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Rescued children shouldn’t be in handcuffs

Editor’s note: Francesca L. Garrett is a long-time victim’s advocate and Executive Director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio.

By Francesca Garrett, Special for CNN

The girl on the news is wearing pink flip flops.  An oversized plaid shirt hides a figure that has barely begun to develop. According to the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, as a minor who has been forced to perform a sexual act for money she is a victim of sex trafficking. Yet under prostitution statutes in most states she has also committed a criminal offense – and now she is in handcuffs.

About three-quarters of  the children rescued last week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation through Operation Cross Country VII live in states that afford them no legal protections from prostitution charges.

Some could face up to two years in juvenile detention, others, thousands of dollars in fines (pdf). Many may also be charged for possessing the cocktail of drugs that traffickers use to create dependency and compliance in the children they sell. And though the FBI is likely to afford special leniency to those rescued in the sting, without change, the same may not hold true for the children arrested on the streets in the coming months and years.

Nor has it in the past. In 2007, a Texas District Attorney prosecuted a 13-year-old girl for prostitution while her 32-year-old “boyfriend” went free. She was one of 1,500 sexually exploited children arrested nationwide that year.

Treating a child as an offender breeds mistrust in a legal system that ought to protect him or her, and traffickers and pimps exploit this, threatening their victims with arrest and criminal records if they try to seek help.

They are threats Dominique, whose named has been changed to protect her identity, knows all too well. Three days after the FBI’s raids, she sits across from me in a local coffee shop. Like the girl on the news she’s in flip flops, which dangle from her feet. Dominique is 21, but entered what is commonly known by survivors of sexual exploitation as ‘the life’ at 14, when her middle-aged boyfriend sold her for the first time.

“He said if I ran, he’d call the police and say what I’d done. He said no one loved me now, that I was trash now, and I’d always be trash. He said only he loved me now.”

And so she stayed, afraid of rejection from her family, and of prosecution from local police. That mistrust of the law remains seven years later, and as Dominique and I watch footage of Operation Coast to Coast VII on my laptop, she shifts uncomfortably as a victim’s fingerprints are taken.

“Are they booking her?” she asks warily. “Is she under arrest?” I have no easy answers. But I could if so-called ‘safe harbor’ laws were passed across the country.

‘Safe harbor’ laws remove the conflicts between federal and state law by exempting children from prosecution for prostitution, while ensuring strict punishment for people who sell children.

They also require that law enforcement agencies undergo training on how to identify and assist victims, and prompt agencies to participate in the creation of statewide multidisciplinary systems of care.

Since 2008, ‘safe harbor’ laws have been passed in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington, with a Texas Supreme Court ruling offering the same security.

These states work with non-profits like FAIR Girls, the Polaris Project, and GEMS: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services to provide comprehensive case management, court advocacy, survivor support groups, and life skills workshops.

But the cost of such inclusive care can be challenging. Teresa Tomassoni, Director of Programs at FAIR  Girls, said: “We want ‘safe harbor’ laws to pass in every state. But we also recognize that these laws are what we call an ‘unfunded mandate.’ The law demands that child victims be offered specialized services and be kept out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and yet if there is no safe house for law enforcement to place a recovered child in, that’s exactly where they often end up.”

And juvenile detention centers are often ill-equipped to meet the staggering needs of trauma victims. Some research indicates that two-thirds of girls and women who have been commercially sexually exploited suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), surpassing rates found in returning Iraqi and Afghan war veterans by nearly 30 percent. Others are pregnant, addicted, or have severe physical health problems.

Jail is not where these children will find the care they need. But for children in the 42 states without ‘safe harbor’ laws, there are few alternatives.

We need to show girls like Dominique that we can do better. We need to show them that we care about their futures by funding the agencies and organizations that aid them, and by advocating for the passage of ‘safe harbor’ laws country wide.

Operation Cross Country VII is undeniable progress, but that progress will remain flawed as long as we continue to prosecute children for the crimes others perpetrate against them.

Are you a victim of trafficking, or do you have information about someone who is? Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center 24/7 at 1-888-373-7888‎.

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