Awareness of the presence of sex trafficking in the U.S. is increasing, but major challenges pose significant barriers to addressing the crime, according to an April 2014 issue brief by The Center for American Progress. The brief outlines bipartisan legislative efforts to combat trafficking, challenges law enforcement and social service agencies and identifies the importance of adjusting perceptions of the issue.
One of the challenges in addressing combating trafficking is establishing a strong data framework for understanding the scope of the issue. Estimates stand in for hard numbers and confirmed crimes appear much lower, according to the brief. The Federal Bureau of Investigation cites estimates of approximately 293,000 at-risk U.S. children, but reports that it recovered more than 2,700 victims between June 2003 and June 2013 – a statistic that is probably an underrepresentation since a case of sex trafficking is more likely to see local law enforcement involved rather than federal law enforcement. Meanwhile, state amd local law enforcement and social service agencies do not collect and report sex trafficking casesin the same way, undermining opportunities for firm data. Further, victims do not always self-report as victims and law enforcement officers do not always recognize victims of sex trafficking as such, instead viewing them as consensual participants in the commercial sex trade.
According to the issue brief, it is this last point—the failure of victims to be recognized as victims—that critically hinders efforts to combat sex trafficking. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act and reauthorization prompted many jurisdictions to prosecute traffickers aggressively, a significant accomplishment, but one that still fails to recognize the victim-side of the issue, the brief argues. Minors are still penalized under juvenile justice systems even though federal policy recognizes all individuals under 18 as a victim of trafficking. Safe harbor legislation requires agencies to treat commercially exploited young people as victims, but only 18 states have some form of these laws in place. At the federal level, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and the bipartisan team Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) have both introduced victim-focused legislation. One bill provides incentives for states to create safe harbor laws, while the other encourages rehabilitative services rather than detention for child victims.
Knitting together a patchwork of social services could help address the needs of victims. A review of the data from a 2013 FBI Innocence Lost sting indicated that 60 percent of the minors recovered in the operation had previously been in foster care. The brief suggests that child welfare agencies and youth service providers could help screen and report youth missing from care to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, thus closing the gap between services.
The issue brief concludes by highlighting the efforts of lawmakers and advocates to better address the issue of sex trafficking. They also ask for those involved in combating poverty, LGBT youth homelessness and other overlapping issues to collaborate with the anti-trafficking community.
The issue brief was released in tandem with the event, "Combating Sex Trafficking of Minors in the U.S.," a panel discussion with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.); John Temple, attorney-in-charge, New York County District Attorney’s Office Human Trafficking Program; and Malika Saada Saar, executive director, Human Rights Project for Girls. Watch the the event:
The Center for American Progress is a nonprofit think tank that addresses topics such as immigration, education, health care and the economy through "progressive ideas and action."