The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) clearly defines that any minor under the age of 18 years old does not have to prove “force, fraud, or coercion” in order to be considered a victim of sex trafficking if they were ‘induced to commit’ a commercial sex act. However, this does not mean that children cannot be arrested for charges of solicitation and prostitution. In our nation’s capital, children continue to be arrested on these and other charges despite being victims of sex trafficking. Take the case of FAIR Girls survivor advocate and college student, Kiana. At age 16, Kiana was arrested for prostitution by law enforcement. According to Kiana, she was picked up by the police at least five times before being identified as a victim of trafficking. Both the arrests and the fact that during this time Kiana continued to be bought and sold across the metro D.C. area are devastating.
Sex traffickers tell their victims that no one will care about them or believe them if they ask for help. They tell their victims that they will be arrested and called whores or prostitutes. When these children (and also adults) are arrested, it sends a message that their traffickers are telling the truth. It sends the message that no one cares.
In the spring, legislation was introduced before the District of Columbia’s City Council that would help identify minor victims of sex trafficking and ensure they are referred to social services. Within the bill, a provision would prohibit the arrest of minors for charges of prostitution and sex trafficking. It would also require law enforcement to connect both high risk and sex trafficked youth to agencies like FAIR Girls to ensure they receive the care that they need. This legislation follows similar ‘safe harbor’ provisions enacted in New York, Illinois, and elsewhere across the country.
This bill is highly needed. According to FAIR Girls’ own client records, the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 12 to 14 years old, which is consistent with national statistics. These victims go unidentified for an average of four years while their abuse and exploitation continues. FAIR Girls currently offers the only housing in the nation’s capital specifically for sex trafficking survivors, and our small apartment is consistently full with a waiting list.
FAIR Girls and other advocacy agencies strongly support the end of the arrest of minors for these charges. Other stakeholders, including Deputy Major Paul A. Quander. Jr., seem to think that some of these children are “legitimate offenders” who know what they are doing to make money. However, it is time that child victims of sex trafficking, which is essentially serial rape for profit, are treated with the respect, sensitivity, and care that other victims of crime receive. We would not arrest a child victim of incest or rape to “keep them safe” or to compel their testimony in court. However, we continue to use these justifications to arrest children who have been systemically sold and raped by men (and women) who buy them for sex in our nation’s capital.
Their victimization is often there out in the open. They are sold by the hundreds on Internet web sites including Backpage.com. Often they are in hotels adjacent to tourist sites such as the National Zoo or the White House. In the case of registered foster parent and sex trafficker Shelby Lewis, three minor teen girls were sold up and down K Street in downtown D.C. for any and all to see.
It is time we do the right thing and stop the arrest of children who are victims of sex trafficking and offer them the protection and care they need to overcome their trauma and begin to thrive. Our society can and should do better by those who are most vulnerable.
Andrea Powell co-founded FAIR Girls in 2003 and currently serves as Executive Director. Since that time, Andrea has led FAIR Girls’ efforts to prevent the sex trafficking and exploitation of girls in the United States and in FAIR Girls’ global programs in Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Russia, and Uganda. Andrea currently serves as the FAIR Girls’ chief liaison to the D.C. Anti Trafficking Task Force and has trained hundreds of U.S. and international audiences, including federal and local law enforcement, service providers, state and federal policy makers, teachers, how to identify and assist child victims of sex and forced labor trafficking.