Congress: Please Remove Controversial Pieces From Human Trafficking Legislation

03/17/2015 04:52 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2015
Shutterstock / ChameleonsEye

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) has recently stalled due to a provision which expands the Hyde Amendment -- a rider that restricts federal funding for abortion and other health care services. The JVTA is one of three bills on which I testified last month in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing; the other two being the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETTA) and the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act.

The SETTA and the JVTA both had bipartisan support and passed unanimously out of the Judiciary Committee. As I stated in my congressional testimony, had there been bills like these in 1992, I might have immediately been recognized by law enforcement as a victim of child sex trafficking, not a criminal.

When I was 14 years old, I was lured away from home by a man I had met at a local shopping mall in New Jersey. Within hours of leaving home, this man ordered and coerced me into prostitution in Atlantic City, NJ. The following night I was arrested by law enforcement and treated like a juvenile delinquent. Had there been a JVTA intact, perhaps I would have been assigned to a victim's advocate to accompany me through the process of cooperating with and providing testimony to detectives.

Perhaps resources provided under this bill could have enabled me to immediately enter effective aftercare treatment and remain there until I fully understood that what had happened to me was not my fault. Perhaps my healing process could have been easier, faster. And perhaps my family and I could have had an easier transition. Even though these protections weren't available to me, these protections can be made available to victims today.

However, when it comes to victim services, we absolutely cannot allow our political agendas to determine which services may be made available to victims. Politics should not govern the options available to victims of human trafficking -- especially when such victims often have had their basic human rights taken away by criminals who had only their own agendas in mind. Survivors and service providers agree. "It is not for us to judge the types of services a survivor of sex trafficking needs," says Tina Frundt. "We need the basic rights of medical services without judgment." Tina is the Founder of Courtney's House in Washington DC, an organization that offers services to both boys and girls who have experienced commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking. Kristy Childs, Founder of Veronica's Voice in Kansas City, KS agrees: "At Veronica's Voice, we support offering all services and resources as options to survivors of sex trafficking. It is for this reason we support removal of the partisan piece in the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act."

The JVTA contains another piece which I think is misguided; this piece is focused on prosecution of buyers. The JVTA mandates that all buyers of commercial sex may be arrested and charged as sex traffickers; however, I don't agree with this. I believe that only in certain cases should buyers be arrested as traffickers. This would include buyers who specifically seek to purchase a victim of sex trafficking (i.e. someone who is under the control of another person), buyers who specifically seek to purchase a person under the age of 18, and buyers who are habitual offenders. Otherwise, I believe that buyers should be arrested and charged under established legislation addressing illegal prostitution.

They should also be ordered to attend a diversion program (e.g. a "john school") that educates buyers about commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in America. There should be greater efforts geared toward educating law enforcement on the necessity to arrest and charge buyers of illegal commercial sex; otherwise, buyers will continue to go free regardless of state or federal legislation. Also, I personally believe our efforts toward ending sex trafficking and the demand for commercial sex should not only be geared toward prosecution but also toward prevention and education.

Many survivors, including myself, agree that policies on prevention should be one of our highest priorities, which is why it should also be a priority for policymakers. In my book, Walking Prey: How America's Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery , I discuss many predisposing risk factors that can increase a child's vulnerability to a sex trafficker's tactics, as well as community risk factors that can increase the likelihood of crossing paths with a trafficker or other exploiter.

With effective community programs, we can prevent human trafficking and child exploitation from happening in the first place. Two predisposing factors I mention in Walking Prey are having a history of running away and being a youth with minority status, including LGBTQ youth. This is why bills like the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act are so important. This bill reauthorizes services for runaway and homeless youth, including LGBTQ youth. As a young teen who ran away from home, I understand how isolated these kids can feel. These services can mean the difference between staying safe or becoming a victim.

We need to set politics aside when creating and approving bills that address the scourge of human trafficking. Advocates within the survivor community are paying attention and hoping that Congress will act to remove controversial pieces that are hindering progress. I urge policymakers to set aside their political agendas, seek guidance and feedback from survivors, and agree on a bipartisan bill to protect and serve victims of human trafficking.