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Monday, August 12, 2013

Over 100 Teens Rescued in FBI Sex-Trafficking Sweep, but Some May Face State Prostitution Charges

By Geoffrey J. Miller

Photo Credit: Ira Gelb
Last week, 105 teenage sex-trafficking victims were rescued in a three-day FBI sting operation deemed Operation Cross Country 7. Their ages ranged from 13-17 and at least one of the girls had been involved in prostitution since age 11. This was the largest sweep of its kind ever accomplished; it took place in 76 cities, involved 230 law enforcement units, and included 28 searches and 129 seizures of cash, drugs, vehicles and firearms worth approximately $165,000.

Operation Cross Country 7 is part of the Innocence Lost National Initiative, established by the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division in 2003 to combat the growing problem of forced child prostitution in the United States.

According to FBI Acting Executive Assistant Director Kevin Perkins, as reported by CNN:
Many times the children taken into these types of criminal activities are dissaffected [and] from broken homes...Once the child has been taken out of harm's way...the story just begins at that point...These children are very damaged; very harmed, and they need a great deal of help.
These children need help. Some will receive it. But for others, the FBI sting operation marks not only the end of one terrible chapter in these kids’ lives but the dreaded start of another – state-level prosecution for prostitution and drug possession. 

On a personal note: When I write about legal issues, I usually try to keep my opinions out of it, but anyone who knows me, knows how much I care about ending child trafficking. I spent time in the Philippines working with a group involved in this work and this website has covered several human trafficking stories in the past: Human Trafficking in ConnecticutNew Bill Increases Penalty for Child Trafficking in Connecticut; and Sex Trafficking of Americans: The Girls Next Door. I am also involved in a substantial writing project on the history of human trafficking laws in Connecticut.

Image Credit: NBC Connecticut
Operation Cross Country 7 took place in states across the nation, including Connecticut, where the FBI was assisted by police in Berlin, New Haven, Norwich, Milford and West Hartford. The police and FBI investigated and raided hotels and other places where child prostitution is common. This led directly to one arrest and five children being rescued in Connecticut. According to William Rivera, Director of the Connecticut Department of Children and Families, since 2009 there have been 160 confirmed cases of child trafficking in the state.

Regions where the largest raids occurred were: the San Francisco-Oakland region in California with 17 arrests and 12 recovered child prostitutes; Detroit with 18 arrests and 10 rescued children; and Oklahoma City with 18 arrests and 10 rescued children.

Below is actual video of one of the raids taking place:

Now, here's where the law becomes convoluted: Although the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (22 U.S.C. § 7102) treats minors induced to perform commercial sex acts as victims, approximately three-quarters of the children rescued in the sweep were in states with laws that allow them to be prosecuted for prostitution.  So, while some kids will get the help they need, others may face up to two years in juvenile detention and/or thousands of dollars in fines.

According to Francesca Garrett, writing for, victims of sex trafficking are often charged with prostitution and also for possessing the cocktail of drugs that traffickers use to create dependency and compliance in the children they sell. And while it is likely that prosecutors will afford special leniency in this highly-publicized case, without a change to the laws, the same may not hold true for the next child arrested on the street for prostitution.

Sadly, the threat of prosecution is often used by abusers to keep their captives from escaping, as recounted by one victim in an interview with Garrett: "He said if I ran, he’d call the police and say what I’d done...He said only he loved me now."

Thanks to recent legislation, going into effect on October 1st of this year, Connecticut now has some of the most robust human trafficking laws in the nation, but this is not the norm. A few years ago, in the Texas case known as “In the Matter of B.W.,” a thirty-three-year-old pimp was selling his thirteen-year-old 'girlfriend' and she was convicted of prostitution. Fortunately, the Texas Supreme Court saw the injustice and changed the law to provide a safe harbor for child-trafficking.

According to Shared Hope International's 2012 Survey of Child Trafficking Laws, many states, including New YorkPennsylvania and Rhode Island have gaps in their laws that allow young teens to be prosecuted as well as gaps that allow their abusers to often escape punishment. According to Shared Hope's report card on the state of New York: the state has some safe harbor laws, but they only protect minors under 14 and those who patronize juvenile prostitutes often receive low penalties. New York also requires proof that force, fraud or coercion was used on the minor victim. On the bright side, however, minors who are arrested for prostitution in New York are rebuttably presumed to be trafficking victims and are usually placed in safe houses.

Currently, many of these states, including New York, are considering changing these laws. New York, State Senate Co-Leader Dean Skelos (R) recently appealed to the New York State Assembly to "pass a women’s equality agenda for New York, and to protect the innocent victims of sex trafficking."

Many states punish under-aged prostitutes criminally:
Prostituted Teens and the Law, Marsha B. Liss, Thomas Judd, Nancy E. Walker, and Stephanie A. Eddy

Safe harbor laws, like the new one in Connecticut, exempt children from prosecution for prostitution, ensure that victims are treated as such and generally increase the punishments for abusers. They often also include provisions for training law enforcement on how to identify and assist victims. Since 2008, safe harbor laws have been passed, in one form or another, in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington. As noted above, Texas has similar laws, but they were created by a judicial decision of the Texas Supreme Court rather than by legislation.

If you live in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Pennsylvania or any other state that lacks solid safe harbor laws for children forced into prostitution, I encourage you to contact your local representative. There are also many great activist groups that you can work with and support, including the Connecticut-based Love146, which is dedicated to the abolition of child trafficking and the restoration of its survivors.