New Year Brings Major Change for Child Sex Trafficking Victims: No Longer Treated as Criminals

Blog post Frank J. Mecca

Child welfare agencies, children’s advocates and community providers are reminding their partners and the public that the new year marks a major turning point in California’s efforts to help children who are victims of sex trafficking: These children will no longer be treated as criminals.

Instead, the expectation of law enforcement agencies is to protect these children and ensure they receive appropriate, victim-centered services from child welfare agencies and community providers.

Senate Bill SB 1322 by Senator Holly J. Mitchell of Los Angeles ends the practice of treating child victims of sex trafficking as criminals; specifically, by prohibiting law enforcement from arresting or charging minors for prostitution or loitering with intent to commit prostitution. The bill further requires peace officers who encounter children involved in commercial sex acts to report suspected abuse or neglect to county child welfare agencies, and allows peace officers to take a child into protective custody if the child is in danger or has an immediate need for protection.

The new law is the result of a multi-year campaign and education effort by several statewide, national and community organizations, that directly serve children who are victims of sex trafficking, including CWDA, the National Center for Youth Law, WestCoast Children’s Clinic, California Alliance of Child and Family Services, Children Now, John Burton Advocates for Youth and Children’s Law Center of California. Under the leadership of Sen. Mitchell, we have worked to educate policymakers, law enforcement and community partners on why treating victims as criminals only exacerbates the trauma of being trafficked.

The education and advocacy is paying off. In many jurisdictions, child welfare agencies, community partners and law enforcement are successfully collaborating to ensure child victims of sex trafficking are treated with care and treated as victims, and not as criminals.

To be clear, law enforcement continues to have absolute authority to take children who are being sexually abused into protective custody and to arrest the true criminals in these cases: traffickers and the perpetrators who purchase sex. Trafficking a minor for prostitution continues to be a crime, as does purchasing sex from a minor. Senate Bill 1322 in no way changes those crimes or law enforcement’s responsibility to arrest, charge and prosecute those who are guilty of such crimes.

Unfortunately, a recent opinion piece by Assembly Member Travis Allen of Huntington Beach inaccurately suggested law enforcement could not intervene in such cases, along with several other false and misleading statements about Senate Bill 1322 that showed an apparent lack of understanding not only about the new law but also the sensitive and precarious situation for children who are victims of child sex trafficking. As a piece by The Sacramento Bee found, Mr. Allen’s comments were “false” and “wildly misleading.”

Senate Bill 1322 is critical because it recognizes these children as serial rape victims who must be treated with care. Children cannot legally consent to sex but too often in child sex trafficking cases that fact is blatantly disregarded. Instead, child victims have been treated as criminals in California, often arrested and taken to jail, which only exacerbates their trauma. Children who have been rescued from this sex abuse repeatedly share how harmful it is to be treated like criminals and that being arrested only reinforces what traffickers have told them: law enforcement won’t help them and that traffickers are the only people victims can trust.

When children are rescued, they need intensive, specialized services provided by child welfare agencies and community partners. Children have endured months, sometimes years, of trauma, abuse and neglect. A jail cell, hand cuffs and even the threat of arrest does not help their recoveries.

Senate Bill 1322 in no way changes statutes that criminalize the act of human trafficking, despite Mr. Allen’s statements to the contrary. Law enforcement remains obligated to report child abuse to child welfare agencies and can place youth in protective custody, just as they would if they suspected a family member was abusing a child.

You can help victims of child sex trafficking too. If you suspect a child is the victim of sex trafficking, contact your county child welfare agency or law enforcement. And take the time to get the facts on child sex trafficking and why there is #NoSuchThing as a child prostitute.

- Frank Mecca

Frank is the Executive Director of CWDA.