Andrea Powell is the founder and executive director of FAIR Girls, a nonprofit based in Washington D.C. dedicated to providing care for girl survivors of human trafficking.

(Leanne Surfleet/Flickr)

A 13-year-old runaway was gang raped by 10 men for several hours in a Texas apartment last year. When she was rescued, authorities took her to a hospital where she was given a rape kit, which was used along with her account to quickly find two of her assailants, who were charged with felony sexual assault of a child.

Now consider the story of another 13-year-old girl, who was sold by a pimp to dozens of men throughout Washington, D.C. She experienced the same pain, fear, trauma, and abuse as the first child. But when an undercover officer, posing as a John, encountered her in a hotel room, she was arrested for prostitution and sent to juvenile jail. The men who bought her (or, more correctly, raped her) walked away free.

That our society labels one of these girls a criminal and the other a victim is unjust. Ultimately, both were sent to treatment centers, but the second had the added trauma of going through the penal system and carrying an arrest record. This difference is based in a deeply rooted misunderstanding that the second girl made “a choice” because she was paid. Since she has a pimp, she is no longer considered a victim of statutory rape and sexual abuse. This misguided notion leads police to arrest more than 1,000 victimized children a year for prostitution – a crime they aren’t even capable of committing. Federal law mandates that minors cannot willingly be involved in prostitution, but this rule isn’t uniformly enforced. Local and state jurisdictions must go a step further to ensure these children aren’t treated as criminals.

Only 12 states have “Safe Harbor” laws that prohibit the arrest of children for prostitution-related crimes. This week, Washington D.C. joined the group, passing the Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Act. The D.C. law has an added provision mandating that the children are connected to emergency and long-term services, such as housing, through organizations like mine, FAIR Girls. But while these children can’t be arrested for prostitution, many are instead jailed for truancy, being a runaway and other minor violations. The majority of FAIR Girls’s 45 minor clients (we have 125 clients total, aged 11 to 24) last year were arrested for such crimes. Without effective training for law enforcement and a comprehensive trafficking response model, the vast majority of child victims are simply locked up anyway. When they are released from jail, they often go further underground where they are exploited by traffickers again.

Opponents of Safe Harbor laws fear prosecutors and law enforcement will lose their power to persuade children to testify in court against their traffickers. But the truth is that children who are given quality services are more likely to give honest testimony than those who are forced under threat of arrest. To truly work, Safe Harbor laws must include funding to make sure those services are available. In Washington D.C., FAIR Girls is pushing for the District to fund a mobile trafficking response team that can quickly provide trained professionals and services whenever police encounter a potential child trafficking situation. The team would connect the child with long-term housing, intensive counseling, educational support, mentoring, and safety planning, which FAIR Girls currently provides with funding from the federal Office of Victims of Crime, private foundations and individual donors. At about $125 a day, those services cost 50 percent less than the average price of keeping a child incarcerated.

On average, our clients were first trafficked at 12 to 14 years old. Ninety percent are American citizens, and all have experienced sexual abuse or domestic violence prior to being trafficked. Traffickers target the vulnerable to exploit their weaknesses.  They target runaways and homeless youth, mainly girls, by offering them a safe place to sleep or pretending to be their boyfriends. These children are victims, and it is our responsibility to care for them. It is time that the law enforcement and criminal justice systems treat child sex trafficking like what it really is – organized rape for profit.

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