Former Southwest Washington Congresswoman Linda Smith was back in the nation’s capital on familiar turf Wednesday, testifying before a House subcommittee in support of a bill aimed at combating sex trafficking of minors. It’s a topic in which Smith has developed considerable expertise since founding Shared Hope International in 1998 to “rescue and restore women and children in crisis.” The Vancouver-based nonprofit is a leader in the battle against human trafficking worldwide, due largely to Smith’s fierce dedication, strong work ethic and practiced political skills.
Last year, Shared Hope International completed what must be regarded as the definitive study of the sexual exploitation of children in the United States. The bulk of the research, funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant, was conducted in nine U.S. cities and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a U.S. territory. A private grant provided for additional research in Atlanta and Washington, D.C.
Despite more than a decade’s experience working with victims of human trafficking, Smith said last fall that she was “shocked” by what the investigation revealed.
Researchers put the number of sexually exploited children in U.S. cities at upward of 100,000. “What we found,” Smith told Daily News reporter Cheryll A. Borgaard, “is I can go to Craiglist or a strip club or an adult shop anywhere to find a minor for sex. There’s no town, I don’t care where; if there’s buyers, there’s sellers.”
In her testimony Wednesday on Capitol Hill, Smith lamented the fact that young victims of domestic sex trafficking too often are treated as oenders. According to a report of the hearing by Joseph Picard of the International Business Times, Smith testified that sex-trafficking victims, whose average initial exploitation age is 13, are often treated as juvenile delinquents or adult prostitutes by the criminal justice system. “Those who are identified as minors are frequently charged with a delinquent act, either prostitution-related activities or a related offense such as drug possession,” Smith explained. That treatment, Smith added, only compounds the trauma of the sexual violence the minor has already experienced.
The bill Smith’s testimony supported — the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act of 2010 — would help promote a more victim-centered approach to addressing minor sex trafficking. It would authorize block grants to both help combat sex trafficking and provide services to minor victims of sex trafficking.
Minor victims would get shelter, substance abuse treatment, counseling and legal services. Law enforcement would receive specialized training on sex trafficking and grant funds for investigating and prosecuting the sex traffickers who exploit minors.
Smith told the House subcommittee it’s important not only that young victims of sex trafficking be identified and treated as victims, but also that traffickers and their buyers be apprehended and prosecuted. This legislation, H.R. 5575, would help do both.