enforcement well prepared to recognize and deal with child sex trafficking victims?

As of 2019, 20 states still technically allow for minors to be charged for prostitution despite the existence of federal laws to protect children from commercial sexual exploitations. On top of this, minors are often charged for misdemeanors and non-violent felonies that were committed as a result of being trafficked (e.g. stealing, drug dealing/possession). As a result, victims of sex trafficking may not immediately be recognized by law enforcement as victims of human trafficking, instead punished for crimes that they were forced to commit or that resulted from their exploitation.

Undoubtedly, there needs to be more training for law enforcement to recognize and screen for these types of situations.

II. How does the criminalization of prostitution hurt (or help) child sex trafficking victims?

It clearly hurts victims because it insists on punishing them and establishing a criminal record. Under federal law, there does not need to be evidence of “force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion” in order for a minor to be considered a victim of trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation:

“When the victim is a minor, Section 1591 does not require proof that the defendant used force, threats of force, fraud, or coercion, or any combination of those means, to cause the minor to engage in a commercial sex act.”

This is an important distinction from the legal definition of sex trafficking of adults, which requires those elements of force and coercion to establish a case of sex trafficking.

Pressing charges against minors for prostitution and other minor crimes has potentially devastating repercussions for survivors of sex trafficking as these criminal records follow them into their adult lives, making it harder to them to secure things like housing and employment. See this journal article, “Criminalizing the Victim: Ending Prosecution of Human Trafficking Victims” for a more detailed analysis.

On a practical note, while some states have passed legislation that would allow victims of sex trafficking to vacate or expunge their criminal records, this process requires legal assistance and financial means – resources not all survivors have access to. Furthermore, attempting to clear criminal records can put tremendous stress on trafficking survivors as they may need to relive their past trauma.

It’s also worth acknowledging that homeless youth – especially homeless LGBTQ youth who have been kicked out of their families — are particularly at-risk of exploitation and may engage in “survival sex,” or the trading of sex for cash or shelter. The Urban Institute did a great study on LGBTQ homeless youth in NYC here.

Arresting and charging this already vulnerable population with prostitution only furthers their stigmatization in society. Not enough attention has been given to LGBTQ homeless youth in the wider US anti-trafficking sector, contributing to their invisibility. We are calling for better support for homeless youth to prevent trafficking in our campaign here.

III. How does the US's approach to focus on low-level crimes in an effort to lessen overall crime hurt child sex trafficking victims?

Broken Windows Policing and similar law enforcement strategies are problematic in that they are grounded in using arrests and prosecutions as the means to create “law and order.” In other words, if the first instinct is to punish, child sex trafficking victims may not necessarily be recognized or even screened as victims by law enforcement. It’s reflective of an approach to criminalize youth for minor crimes without investigating or being sympathetic to the reasons behind them, such as forced criminality.

In an ideal world, children who are suspected of being trafficking victims would be properly screened and treated with compassion by law enforcement and referred to social workers and non-profits that can assist them.

IV. Do you think the US is designed to protect or to hurt child sex trafficking victims?

This largely depends on individual state legislation around not criminalizing child sex trafficking victims and allowing them to vacate their criminal records. Some states are doing a better job at this than others and ultimately we’d like to see the legal right to clear criminal records extended to adult victims of sex trafficking across the country. You can read about our campaign to pass such a law in New Hampshire here.

V. How extensive is child sex trafficking in the US/how deeply is the US affected by this issue?

Like many countries, child sex trafficking is an extensive problem in the United States,  and includes the online commercial sexual exploitation of children.

Despite this, there remains major challenges to correcting the American public’s perception of sex trafficking. Movies such as “Taken” haven’t helped the situation – victims are rarely violently kidnapped and too often the “face” of child sex trafficking victims is assumed to a white, suburban, heterosexual teenage American girl. These public misperceptions of what child sex trafficking victims look or present like can affect public reporting and understanding of the crime.

Furthermore, issues such as racism, homophobia and transphobia, and xenophobia  effect the resources and help that is allocated to child sex trafficking victims, as discrimination against racial minorities, those who identify as LGBTQ, or who may be undocumented may cause assumptions about their situation that results in dismissal of their victimhood. In this sense, helping child sex trafficking victims isn’t just a matter of non-prosecution for prostitution; it’s a multi-faceted issue that requires law enforcement, the anti-trafficking sector, and the American public to see the intersectionality of vulnerabilities.