June 24, 2014

Combatting Human Trafficking in the Nation’s Capital

by Michael Selig

The trafficking of children is estimated to be a $103 million industry in Washington, D.C.[1Polaris Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to combatting human trafficking, ranks the trafficking laws of the nation’s capital as “Tier 2,” trailing behind 32 U.S. states.[2]  Bill B20-0174, titled the “Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Amendment Act of 2014,” was introduced in the Council of the District of Columbia by Councilmembers Cheh, Wells, Grosso, and McDuffie last March to address some of the holes in the D.C. legal framework.

The proposed bill would enhance law enforcement procedures and the protections afforded to victims of sex trafficking under the age of eighteen. Councilmember Cheh has been vocal about the need for reform, stating:

[T]he way we view the children engaged in these activities is extremely flawed. Rather than viewing these children as victims, our society views these children as perpetrators of a crime or juvenile delinquents. And this is only perpetuated by the criminalization of these children . . . [T]here is no such thing as a child prostitute. Children who are sexually exploited for commercial purposes should be provided with a comprehensive victim-centered response that is tailored to eliminating any further harm to them. This bill aims to achieve that goal.[3]

Specifically, the bill seeks to reform D.C. law in seven key areas. It would:

1. establish a requirement and procedures for reporting runaway and missing children under the custodial care of District agencies;

2. mandate that the police department report "critically missing children" to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children;

3. permit "mandatory reporters of child abuse and neglect," such as physicians, Child and Family Services Agency employees and medical examiners, who are required to report child abuse or neglect, to file missing person reports;

4. implement mandatory human trafficking training for law enforcement officers and social workers employed by the Child and Family Services Agency;

5. mandate public posting by bars, hotels, transportation hubs and similar entities of the national human trafficking hotline;

6. provide immunity to minors suspected of engaging in or offering to engage in paid sex acts and require the police department to refer the minor to appropriate services as a victim of human trafficking; and

7. clarify that the definition of "sexual act or contact" in the Anti-Sexual Abuse Act of 1994 includes sex trafficking of children.

The bill does not grant immunity to minors who are forced to perform non-sexual labor. Additionally, victims of sex trafficking over the age of eighteen are not provided a safe harbor from criminalization under the current language.

A public hearing will be held by the City Council on July 10, 2014 to take comments on the proposal. For further information on the status of the proposed legislation, please visit: http://lims.dccouncil.us/Legislation/B20-0714.

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[1] See The Hustle: Economics of the Underground Commercial Sex Industry, Urban Institute (2014), http://datatools.urban.org/features/theHustle/index.html.

[2] See Policy Advocacy, Polaris Project (2014), http://www.polarisproject.org/what-we-do/policy-advocacy (last visited Jun. 20, 2014).

[3] Cheh introduces legislation that would provide immunity to prostituted minor, MaryCheh.com (2014), http://www.marycheh.com/release/cheh-introduces-legislation-that-would-provide-immunity-to-prostituted-minors/ (last visited Jun. 20, 2014).