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The movement to shut down the sex-slave trade may have just turned a corner.
Even in a country torn over moral issues, there are still some areas where virtually everybody agrees. One of those areas is the practice of human trafficking — modern-day slavery, often for sexual purposes, and often focused on children. As Citizen reported in its April 2011 cover story:
"The U.S. Department of State estimates 600,000 to 800,000 victims are trafficked internationally every year for purposes of entering the sex trade (stripping, prostitution, pornography and live-sex shows) and labor exploitation (sweatshops and domestic servitude). The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports. ‘After drug dealing, human trafficking is tied with the illegal arms industry as the second largest criminal industry in the world today.' "
Virtually everyone who hears about trafficking, whatever their positions on other issues, is appalled. So given the widespread public consensus, you'd think that our laws to fight it would be pretty strong. Right?
Wrong, according to the anti-trafficking group Shared Hope International.
"The big issue isn't federal law," Shared Hope President Linda Smith told Citizen. "The big issue is with the states. They do 90 percent of the law enforcement in the country."
In December, Shared Hope released The Protected Innocence Challenge, an in-depth, 207-page report card on the laws in 50 states and the District of Columbia. Most of them didn't make the grade, it found. A total of 41 states got either an F (26) or a D (15). None got an A; only four — Texas, Missouri, Illinois and Washington — got a B.
The report, prepared in tandem with the American Center for Law and Justice, is making a splash in law-enforcement and policy-making circles. That's partly because of the heavyweights involved in its preparation: It was vetted by experts including Ambassador Mark Lagon — former head of the State Department's Office to Monitor Trafficking Among Persons — and directors from the National District Attorneys Association and the American Bar Association, among other groups. It's also because of the name Shared Hope has made for itself in the field, through its previous work doing research and assessments for the U.S. Justice Department's human-trafficking task forces.
"The reception we're getting from state policymakers has been amazing," Smith said. "The reaction hasn't been defensive at all. It's been ‘If that's our grade, we need to make it better.'
"When you have a grade and something to work from, it's a basis for activism. There's no more people saying ‘What is trafficking?' or ‘What can we do?' We're showing them what to do, and they want to get to work."
Smith is on familiar ground in assessing laws: She spent years making them, first as a member of the Washington state Legislature, then (from 1995-99) in the U.S. House of Representatives. There, she gained a reputation as one of the chamber's strongest pro-life advocates.
In 1998, Smith traveled to India, at the urging of a missionary with Mumbai Teen Challenge who wanted her to see firsthand the horrors of the sex-crimes industry. "He spoke of girls kept in cages, women living literally as slaves," she said.
She made the trip and saw for herself. It changed her life. "It was so repulsive," she recalled. "I couldn't sleep that night."
After a period of what she called "wrestling with God," Smith was gripped by the conviction that she not only had to do something about what she'd seen — she had to make it her life's work.
"I can't just hear about a problem. I must do something about it. And I couldn't witness the horror I saw without doing whatever I could to help."
What she did was to found Shared Hope International to fight trafficking at home and abroad. Shared Hope helps to rescue and restore girls, finding them shelter and the kind of long-term care they need. It strives to prevent exploitation from starting with community awareness and prevention training programs.
And, on the law and public-policy front, it works to bring justice — both to the victims of trafficking and to those who have victimized them. This means changing laws to recognize the nature of the problem, and to deal with new realities.
"When many of the old laws were written, no one was thinking about children [being forced into the sex trade]," Smith noted. "There wasn't the online market that there is now. There's just so much that's changed."
Many states haven't kept up with the times, Shared Hope reports. For example:
Existing laws often are not only inadequate, but also misdirected. The victims of adult exploitation, if they're of age of sexual consent, may be treated as though they've consented to perform various acts. Smith finds that outrageous. "No one under 18 can give consent to their own victimization," she stated. "Kids are kids."
The victimizers, meanwhile, often get a slap on the wrist, being prosecuted under relatively mild "vice" laws, instead of rape or sexual-abuse statutes.
"The men who demand and purchase sex acts with minors often remain nameless and faceless, and are frequently referred to by the innocuous term ‘johns' or not arrested at all," The Protected Innocence Challenge reported.
"Many state sex-trafficking laws fail to include the criminal actions of buyers, leaving out a critical element of the crime of sex trafficking and ignoring the importance of criminal deterrence necessary to combat child sex trafficking."
What Shared Hope wants, in a nutshell, is a reversal: Hit the victimizers, help the victims.
