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Sen. Roger Wicker Headshot

Why We Must Empower Victims of Human Trafficking

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CHILD SEX TRAFFICKING
Niall Carson/PA Archive

No state in America is free from the stain of human trafficking -- a rampant form of slavery that seems unimaginable in this day and age. Trafficking is not a problem faced only by faraway countries. It exploits thousands of men, women, and children in the United States each year. These innocent Americans are robbed of their basic freedom to live as they choose.

Human trafficking is a persistent and evil crime. In fact, investigations and prosecutions at the federal and state levels are on the rise. The Polaris Project, which operates a national hotline for victims and those with information about trafficking, estimates there were more than 5,000 potential trafficking cases just last year.

Children and youth are particularly vulnerable to forced labor and trafficking for sex, often coerced through intimidation and violence by family members, pimps, or strangers. They are abducted in their own communities, taken from their loved ones, and sold.

The horror stories are endless. Consider the 12-year-old runaway who was kidnapped in New York City and advertised on a sex trafficking website. Or the 16 juveniles -- ranging in age from 13 to 17 years old -- rescued in a sex trafficking operation during this year's Super Bowl. These children face unique challenges as victims, in need of both justice and rehabilitation.

A bill I have introduced, the "End Trafficking Act of 2014," would close current gaps in existing laws to stop trafficking and prosecute those who perpetrate it. I believe more can be done to address the complex issues associated with trafficking, including what drives it and how victims can receive the counseling they need.

Sex trafficking affects individuals of all backgrounds and races, but it disproportionately impacts women, both domestically and internationally. Although news headlines often glibly refer to a "war on women" in political terms, policymakers might well devote more energy to sex trafficking -- a nightmarish war faced by the most vulnerable among us, young women who are being bought and sold for sex against their will.

One proposal in my bill is a court-based pilot program modeled after Hawaii's "girls courts" and the federal drug court system. Often juvenile trafficking victims are charged with a delinquency offense in order to be detained and kept away from their traffickers. Many laws on prostitution do not differentiate between adult prostitutes and children who have been exploited for sex. These minors should be considered victims but are often treated as offenders and fail to receive counseling and support while in detention. Some later return to the trafficker, who often warns their victims to distrust the police. A specialized court docket and integrated judicial supervision would put the well-being of the victim first, providing an opportunity for victims to return home and undergo treatment. Detention alone does not amount to rescue.

My bill also seeks to punish the drivers of the problem -- both traffickers and the buyers, or "johns," they serve. First, there should be strict enforcement of laws already on the books that prohibit the purchase of sex with minors. Second, child victims should have a longer statutory limitations period to file a civil suit against their trafficker. Finally, those who distribute or benefit financially from commercial advertising that promotes prostitution should face criminal charges. My bill would do all three.

As part of the criminal underworld, trafficking is hard to measure in scope and magnitude. The precise number of domestic victims is unknown. However, greater interagency cooperation and outreach can assist efforts to understand who is affected as well as determining the most effective ways to respond.

The United States remains the freest, most prosperous nation in the world. And yet, it is also a country where traffickers still find and transit victims, putting U.S. citizens and foreign nationals at risk. Fighting human trafficking within our borders will not completely eradicate the problem, which affects some 21 million people worldwide. We can, however, serve as a model for other countries to follow and better protect those here at home.