Sex traffickers seek out vulnerable, unhappy teens, including runaways. Sometimes, young women already in the trade become recruiters themselves, approaching other vulnerable girls and offering them what seems like an exciting life. The new recruit comprehends the reality of her new situation too late. It’s a pattern that’s repeated daily around the world, fueling fuel a global industry that may generate up to $100 billion annually, and it’s created a hidden epidemic affecting hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. alone. In Alameda County, Ca., reports Governing magazine, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley has aggressively prosecuted child sex trafficking.
Progress is slow, because the real struggle is in changing how the justice system treats the victims of the sex trade. Until recently, victims were seen as law-breaking prostitutes, and law enforcement dealt with them accordingly. That’s changing. Alameda County created “girls’ courts” to focus on treatment rather than jail time, an idea that Los Angeles County has implemented as well. State money has been directed to child welfare services to craft a specialized treatment program for survivors. Alameda County is one of the few in the U.S. with funding to develop a pilot program of safe houses to shelter trafficked kids and help rehabilitate them. The shift from viewing kids selling sex as willing prostitutes to looking at them as victims began with the 2000 federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which defined human trafficking, victims and methods of prosecution. In the years since, hundreds of laws in dozens of states have been passed to address specific aspects of sex trafficking and the exploitation of children. Eighteen states that make minors immune from prosecution for prostitution. Some 28 states have enacted safe-harbor laws, which say that trafficked children should be treated as victims and be diverted from the justice system to appropriate services.