That’s the premise behind a new bill making its way through the state Senate that would protect children from being prosecuted for the crime of prostitution. The proposed “Safe Harbor” bill creates the presumption that children and teens who engage in prostitution are victims of sexual exploitation.
“They are coerced or forced into this trade, and they should be treated as victims instead of criminals,” said state Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, who sponsored Senate Bill 153.
“The big thing is, this needs to be brought up and it needs to be talked about. It can’t be swept under the rug.”
Specifically, the bill says anyone under the age of 16 cannot be prosecuted for crimes of prostitution. For 16- and 17-year-olds facing prostitution charges, “there shall be a presumption that the actor was coerced into committing such offense by another person.”
Kane said he hopes to have a vote on the bill before the Senate’s current session ends May 5.
The bill has faced some opposition. In testimony to the Select Committee on Children in Hartford, Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane spoke against the bill, which he argued “seeks to address a problem that does not exist in the state of Connecticut.” He went on to state that “the Division of Justice is not in the business of prosecuting the innocent victims of human trafficking” and notes that under existing state law, children under 16 cannot be prosecuted for prostitution because they cannot legally consent to sex at that age.
Advocates of the proposed Safe Harbor bill agree the state has not had many cases of minors arrested for prostitution. However, they say the legislation will do more than just protect minors from being prosecuted for crimes of which they are victim, it will also raise awareness about the problem of child sex trafficking and exploitation.
“The goal is to intervene in (the victims’) lives and make available services to let them know they have another choice, to let them know they do have rights, that the law works in their favor,” said Kathy Maskell, U.S. advocacy director for New Haven-based Love 146, an organization that fights child sex slavery and exploitation at home and around the globe.
EVEN IN CONNECTICUT
Children get recruited into the sex trade at alarmingly young ages. The average age that a girl enters the world of prostitution is 13 years old. Child victims face lower life expectancies stemming from the devastating consequences of sex trafficking: depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, physical abuse, risk of suicide, sexually transmitted disease. They have a greater chance of being murdered during their lifetimes.
At Love 146’s safe house in the Philippines for female victims of sex trafficking, survivors expressed deeply troubling self-images as a result of their harrowing ordeals.
“I feel like a dog. I feel like dirt. I could never return home, I feel worthless. These are the words they use to describe themselves,” Maskell says. “I don’t think it would be a stretch to say U.S.-born victims would feel the same way.”
Supporters of the bill say the problem of child sex trafficking is not relegated to foreign countries; they say sexual exploitation of children happens right here in the United States, even here in Connecticut. Since 2008, the state Department of Children and Families has identified 25 youths in Connecticut as victims of child sex trafficking, according to testimony in support of the bill by Connecticut Voices for Children.
Also in 2008, two men were sentenced in federal court for their roles in prostitution rings that had victims in Connecticut and New York. Dennis Paris was sentenced to 30 years in prison for prostituting minors as young as 14 years old in the Hartford area. Authorities said Paris recruited young girls from troubled backgrounds, some of whom were addicted to drugs. Corey Davis was convicted of trafficking more than 20 females, including a 12-year-old girl, and forcing them to work as prostitutes and strippers.
Experts say those most at-risk for being coerced into prostitution are child runaways and victims of sexual or physical abuse. But the reality is that sexual exploitation of children through prostitution can happen anywhere, at any time, according to Maskell.
“Because of the Internet, it really does open it up to anyone in any socio-economic community,” she says.
A number of local nonprofit organizations, state agencies and youth advocates have banded together in support of S.B. 153, including the state Office of Victim Advocate, the Connecticut Commission on Children, Love 146, Connecticut Voices for Children, ECPAT-USA, the Essex-based Paul and Lisa Program, and the Clinton-based Barnaba Institute.
Alexis Taylor Litos, executive director of the Barnaba Institute, says even though not many minors get arrested for prostitution in the state, children who are exploited through sex trafficking often get picked up for other offences. Instead of getting intervention and the help they need to get out danger, these kids get lost in the legal system, she says. Being treated like a criminal sends victims spiraling deeper into despair.
“It is instilling that self-blame and making them feel it is their fault,” Litos says.
In some cases, she adds, the teens give false identification to police to appear older. Litos says better training in the area of sex-trafficking and sexual exploitation of children would enable first responders to do a better job of identifying red flags and clues that a child or young teen is being abused or trafficked.
Of all the people who went before the state Select Committee on Children or sent letters to express support for the “Safe Harbor” bill, the most profound voice belongs to an 18-year-old Connecticut woman, who herself was a victim of sexual exploitation. In a letter to the committee, the woman wrote that she was a scared kid who ran away from home and ended up trapped in a life of prostitution by the age of 14.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into to. I have been raped and beaten many times and I still have these memories that will be with me for the rest of my life. I was 14 years old. I did not try to tell anyone because I was scared,” the unidentified woman wrote.
The woman said she got help and was able to escape the world of prostitution, but it was hard.
“I just wish that everyone that goes through this can get the support that they need rather than a jail sentence,” she wrote.