Even though the FBI has identified Washington, D.C. as a high-frequency area for sex trafficking of minors, city officials there are expressing reservations about a critical component of an anti-trafficking law that advocates say would expand protections for survivors of this violence — claiming that some children are prostitution “offenders.”
Nationally, the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation is 11-14 years old, and many of these survivors are lured by traffickers with false promises of economic security and emotional support. Some don’t enter through a trafficker, but simply because they need to meet their basic needs of food and shelter. City Councilmember Mary Cheh and anti-trafficking advocates claim that the “Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Act” would take important steps toward changing that.
The proposed legislation would increase public awareness, boost reporting of missing and runaway minors who are especially vulnerable to trafficking, improve training for survivor identification, and expand access to services by requiring the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) to refer minors to providers. The measure also includes a “safe harbor” provision that would require MPD to treat all minors suspected of engaging in commercial sex as survivors of trafficking, instead of arresting and charging them. National anti-trafficking advocates such as the Polaris Project support these safe harbor laws because they believe treating survivors as criminals instead of victims is re-traumatizing and harmful.
Despite strong advocate support for the legislation, however, Paul A. Quander Jr., the Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice — who is tasked with overseeing the police department — objects to the safe harbor proposal. At a public hearing on the legislation earlier this month, Quander claimed that some minors arrested for the crime of prostitution are “legitimate offenders;” that some “prostitute through their own volition;” and that some “have procurement duties amongst a group of friends, who have decided that payment for sexual favors is the best way to gain monetary security.”
When asked for additional comment on these opinions, a representative for Quander stated, “Deputy Mayor Quander believes his testimony from last month is quite straightforward and speaks for itself. Nothing has changed since then, and he does not have anything to add to it.”
Councilmember Cheh, who introduced the anti-sex trafficking legislation alongside three other lawmakers, acknowledged to ThinkProgress that the bill still requires some adjustments. However, she believes that the legislation will “expand the possibility that people can get help.”
Advocates concerned with victim-blaming more forcefully objected to Quander’s assessment of the minors who are arrested for prostitution.
“Under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, any child who is sold for sex is automatically a sex trafficking victim — full-stop,” Andrea Powell, who founded FAIR Girls, told ThinkProgress. “Children cannot chose to engage in prostitution in this country and those who buy them are having sex with a victim. When a police officer arrests a child for prostitution, they are arresting the victim. This is a human rights issue for the District and the country.”
“Children under 18 who have been sexually exploited deserve support and services, not prosecution,” Audrey Roofeh of the Polaris Project added.
Ultimately, the Deputy Mayor’s reluctance to support a core provision of the legislation may delay benefits for marginalized groups that are particularly victimized. Advocates comment that this legislation, if passed, would especially benefit runaway, low-income, disabled, and LGBT youth, who are all at increased risk of exploitation. Other groups, such as survivors of sexual abuse and undocumented immigrants, are also disproportionately targeted because they are already vulnerable.
“The vast majority (of minors) are from families living in extreme poverty because traffickers prey on vulnerable children,” Powell explained to ThinkProgress. “Traffickers want to take advantage of young people who won’t be missed. Of those 300+ American girl victims we’ve served, only two had missing children reports. The majority were not reported missing because they were in the foster care system. Instead, they are listed as repeat runaways and non-critical missing…. Pimps tell their young victims that if they speak up, they will just be arrested and treated as prostitutes. They are told no one will believe them and they are scared of the police.”
Despite the prevalence of sex trafficking of minors, the District’s human trafficking laws are currently ranked in the bottom half of all states‘ by the Polaris Project. Mayor Vincent Gray’s administration has yet to take a formal position on Cheh’s bill, which is awaiting markup.
Alyssa Peterson is a writer for TalkPoverty.org, a website which explores poverty in America and what we can do to dramatically reduce it. She coordinates TalkPoverty’s “In Our Backyard” project, which focuses on poverty and inequality in the D.C. area.