03/21/2013 03:13 pm ET Updated May 21, 2013

Organize to Scrutinize Your Local Sex Trafficking Laws

Problem: Too many sex trafficking victims are not being found or helped in the United States because too many local governments are ignorant of state and federal human trafficking laws. Compounding this problem, cities and counties are lagging behind, not revising their laws to bring them into line with state law, and in some cases are even enacting new local legislation directly at odds with state law protecting human trafficking victims.

Scene: Mary, 14, was friended on Facebook by Bob, a 26-year-old man whom Mary thought was hot and nice. He told her she was cute and way smarter than other girls he knew. Soon they met in person, and soon he had broken down her usually adequate defenses by playing on her sadness about how her dad was travelling all the time and was hardly ever home -- a sadness Mary herself was barely aware she had but that Bob could smell like blood in the water, even over the Internet. Long story short, after a videotaped gang rape orchestrated by Bob and with a fee for attendance -- some well-placed threats (including to tell Mary's parents or publish the video online) and even more perfectly-placed hugs and promises of love and happiness -- Mary is on the street every Saturday making cash, which she turns over to Bob while her naive mother thinks she's at the mall with friends. Usually, Bob buys her some clothes or something at the mall afterward. Mary is now severely traumatized and doesn't even know how to talk about what's happening.

Three months into this nightmare, Mary is picked up by police. Because of Bob's threats and blackmail, and because the police in her town aren't trained to screen for human trafficking and are unaware that their state's law and federal law both clearly define Mary as a victim of human trafficking, when they look at her, what they see instead is a prostitute. They ridicule her. Some use her themselves before they let her go. Some try to help her but don't know how the law protects her as a human trafficking victim, or how they can help her. Eventually she's picked up, arrested and charged with prostitution, pushed through the juvenile court system, and summarily labeled a young criminal. Bob has already started working on a few more prospects, so the loss of Mary does not even mean loss of revenue to him. The four girls Bob exploits through threats, fraud and coercion earn for him in the neighborhood of $300,000 a year. And no one even talks about prosecuting him. Bob laughs as he counts his money.

Problem, continued: Shared Hope International grades every U.S. state according to "41 key legislative components that must be addressed in state laws in order to effectively respond to the crime of domestic minor sex trafficking." This is an excellent project, of course, and has driven advocacy to state legislatures and led to some strengthening of state laws. However, if law enforcement on the ground is untrained in those laws, if local prosecutors are untrained or unmotivated, then the state laws are of little consequence as they linger unused. There is reason to believe this may be the case in some -- perhaps many -- states. It certainly appears to be the case in Missouri. Likewise Georgia. And we've only just started looking.

It's time to demand that local laws be held to the standard of state and federal law. Doing so may be a start to fixing how local law enforcement treats commercially sexually exploited and trafficked people of all ages. For those states still lagging behind, here's an opportunity for city governments to take the lead.

Solution: Let's grade city and county laws, following Shared Hope's lead in grading of states. We'll have to develop our own criteria, and we will be looking at how laws address adults and minors found in prostitution, not just minors as the Shared Hope is doing.

Start the Action --Tweet Me What You Find:
  • Google or otherwise research your local laws on prostitution and pandering.
  • If the law or ordinance is online, tweet the link to me at @margaretahoward
  • You can use the hashtag #organize2scrutinize

Here is an example of a city website where one can look up local laws.

This action is just the beginning of what should be a larger and more complex process; there are other questions to ask of the laws, and I am not implying this first step is an end point. But it is the beginning of examining the systemic problem of sex trafficking response on the ground, where it happens, in a systematic manner, to get a closer look at the systems that are oppressing and missing victims. We simply need more data.

You may also get local groups together to discuss the laws, meet with city leaders and officials, develop action plans, and advocate for changing problematic laws in your city or county.
While you're out there making change in your town, I'll be working with other advocates to get a grading system created and under way, and looking into geomapping the results so we can have visual elements to strengthen our case. If you're interested in any of that, reach me at my Twitter, @margaretahoward.

Here's What to Look for, Starting Out:

  1. Does your city law, ordinance, or code mandate that every person found in prostitution be screened for signs of human trafficking?
  2. Does your city law, ordinance, or code mandate that if those signs of human trafficking are present, the person must be routed to specified and appropriate social services?
  3. Is there provision for addressing demand for sex trafficking and prostitution through arrest and/or education of buyers? And/or provisions for the arrest of sellers (pimps/traffickers)?

For your edification and assistance, here is an example of how a city ordinance can be disharmonious with a state law:

Missouri law mandates:

As soon as possible after a first encounter with a person who reasonably appears to a law enforcement agency to be a victim of trafficking as defined in section 566.200, that agency or office shall notify the department of social services and, where applicable, juvenile justice authorities, that the person may be a victim of trafficking, in order that such agencies may determine whether the person may be eligible for state or federal services, programs, or assistance.

Yet, the new St. Louis City ordinance makes no mention of even screening for human trafficking among persons picked up for prostitution. One imagines the city law makers may have been unaware of what the state law provides. This is why we must organize to scrutinize our local laws. It looks like our city leaders need some education.

Here's your chance to act locally for big change. Tweet me. @margaretahoward