Is Your City Government Punishing Human Trafficking Victims?

Recent local legislative actions in major U.S. cities show alarming ignorance of state and federal law regarding human trafficking, and put those cities in danger of violating the constitutional rights and legal protections of vulnerable persons. Local actions are extremely important and directly impact the national and global treatment of women and children.

On November 11, 2012 the City of St. Louis, Missouri passed an ordinance to remove "prostitutes" from St. Louis' streets. This ordinance makes no provision for screening "prostitutes" for human trafficking victims, even though human trafficking victims' presence in street level commercial sexual exploitation is well known and documented, and Missouri is no exception to this.

Nor does the ordinance mention or take action against the buyers of prostituted or trafficked persons.. Which is to say the law targets women and girls, leaving men free to go elsewhere to drive the market for commercial sex and human trafficking.

This misogynistic point of view is well illustrated in a February 15 St. Louis FOX affiliate KTVI news report calling an area on St. Louis's south side a "playground for prostitutes." Really? Isn't it a playground for the men buying them? Alarmingly, I have been approached by outreach workers worrying how very young many of these girls look. If they are under age 18, they are victims of human trafficking, and yet nothing in the St. Louis ordinance screens for victims of sex trafficking. Furthermore, a witness says that he sees pimps dropping girls off. Is the city completely unaware that pimp = human trafficker? Is the city unaware that any child being prostituted or bought is a victim of human trafficking? Why doesn't the city go after the pimps, traffickers and buyers? Federal and state laws give law enforcement plenty of ammunition to do so.

Meanwhile Atlanta news reports their Chief of Police George Turner has "asked the city council to approve a so-called banishment law, whereby on first offense the 'prostitute' would be ordered not to return to the area in which she was arrested, and on second offense she would be banished from the city altogether." Yes, banished from the city.

Men who bought or attempted to buy sex from her would not be banished. Nor, presumably, would they have to wear a scarlet letter. Whether the women would have to is not so clear. It's further reported that in public discussions of the proposed ordinance that reported "Residents were outnumbered by social workers at the meeting, who tried to persuade lawmakers and law enforcement to produce resources to help the females instead of finding new ways to put them in jail." This is great, that social workers and citizens are coming out en masse. I'm encouraging St. Louis social workers and citizens to create the same kind of presence in defense of exploited women and children in our city.

Apparently off these city's radars as well is language in important federal legislation introduced by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and passed by the Senate last week, attached to the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), addressing the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), that stipulates that certain grant funding to state and local governments for the purpose of trafficking prevention and eradication shall in part be contingent upon the existence of "procedures to screen all individuals arrested for prostitution, whether adult or minor, for victimization by sex trafficking."

Interestingly, St. Louis will be holding its mayoral primary election on March 5, and two of the three contenders have direct involvement with the problematic ordinance's passage. Mayoral primary candidate and board of alderman president Lewis Reed introduced the bill, and it was signed into law by the incumbent, Mayor Francis Slay. Neither campaign office had responded to requests for comments about this law by the time of this writing.

Writing and calling those campaigns' offices between now and the March 5 primary would send a clear message.

Other major cities such as Kansas City and San Francisco have instituted remediation and education of buyers of sex that are proving effective in reducing commercial sexual exploitation and thereby human trafficking. Chicago is posting photos and stats of individuals arrested for soliciting prostitution. Though how to do so is up for debate, advocates and researchers agree that addressing demand for commercial sex is critical in curbing human trafficking.

The St. Louis law does state that "prostitutes" will be routed to social services, but those services are not specified, and as of this writing no social service agency I spoke with, including those serving human trafficking victims, had received any communication from the city or law enforcement about this "program" or inquiring about services.

People approach us advocates every day asking what they can do to help victims of human trafficking, how they can help to stop end it. Here's a concrete action we can all take: Ask your mayor, your aldermen, your sheriff, your police chief how prostitution is handled in your town. Ask them if they screen for the presence of human trafficking, if they investigate pimps, if they arrest the men who buy sex. Look for news reports about these kinds of laws. Vote for local candidates who understand and care about human trafficking victims and who do not vilify women. Demand that women and children be treated with dignity and respect. And when laws such as these from St. Louis and Atlanta are proposed or passed, stand up and say no.