Opinion 7:22 p.m. Monday, July 12, 2010

Change exploited kid laws

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Do you remember being 13 years old? Picture your 13-year-old self and imagine someone older and seemingly much cooler taking an interest in you. It’s initially great. Then imagine it all goes terribly wrong. He becomes abusive and forces you to have sex with older men so he can make money. Terrified and repeatedly raped by “customers,” you reach a police officer one day. What happens next might surprise you. The handcuffs come out, and you are arrested for prostitution.

At 13, though the law says you are too young to consent to sex, once money is involved, even if it’s paid to a pimp, the law now says you are mature enough to be considered criminally responsible.

In June, the U.S. government published its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, in which it reviews countries’ progress combating human trafficking. For the first time, the report included a review of U.S. practices, giving the U.S. the highest possible rating. Indeed, the U.S. government has taken many important steps. But that is just part of the picture.

The report noted that the U.S. had rescued 306 children last year, evidence that certain law enforcement officers recognize the trauma these children experience. Yet in 2008, the latest year for which U.S. government data are available, 849 children were arrested for prostitution and commercialized vice. In other words, nearly three times as many children were treated as criminals than as crime survivors/victims.

Until now, in almost every state, a child under the legal age of consent could be charged with prostitution. New York, Connecticut, Washington, and Michigan are now the only exceptions.

On June 18, the Texas Supreme Court might have changed the landscape, when it decided In the Matter of B.W., a case in which a 13-year-old was charged with prostitution. She had been living with her 32-year old “boyfriend” and was arrested for prostitution by an undercover officer. Noting the “special vulnerability of children,” the court held that a child under the legal age of consent cannot be deemed criminally liable for the crime of prostitution.

The opinion is worth reading, as it methodically answers every question raised by skeptics. Yes, there are many. This year, in Georgia, several concerned legislators attempted to fix a similar flaw in the state’s law, to ensure sexually exploited children are not further victimized by being arrested and charged with a crime. The bill died in committee.

Opponents of “safe harbor” laws argue that they will create a loophole for pimps to exploit. The Texas court has answered that charge: Treating sexually exploited children as crime victims does not change the fact that pimps and johns can be charged with sexual exploitation of a minor. Also, as the court explains, if the concern is being able to help these children, then the juvenile justice system is not our only option.

The U.S. government asserts it deserves a “Tier 1” rating for its efforts to combat human trafficking. Yet too little is done to ensure victims’ dignity and recovery, and even less is done to assist vulnerable children before they are exploited.

Let’s hope the Texas Supreme Court’s decision is the turning point. If we deem children below a certain age to be incapable of consenting to sex, then money paid to a pimp cannot change that. This flaw in the law must be corrected in every state in the land. And while we’re at it, let’s actually do something to prevent these violations of our children from occurring in the first place.

Legislators ought to prioritize prevention and strengthen family supportive initiatives that enable kids to pursue their education and avoid risky situations. Businesses should adopt socially responsible policies and support community initiatives to protect vulnerable children and reduce the demand for such exploitative services. And as citizens, we should hear the voices of survivors and learn from them so we prevent others from suffering.

If any of us were 13 again and a target of sexual exploitation, what would we expect from our community, state and country?

Jonathan Todres is a law professor at Georgia State University and an advisor to ECPAT-USA (End Chld Prostitution and Trafficking).

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