The Dallas Morning News carried an excellent opinion piece in its Feb. 23 edition about children and prostitution. The article, by Malika Saada Saar, expresses a broad national perspective. In Texas, we are actually doing better than reflected in Saar's article, but we still have lots of work to do.
Saar points out that about 293,000 U.S. children are "at risk of being exploited and trafficked for sex, according to a 2011 FBI report on trafficking. Most are girls ages 12 to 14. They often are abducted or lured by pimps and traffickers, beaten into submission and sometimes even branded with the pimp's name." She tells of one 15-year-old girl being abducted on her way home from school.
The trafficking of children is a deep tragedy in and of itself, but a secondary tragedy occurs when the justice system treats them like criminals (prostitutes) instead of victims. This secondary problem can be attributed to inadequate laws, uninformed officers, and the lack of places for trafficking victims to be sent for protection.
In Texas, we have made some genuine, bi-partisan progress in changing laws regarding child prostitution, and the Texas Baptist Christian Life Commission has been a critical advocate in making these changes. In the 2013 session, the legislature made the following changes:
HB 2268 (John Frullo) and SB 1052 (John Carona) streamlined the investigations of Texas law enforcement officers into aspects of human trafficking taking place on the Internet.
SB 92 (Leticia Van de Putte) created a diversion court program for victims of human trafficking. In particular, the bill helps recognize victims of human trafficking as victims, not criminals, particularly in situations involving allegations of prostitution (many victims are minors and cannot legally consent to sex--this bill treats them accordingly). This addressed a key aspect of Saar's article.
HB 2725 ( Senfronia Thompson) created parameters to help ensure the confidentiality of human trafficking shelters and their occupants.
Two years earlier, in 2011, the following bills also helped shore up the Texas fight against human trafficking:
HB 2015 (Thompson and Van de Putte) added minor prostitution to the list offenses eligible for "child in need of supervision." This addressed one of the legal shortcomings cited in Saar's article.
SB 24 (Van de Putte and Thompson) mandated urgent recommendations from the Attorney General's 2011 report that added human trafficking to lists of crimes in the penal code, government code, and family code, code of criminal procedure, and civil practice and remedies code. The bill also addresses important victim protections.
HB 289 (Jim Jackson and Jane Nelson) added human trafficking to the list of activities that cause a common nuisance in a community, allowing another avenue for law enforcement crack down on human trafficking operations in Texas.
HB 1994 (Randy Weber of Pearland and Van de Putte) made it permissible for local communities to hold a mandatory, day-long session for first-time "johns" (offenders who seek a prostitute), otherwise known as a "John School." These sessions educate johns on the risks of having sex with a prostitute, including the reality of human trafficking, health risks, and other harms that come to their personal life and the community.
We can all add a big "thank you" to the Texas Legislature and Gov. Rick Perry for helping us make progress against these terrible crimes.