Help child trafficking victims among us

Child sex trafficking is a serious crime. Yet it remains largely hidden, much like its young victims. A new report by the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council finds that the problem occurs in all 50 states.

Reflecting the breadth of the problem, a nationwide FBI sting operation this summer led to the arrest of 159 suspected pimps and identification of more than 100 sexually exploited children. A job well done? The FBI’s efforts are to be commended, but every arrest or conviction of an individual who sexually exploits a child should remind us that we failed as a society to protect these children from harm.

And the arrest of a pimp tells us little about whether we are actually helping these children to rebuild their lives. In many states, victims have been arrested and charged with prostitution or other related crimes. Failing to recognize these children as survivors of abuse and violence perpetuates the problem and exacerbates the harm that they suffer.

The Institute of Medicine/National Research Council report seeks to reorient our understanding of, and responses to, these crimes. Even with law enforcement, policymakers and media focusing increasingly on the commercial sexual exploitation of children, the U.S. is in “the very early stages of recognizing, understanding and developing solutions for these problems.” The report sets forth important recommendations to develop more effective and better-coordinated responses to at-risk and exploited children.

First, “commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors should be understood as acts of abuse and violence against children and adolescents.” That means that as a nation, we must commit to preventing such violence and abuse, and not only responding after the harm has occurred. We must hold accountable those who create the demand for such exploitation and perpetrate these crimes. We also need to ensure services are available to each child who is harmed.

Second, “minors who are commercially sexually exploited or trafficked for sexual purposes should not be considered criminals.” A sexually exploited teenager is not a criminal, but a victim and survivor of abuse and violence.

Third, “identification of victims and survivors and any intervention, above all, should do no further harm to any child.” Not only does this require ending the practice of arresting victims and charging them with crimes, it means ensuring that child welfare and other systems have the resources and training to respond effectively. No law enforcement officer should believe arrest is the only option. No social worker should believe the system cannot help a child. “Do no harm” also requires that we pursue more research to develop evidence-based services for victims and survivors.

We are still far from the ultimate goal of preventing commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of children.

Numerous sectors of society — including not only law enforcement, but social services, health care, education and the private sector — have a significant role to play.

Jonathan Todres is a law professor at Georgia State University and a member of the Institute of Medicine/National Research Council Study Committee on Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States.