Awareness about human trafficking has seemingly exploded over the last several years. This is evident in both the 259 percent increase in phone calls to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline over its first five years of operation and the dozens upon dozens of anti-trafficking laws passed at the state and federal levels. It is our collective responsibility to further our understanding of how and why this crime can occur and take the next steps to truly eradicate it.
To achieve this, it's important to remember that human trafficking and modern slavery is not just a crime committed by a criminal against his or her victim. Many times, it's able to occur due to the presence of vulnerability that a trafficker can exploit in a population -- runaway and abused youths; individuals displaced by natural disasters; unemployed adults unable to find a paying job; children passed through the juvenile justice system. These vulnerabilities are often created or exacerbated by the absence of a safety net or a series of intervention failures.
Take the child welfare system for example. Polaris Project recently released an analysis of five years' worth of hotline data. We reported handling 314 potential human trafficking cases in which minors had interacted with the child welfare system in some capacity. While federal and state welfare agencies are now recognizing the role of the child welfare system in the prevention, response, and treatment of minor victims of human trafficking and are working to develop responses, many children are falling through the cracks. Minors are being thrown into the juvenile justice system for crimes related to their trafficking situation, such as prostitution. In other cases, welfare workers are unaware of human trafficking indicators or how to direct minor victims to services. If law enforcement and child welfare agencies were trained to identify and sensitively respond to trafficking, it's likely some, possibly many, of these kids could have accessed help much earlier.
There are actions we can take to move closer to eliminating human trafficking and modern slavery. Only 18 states have passed "safe harbor" laws that recognize sexually exploited minors as victims of a crime, rather than criminals. Victims of sex trafficking should not be handcuffed and thrown into juvenile justice centers or jail. Instead, they need protection and services -- and should be granted immunity from prosecution entirely. Furthermore, only 14 states have passed "vacating conviction" statutes that remove convictions for crimes committed as a result of being trafficked. Just as important, the states that have passed laws providing for law enforcement training, safe harbor, vacating convictions and other victim services, need the funding in place for implementation.
As more people understand the horror of this form of exploitation, they want to be part of the solution to eliminate what's estimated to be a $32 billion a year industry. It's time for policymakers to provide the funding to not only respond to modern slavery, but prevent it -- all while we continue to help survivors reclaim their freedom.
This blog post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the producers of the film TRICKED, a new documentary that sheds light on the reality of sex trafficking in the United States and follows the exploiters, the purchasers, the police officers, the survivors, the families and the social workers involved in the sex trade. The film opens on December 13. For more information about TRICKED, click here.