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February 10, 2013

End Sex Trafficking by Ending Homelessness and Adopting ‘Safe Harbor’ Laws, Experts Urge

“Now what?” That was the question anti-homelessness advocate Richard Hooks Wayman of St. Paul, Minn., once asked himself when contemplating the horrific statistics and reality of sex-trafficked individuals, many of them young girls, who were being prosecuted for prostitution in his community and throughout the country.

His solution: Support so-called safe harbor laws, which reclassify prostitutes not as perpetrators of crime but as victims of sex-trafficking criminals. Such laws also provide victims with social services to help make their lives whole.

Safe harbor laws “recognize that arresting and sentencing a child for a crime he or she is forced to commit is a gross injustice,” said Marina Colby, public policy and government relations director for advocacy non-profit ECPAT, which stands for End Child Prostitution and Trafficking of Children for Sexual Purposes.

Colby and Wayman spoke at a Feb. 8 ABA Midyear Meeting program in Dallas, sponsored by the association’s Commission on Homelessness and Poverty. The program occurred against the backdrop of ABA President Laurel Bellows’ initiative to raise lawyers’ awareness of human trafficking and coordinate the bar’s efforts to protect victims and put an end to human trafficking.

Wayman, executive director of Hearth Connection, explained the need for and substance of safe harbor laws, which exist in some form in eight states. In addition, the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 shifted federal policy from prosecuting those who sell sex as victims of human trafficking to going after the traffickers and their customers.

Wayman emphasized the problem of homelessness as a significant contributing factor to sex-trafficking victimization and the need to provide housing to victims to stabilize their lives. He cited studies of teens and women who trade sex that show that violence and homelessness is common in their lives, and that long-term homelessness for youth amplifies the risk of sexual exploitation.

“We cannot end the sexual trafficking of minors unless we end homelessness for minors,” said Wayman, who is pushing for housing provisions to be included in safe harbor laws for sex trafficking victims.

Wayman pointed to housing services for juvenile survivors of sex trafficking as not only effective, but also cost-effective.  One study he cited found that the average annual cost for one detention bed is approximately $88,000, while the average cost of one supportive housing unit, with ancillary services, is only $18,000.

Colby described ECPAT’s efforts to get model safe harbor laws adopted in every state, an initiative described at ecpatusa.org. Along with the ABA Center for Human Rights and others, ECPAT is also encouraging the Uniform Law Commission to adopt a uniform state statute on the prevention of and remedies for human trafficking. Drafts of the uniform statute are available at uniformlaws.org.

Other panelists who described their experiences with juvenile sex trafficking victims and safe harbor laws were Kate Richtman, juvenile division director of the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office in St. Paul, Minn.,  and Laura Burstein of Mosaic Family Services in Dallas.

The panelists encouraged attendees to advocate for passage of safe harbor laws in their states and review materials on the topic on the ABA Commission on Homelessness and Poverty’s website.

Related Story: Housing Critical to Human Trafficking Victims, Experts Say