In detailed proposals spelled out in the Challenge, they propose substantial criminal penalties for the "demand" side of sex trafficking — the buyers — as well as for the traffickers directly involved with the youth, and for the facilitators who make a profit at a distance, such as the owners of sexually oriented businesses and media outlets, including websites.
The underage victims, on the other hand, should not be treated as offenders or delinquents. "These children must expressly be defined as victims under state law to ensure them access to crime victims' compensation, court protections and various programs designed to respond to victims of sexual crimes," the Challenge stated.
They need help in specialized shelters, not juvenile-detention centers, and long-term services that will help them recover from trauma, build trust and break away from the dependent relationships that traffickers have created.
This area is one where reforms are especially needed, Shared Hope maintains. "Only four states have a full package of non-punitive child protective responses, including shelter and services," according to the Challenge: "Illinois, Minnesota, New York [and] Washington."
But there are signs that the ideas Shared Hope advocates are gaining traction.
This past year, for example, Missouri passed a major overhaul of its laws that elevated it to one of the four states that now gets an overall B grade, second only to Texas.
"Missouri trafficking law had a lot of gaps in it," said Joe Ortwerth, executive director of the Missouri Family Policy Council. "The biggest is that it was written entirely around prostitution," and not the broader sex industry, such as strip clubs, massage parlors, pornographic movies and websites.
Ortwerth's group, associated with Focus on the Family, developed legislation to fill those legal gaps.
"We wanted to make sure the definition of trafficking was written very broadly to include these areas," he told Citizen.
"We also wanted to cover not just physical coercion, but psychological coercion — [such as] blackmail, threats, fraud. That's how this business often works in practice.
"And we wanted to prosecute not only those who were directly involved in the coercion, but those who were financially benefiting — guys sitting in offices, not getting their hands dirty, but deeply involved." Among other penalties, that includes hefty fines — up to $50,000 for each violation — "in order to financially cripple these guys."
Ortwerth worked in partnership with the Missouri Catholic Conference to get the revisions passed. And, like Smith, he found legislators and policymakers eager to cooperate.
"This bill ended up breezing right through, unanimously," he said. "And for a pro-family group like ours, a unanimous passage is a rare accomplishment."
There's a personal satisfaction in this for Ortwerth. "This issue has continued to grieve my heart for many years," he said. "As pro-lifers, we value the sanctity and dignity of every human life. Trafficking is a pro-life issue in every way. And I don't know of an issue in this country that's more important."
Law-enforcement officials working in this area welcome the drive to improve trafficking laws.
"Any time there are more tools available to prosecute traffickers, that helps take a stronger approach to the problem," U.S. Attorney Beth Phillips, head of the Justice Department office for the Western District of Missouri, told Citizen.
Phillips, too, has a special interest in this issue. She's spent years combating sexual abuse and child exploitation, and the office she currently heads has prosecuted more human-trafficking defendants than any other federal district in the country.
Phillips' district has set up a task force on human trafficking, with a wide range of participants, both in the public and private sphere. They include not only law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels, but nonprofit and non-governmental organizations.
"These groups are crucial because when we identify victims, they need services — housing, clothing, all the resources victims need to get by and to feel safe," she said.
In fact, Phillips is increasingly impressed to see the growing role ordinary citizens are playing, as their awareness of the trafficking problem grows. "When we started, the majority of our leads came from law enforcement," she said. "Now we actually get more leads from the public than we do from law enforcement."
It's a trend she wants to see continue. Her message to the public: Be alert. "If something doesn't seem right — if you see a young girl at a truck stop or a hotel, and something seems ‘off' about the situation — act on it. Traffickers prey on the most vulnerable people in our society. And we have to hold them accountable."
Linda Smith, likewise, is impressed by the gains in public awareness of human trafficking.
"Even two years ago, Americans were just waking up. People didn't get the issue. Since then, we've trained 12,000-14,000 first responders to deal with this issue, most of them in law enforcement."
And the progress she's seeing — from the law-enforcement end to the awakening of the public to individual stories of girls rescued and restored by Shared Hope and many other like-minded groups — leaves Smith feeling positive about her work.
"We have hope. You can join in making a difference. All you have to do is show up."
Matt Kaufman is a contributing
editor to Citizen.
To learn more about Shared Hope International and how you can support their work, go to SharedHope.org. To see a detailed report on your state's laws, click "What We Do," then "Bring Justice," "Policy Recommendations" and "Protected Innocence Initiative."
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