Child advocates and human trafficking activists across the country have all eyes turned to New York State, where a bill that includes protections for child victims of sex trafficking is plodding its way through the Legislature. The bill, known as the Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, declares that 16- and 17-year-olds who are arrested for prostitution are victims in need of services, not criminals. Right now only youth through age 15 get that protection. Hitting your Sweet 16 birthday shouldn't mean that you no longer need justice.
Under federal law, children under the age of 18 who are found to be engaging in commercial sex are automatically considered trafficking victims. But New York's antiquated definition of a trafficking victim is unnecessarily stricter than federal law and requires that prosecutors prove that people who sell a child for sex use force, fraud or coercion to control them. Under current law, a New York prosecutor trying to convict a pimp or gang of trafficking a 15-year-old must prove that the trafficker used a method, such as physical violence, to force the child to engage in prostitution, which means the victim would most likely need to testify. How many 15-year-olds do you know who volunteer to stand on a dark street corner and sell their bodies?
The bill aligns statutory rape penalties with penalties for buying sex from a child. Right now, people face harsher penalties for statutory rape than for buying an underage prostituted person. Currently, if a john pays the underage girl, he gets a lesser penalty, even if the child is younger than 17, the age of consent. Meanwhile, trafficked kids who are under 17 can end up imprisoned for being statutory rape victims. It makes no sense.
A recent study of homeless young people staying at Covenant House found that almost a quarter of them had been involved either in trafficking or survival sex, where sex is exchanged for something of value, often food or shelter. Half of those kids told us that if they had had a safe place to stay, they would not have had to give away their dignity and innocence to people who were all too ready to exploit them.
Clearly, if we provide safe shelter to more kids, there will be fewer kids for pimps, gangs and johns to use and abuse. And if our state laws can be improved, following the lead of recent victories in New Jersey and promising legislation in Louisiana, we can help protect countless young people from the scourge of sex slavery.
I urge you to contact your state legislators, urging them to pass this bill. Let's step up our fight to end child trafficking by claiming a victory on the war's next front -- New York.