Funding Anti-Trafficking Efforts Must Be A Priority

NOTE: Today the Modern Slavery Research Project at Loyola University and Covenant House New Orleans are releasing their new study, "Human Trafficking and Exploitative Labor Among Homeless Youth in New Orleans." It quantifies what we have seen for years, a direct pipeline from homelessness to sexual exploitation. In her guest column today, Laura T. Murphy, the study's primary author, discusses the findings, and the need for quick funding to help trafficking survivors.

By Laura T. Murphy

Over the last ten years, legislators in my home state of Louisiana and those in many other states have passed a wide swath of bills that make human trafficking illegal. Those laws begin to give precision to the definitions of the force, fraud, and coercion that characterize trafficking. They have provided additional protections for victims of forced labor. They have increased penalties for offenders. And they have suggested that we need to increase support to survivors who are in need of quality, specialized services.

In our recent study titled "Human Trafficking and Exploitative Labor Among Homeless Youth in New Orleans," we interviewed 99 youth residing at Covenant House New Orleans, a shelter that cares for homeless, runaway, and at-risk youth age 16-22. Talking to the young people there, we learned just how necessary these new laws are. 14% of the homeless or marginally-housed youth that we interviewed had been victims of human trafficking. 11% had been trafficked for sex and 5% for labor - 2% had been trafficked for both. One out of every four of the young people we interviewed had engaged in some form of sexual labor, including exotic dancing or survival sex - trading sex for basic necessities in a time of desperation. For several of them, they had been traded for sex for much of their childhood. At least two of them had literally been kidnapped, held captive, and sold for sex.

The young people we spoke with admitted that they had never reported these crimes to the police because they feared the people who held them captive or were afraid of being considered criminals themselves by law enforcement. They often did not have a clear vocabulary to explain what had happened to them and thus had not been treated for the traumas associated with those experiences. Many of them had no route to gain assistance because they were legally considered adults (above the age of 18) when they sold sex and were likely to be labeled criminals, even when they had felt forced to engage in the sex trade.

As a result, our report makes some urgent recommendations. In New Orleans and around the United States, we need to provide more specialized services and shelter beds dedicated to young people who have been commercially sexually exploited. We need mandatory training for law enforcement in which they learn to identify and assist victims of human trafficking. We need legislation that will revise the current "aging out" policies that turn a victim of human trafficking into a sex criminal on their eighteenth birthday.

But we consistently run into the problem that there is essentially no funding for these programs written into the laws that we have. Here in Louisiana, and in other states across the country, legislators are hesitant to spend money on the vital services that will help people escape modern day slavery.

The federal government is poised to pass more anti-trafficking legislation in the coming session - bills that will determine where funding goes to address trafficking in the coming years. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, spearheaded by Sen. John Cornyn (R - Texas) admirably creates new funding for survivor supports and restitution. The New York Times' March 5 editorial applauds the protections and services that this new bill will provide. Many of the nation's most important anti-trafficking organizations have backed the bill as well.

New money to help victims - supporting new shelter beds and services, creating opportunities for survivors to defend themselves legally, training law enforcement to identify their victimization, and even more crucially, creating new jobs and housing opportunities that make escape possible for those who are being held captive - we can all agree that's money well spent.

And it's money that we cannot wait for. Young people are in urgent need of prevention, protection, and rehabilitation services, and the programs that serve this population are often under-funded and stretched to capacity. The proposed funding that will support these programs, however, is created through fining people convicted of trafficking.

We need funding that does not depend on prosecutions - which are few at this time and require years to process. In 2013, there were only 174 such convictions in this country.

Instead, we recommend federally-funded allocations that provide the direly-needed resources that will support anti-trafficking efforts. These are funds that can change the lives of so many people who are suffering and have woefully limited options when they need a place to stay, or when they seek out legal assistance, or when they require a sensitive first-responder who recognizes what they are going through and the supportive care they need.

Those remedies cannot be funded only through fines. Funding human trafficking assistance programs through federally-allocated resources must be a priority if we expect to help the people who live in forced labor and captivity in our own country to regain their freedom.