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What We Need to Do for Young Victims of Sex Trafficking

Children and teenagers need particularly specialized treatment, but what residential programs that exist help only a tiny fraction of victims. Interstate cooperation could make a difference.

There are at least tens of thousands of victims trapped in the world of sex trafficking in the United States, and the problem is growing. In 2019, Polaris, which operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, identified more than 15,000 new victims and survivors and saw a 20 percent increase in calls and texts from 2018. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation is between 12 and 14. There aren't nearly enough safe places to put survivors, and states have dropped the ball on caring for them.

Victims of trafficking suffer unspeakable sexual, physical and emotional trauma, including broken bones, sexually transmitted infections, pregnancies, post-traumatic stress disorder, malnutrition, and alcohol and drug addictions. This trauma level requires specialized recovery programs that offer shelter, nutrition, medical treatment, trauma counseling, alcohol and drug abuse counseling, education and life skills. Children and teenagers need particularly specialized treatment.

But according to a national survey of residential programs for victims of sex trafficking conducted in 2013 on behalf of the U.S. Department of Justice, across the United States, only 33 residential programs exclusive to victims of sex trafficking were operational, resulting in just 682 beds across 16 states and the District of Columbia. It's unlikely that those numbers have improved much if at all. This critically low number of available beds for trafficking survivors is compounded by the fact that 28 states had no residential programs for victims of sex trafficking, with no plans to open homes. When safe-home beds for sex-trafficking survivors under 18 are unavailable, these kids are placed in a foster-care system unequipped to deliver the specialized trauma treatment they require.

In Florida, the state identified 308 male victims under 18 between 2019 and 2020. But the U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (USIAHT), which operates a Florida safe home that was one of the first in the U.S. for males under the age of 18, was able to provide care for only 19 victims during that period. Florida is failing to deliver safe-home trauma/restorative treatment to more than 350 young Florida boys identified as victims of sex trafficking in the last three years.

What does a bed shortage look like for a child-trafficking victim? Missouri officials rescued a 9-year-old Missouri boy, "Mark," and his mother from their trafficker, his father. Mark had been trafficked since he was two years old. Both he and his mother had been drugged and sold for sex, transported from state to state, on a regular basis. Mark's mother finally escaped this horror, taking Mark with her, but she quickly realized that the untreated, appalling sexual trauma he had experienced was causing behavioral issues she was unequipped to address.

Unfortunately for Mark and countless other young male survivors of sex trafficking, there is not a single home or bed in the state of Missouri for him. The Missouri Department of Social Services Children's Division contacted USIAHT to request that the organization take Mark into its safe house in Florida. The organization and his mother agreed that transferring Mark to the Florida safe home was the best course of action for his care. However, officials in Florida decided that the state would not cover housing for a non-Florida resident. In response, Mark's mother offered to sign parental rights over to make him a Florida resident, but once again he was abandoned by the very system that purports to care for victims of trafficking: The state of Florida refused her offer, making him ineligible for a place in the safe home.

Mark is now 10 years old and has yet to receive care for the sexual trauma he endured. He is one survivor of sex trafficking among thousands who do not receive the specialized care they need because of a lack of cooperation among states. Unfortunately, state laws regulating the funding of safe homes for victims of sex trafficking don't allow victims to be housed across state lines.

The states can and should do better. The need for more safe-home beds couldn't be clearer, and state policymakers should immediately revise laws that don't allow refuge for victims from other states when there is a shortage of beds. States also should enter into interstate compact agreements to ensure that victims of sex trafficking receive the care they need, even if that care occurs across the state lines.

Because of a lack of cooperation among states, hundreds of young boys and girls across the country who have been bought and sold for sex are not receiving the care they need and deserve. We think of ourselves as a nation that does not abandon its most vulnerable populations, but the reality is very different for Mark and so many others like him. Change must start now.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.

Executive director of the Faith and Freedom Coalition
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