Encouraging Steps in Abolishing Human Slavery

It goes without saying that most of us want to ramp up -- and win -- the war against human trafficking. America abolished slavery once before, and we can do it again.
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Sometimes, really good ideas in the fight against the sex trafficking of kids get adopted broadly, and it gives hope to all of us in the advocacy community. Two bits of news landed in my inbox this month that give me hope that we can abolish the sex slavery of children in our lifetimes.

First off, New York State, long a leader in these battles, announced it was opening 11 courts dedicated solely to human trafficking and prostitution cases. In such courts, trafficking victims will no longer be treated as criminals, but in many cases can be referred to social services such as shelter, health care, counseling, education, job training, help with immigration issues, and drug treatment. That's what they need -- the opportunity for a fulfilling future, rather than time spent in jail, a permanent criminal record, and a likely return to the dangerous streets.

I list shelter first because we have seen here at Covenant House that the lack of a safe place to stay is the most common reason most of our kids give for engaging in commercial sex activity, which becomes its own form of modern slavery. In our study released in May, fully 48 percent of the young people at our New York City shelter who had either been trafficked or participated in survival sex said they would not have had to do so if they had had reliable shelter. According to the study, kids "explained how traffickers loiter in areas where homeless youth are known to gather and then tell them that the shelters are full and offer them a place to stay in lieu of sleeping on the streets."

New York State -- building on the innovative work of District Attorneys, Cyrus R. Vance Jr. from Manhattan, and Kathleen M. Rice from Nassau County -- is to be commended for taking the lead on instituting such courts. The state passed the nation's first Safe Harbor Law to help, rather than handcuff trafficking victims, and it was one of the first seven states to pass legislation that allows trafficking victims convicted of prostitution-related crimes to clear their criminal records. When it comes to legislative reforms, mighty weapons in the fight against trafficking, such victories give me hope that if we can make it here, we can make it anywhere.

The other piece of good news this month came from the halls of the scientific academy. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences issued a 466-page study of the commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors, a long-overdue look at the objective reality of trafficking victims.

It is so gratifying to see the issue given the credence it deserves. Far too many publications -- some of them bankrolled by profits from Backpage.com, where ads for trafficked people appear -- have downplayed the severity of domestic sex trafficking. The Institute of Medicine acknowledges that victims are very difficult to count. Victims are often ashamed, conflicted about their pimps, distrustful of people who want to help them, and not at all likely to admit that they have been trafficked. In a summary of its recommendations, the report moves beyond the thorny question of victim counting.

"It would not be useful to devote substantial resources to refining estimates of the problems' overall prevalence," the authors write. Instead, they recommend efforts to focus on populations that are at particular risk of being trafficked, including homeless kids, those involved in the foster care system, minorities, and sexual minorities.

The study calls for reducing the demand for prostituted people, increasing awareness of trafficking, including training people to recognize and respond to victims, and ideally preventing young people from being harmed in the first place. It targets a wise, wide range of people to work on the problem: parents, caregivers, teachers, school personnel, kids, doctors, child welfare workers, community and faith-based organizations, law enforcement officials, attorneys and judges in juvenile and criminal courts, social workers and mental health professionals. It recommends that all states stop treating victims like criminals, and it encourages high-quality research on trafficking in peer-reviewed journals.

It goes without saying that most of us want to ramp up -- and win -- the war against human trafficking, but the fight sometimes feels hopeless. We often feel ambushed and assaulted by the money and indifference that force so many homeless kids into terrible situations. We're not immune at Covenant House -- we face plenty of days when the sea of abused and exploited kids across six countries, including the United States and Canada, feels overwhelming. That's why it is important to recognize that momentum is on our side -- new allies with innovative approaches and research join the fight every week. America abolished slavery once before, and we can do it again.