Trafficking Victim or Criminal? Depends on Your Age
This guest blog is from Kevin Ryan, President of Covenant House. One of the largest privately-funded childcare agencies in the U.S., Covenant House provides services to homeless and runaway youth. Want to make a difference in the life of homeless kid? “Like” Covenant House below and help raise public awareness about the very serious problems facing young people in America.
As President of Covenant House, I know all too well the dark realities of the human trafficking industry. Many young victims find their way to Covenant House after they escape capture, have been freed by police raids or have made contact with Covenant House outreach staff who comb the streets day and night looking for kids in danger.
If you want to truly understand the horrors that young trafficking victims must endure, please visit our Abolish Child Trafficking microsite to read their stories.
Their words — along with three compelling articles that recently appeared in the New York Times — remind me of the importance of working together as we fight for the lives of homeless kids with no voice of their own.
One of these articles was a heart tugging account of a young woman sold into prostitution from the age of 13 who is seeking to have her criminal record of past prostitution offenses vacated so she can move forward with her life.
Another was a horrifying account of a still at-large serial killer preying on prostituted women. And the third was a welcomed statement that New York State’s Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman is calling for a new approach to juvenile justice that would transfer jurisdiction for 16 and 17 year olds accused of less serious crimes from the state’s criminal courts to family court where rehabilitation takes priority over retribution.
The first article’s relationship to human trafficking is obvious. A child of thirteen being bought and sold to the highest bidder is sickening. A 13 year old simply cannot consent to sexual activity. Federal law therefore makes it perfectly clear that there is no such thing as a child prostitute, but rather there are far too many sexually exploited children used for the commercial gain of others. States have been too slow to follow suit. The fact that this young woman, now 22 and trying to rebuild her life, must answer yes to questions on job applications about whether she has ever been a convicted of a crime is absurd. Thanks to a 2010 New York state law allowing the prostitution convictions of trafficking victims to be overturned, this injustice may finally be corrected.
The article about the serial killer reminds us about the terrible violence that exploited women endure in daily life. These victims are real life people with loved ones, who faced not only a brutal death but most likely lives of violence. And although the victims of this killer may have been adults at the time of their death, the odds are high that they were once sexually exploited children.
Fortunately the third article, discussing a move from adult criminal court to family court for 16- and 17-year-old offenders was filled with logic and common sense. This is good news for many of the young people we see at Covenant House whose lives have been filled with adversity and abuse which can lead to the making of wrong choices. Let’s give young adults the rehabilitative services they need instead of saddling them with criminal records that will make it even harder to choose a new path.
Although this will be a positive change for all of the young people we see at Covenant House, it is especially welcome for all victims of commercial sexual exploitation. I have been somewhat frustrated that New York’s Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth Act, which was designed to treat minor victims of commercial sexual exploitation as victims instead of criminals, does not truly help 16 and 17 year olds. Although the law was written with the intent to help commercially sexually exploited children under age 18, the law’s mechanism converts juvenile delinquency petitions to Persons In Need of Supervision petitions, a less punitive and more rehabilitative form of petition. Yet because children must be under age 16 to have a juvenile delinquency petition in family court in the first place, the law has little impact on 17 and 18 year olds.
At what age does a child who was commercially sexually exploited at 13 turn into a criminal or prostitute, simply by the passage of time? The trafficked young people we see at Covenant House may be as old as 21, but to me they are no more culpable than the exploited children they once were. The only thing they are guilty of is that no one offered them the help they needed before the clock ran out and they hit the age majority. All commercially exploited young people should be treated as victims instead of criminals regardless of the number of candles on their birthday cake. I will welcome the chance to see New York’s courts treat 16 and 17 year olds as the children they are — and have the right to be.