Human Trafficking & Exploitation:
The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Youth
American Children’s Campaign and other organizations worked tirelessly for three years to help pass Florida’s landmark Safe Harbor legislation in 2012. Work has continued each subsequent legislative session to strengthen and expand laws impacting victims of trafficking. These laws recognize that commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC) are victims – not criminals – and encourage understanding and therapeutic treatment rather than prosecution, court sanctions, or jail.
Open Doors Outreach Network Expands Reach and Improves Services
Florida ranks third in the nation for reports of human trafficking. A Florida-based program to combate this horrific problem is the Open Doors Outreach Network,a 24/7 network of care for child and young adult victims of sex trafficking from ages 10-24. The Open Doors model was envisioned by two Florida organizations – the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center and American Children’s Campaign – with input and support from a wide variety of stakeholder groups, advocates and survivors.
The Open Doors Outreach Network currently provides services in several Florida regions. This program aims to improve victim outcomes by offering immediate and ongoing trauma-responsive care through a highly trained Open Doors team of professionals consisting of survivor-mentors, regional advocates and clinicians. Voices for Florida, an affiliate of American Children’s Campaign, serves as the backbone organization for Open Doors.
Policy Changes Needed to Ensure Survivor-Mentors can Help other Survivors
A key component and promising best practice of the Open Doors Outreach Network is survivor-mentors, who bring an invaluable perspective to victims struggling to break free from traffickers. However, laws must be changed to allow survivors of sex trafficking to work in such programs where they are most needed. While under the influence of traffickers, victims can engage in illegal activities. If incorrectly charged with these crimes, background checks become a roadblock to employment once victims are free from their traffickers.
The intent of current laws show that the Florida Legislature doesn’t want sex trafficking victims to have lifelong negative impacts from crimes committed while they were being trafficked. – but policies need to change to put that intent into action. Steps have been taken to allow for confidentiality between survivor-mentors and victims, and to make it easier for victims of human trafficking to expunge their records for certain crimes committed while they were being trafficked. Unfortunately, even though the victims were under control of the trafficker and the state has acknowledged that victims of trafficking aren’t criminals, there continue to be offenses that can’t be expunged. This hurts the trafficking survivor’s future and forces them to continue to experience negative impacts from their time as a victim. Leaving the possibility of arrest, confinement, and prosecution hanging over victims’ heads for any reason hinders the survivor’s ability to heal and begin moving forward.
Traffickers Must Be Held Accountable Without Additional Trauma for Victims
Laws need to be properly utilized to ensure that the true criminals—the traffickers—are held accountable. Unfortunately, it is difficult to prosecute and convict traffickers.
Testifying against their traffickers is especially difficult for survivors and can retraumatize them. This is even more true when their trafficker is a relative. In 2020, for the trafficking incidents where information about the nature of the relationship between trafficker and survivor was known, 31% of survivors were trafficked by their family member or caregiver, a 10% increase from 2019.
It is vital that when survivors press charges against their traffickers they are kept safe. Incorporating trauma-informed approaches and the survivor’s needs are vital to ensure survivors receive the support they need without retraumatizing them. Human trafficking victims must be afforded the protections of the vulnerable victims and witnesses list in all proceedings, and must not have their humanity or dignity compromised by the system meant to protect them.
Florida’s past legislative session increased the ability of the state to prosecute traffickers by eliminating the statute of limitations for prosecuting an adult who uses or promotes a minor in a sexual performance as well as any sexual battery offense. This law helps ensure that survivors can bring charges against their traffickers when they are ready.
Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Increase Likelihood of Becoming a Victim
Sex traffickers often prey on children with low self-esteem and minimal support systems. Children who have Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) such as experiencing homelessness, suffering with mental health problems, in foster care or past or current victims of abuse and neglect are especially vulnerable.
Children of color are more likely than their White counterparts to be vulnerable to traffickers as they are at an increased risk for ACEs. An estimated 45,250 Florida Black and Latinx students are homeless; Black and Latinx people are 20-27% less likely to receive treatment for serious mental illnesses, regardless of insurance; Black children in the child welfare system are disproportionately housed in facility-based group homes (9.01%, compared to 7.58% of White children).
LGBTQ+ youth are also at an increased risk of human trafficking
Often times LGBTQ+ identifying youth are forced out of their homes due to unaccepting families. It is estimated that LGBTQ+ youth make up 40% of the U.S. youth population that experience homelessness, which is an ACE that can increase a child’s vulnerability to human trafficking. Additionally, LGBTQ+ youth often face barriers in receiving adequate mental health care. The Trevor Project reports that 60% of LGBTQ+ youth who wanted mental health care were unable to receive any support or resources. When LGBTQ+ face ACEs such as homelessness and lack of mental health resources, they are more vulnerable to human trafficking. Traffickers may exploit a child’s want for acceptance by claiming they will provide them with support when in reality they are taking advantage of them.
Sexual exploitation trauma requires effective emergency response, specific and high-level treatment with the consent and voluntary cooperation of the victim and a coordinated system of care. Service identification and navigation by truly knowledgeable staff and volunteers is absolutely necessary.
- Oppose locking up dependent child victims of abuse, neglect, trafficking and other traumas, and use of hardware secure environments without due process.
- Reform criminal record expunction laws to advance the future health, safety and quality of life measures for human trafficking victims.
- Add human trafficking victims to the “vulnerable victims and witnesses” provided protections during trial proceedings.
- Expand access to trauma-responsive, research proven services to children who are impacted by Adverse Childhood Expriences (ACEs) in foster care, juvenile justice, and human trafficking.
- Continue support of Open Doors Outreach Network: The Open Doors Outreach Network is Florida’s largest network of 24/7 survivor centered, trauma-responsive care and treatment for sex trafficked children and young adults.
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