There are few worse tragedies in this world than the sexual exploitation of a child. In New York State alone, there are approximately 3,000 commercially sexually exploited children. The majority of these children have experienced a host of hardships in their lifetimes; there are an estimated 95% with a prior history of abuse or neglect, and 50% with a history of child sexual abuse. Many children have lived in foster care and more than half are homeless and runaway youth.
It’s estimated that 67% of sexually exploited children suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many of these children have no one and nowhere to turn, with very few shelters or resources available that specifically serve this population. On top of all of this, sexually exploited youth are harassed and arrested by law enforcement and prosecuted as adults in criminal court for prostitution. In 2010, 63 minors under the age of 18 were tried as adults in New York City.
Federal and State Law Decriminalizes Child Prostitution, But Funding to Implement the Law Is Lacking
In 2000, the federal government decriminalized underage prostitution by signing into law the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which stated that any person under the age of 18 induced to perform a commercial sex act is no longer considered a prostitute or sex worker but rather a victim of trafficking or a commercially sexually exploited child. Eight years later, New York State passed the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, making New York the first state to legally recognize that persons under the age of 18 who have been subjected to commercial sexual exploitation are victims, not criminals. The Safe Harbor legislation not only decriminalizes underage prostitution but also addresses the need for critical services for affected youth, including food, clothing, short-term and long-term housing arrangements, medical care, counseling, crisis intervention, and educational services such as life training and tutoring for academics.
Upon the bill’s passage, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, “this legislation takes important steps towards ensuring that the children who have been steered into a life of prostitution through exploitation and abuse receive treatment, services, and rehabilitation instead of incarceration and a one way ticket back to a life of abuse.”
However, the bill has yet to be funded by the very legislature that brought to light this critical situation that continues to affect youth in New York State. The act authorized $10 million in funds, but since its passage, zero dollars have been spent. There are currently less than 50 beds statewide designated for trafficked youth, so it is imperative that the Safe Harbor Act be funded so existing organizations, such as Jewish Child Care Association’s Gateways program, can increase the amount of youth they are able to serve. Gateways is a residential treatment program for commercially sexually exploited girls. Nearly every day, they have to turn away a girl in need of treatment because their 13-bed program is full.
What can you do?
Please click here to sign the petition and show your support for services for commercially sexually exploited children. So far there are 10,000 signatories!
You can also call or write to tell your state legislators they should allocate funding in the FY13 budget to support the Safe Harbor Act to help sexually exploited children escape the horrors of sex trafficking and receive the critical services necessary to treat these young victims.
Contributed by Ambre Auzanneau of the Human Services Council