Opinion

Child victims of trafficking need a safe harbor in Colorado

Author: Kelly Dore - March 13, 2018 - Updated: March 13, 2018

DoreOpEdMug.jpg
Kelly Dore

Human trafficking is not a new issue, but with increased awareness and education among communities and public agencies, it has gained attention as a fundamental matter of human rights.

Under federal law, The Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA), states that a child under 18 years old who is induced into providing commercial sex is a victim of trafficking and must be treated as such. Effectively, there is no such thing as a child prostitute.

Child victims of human trafficking are oftentimes forced, induced, or coerced into providing labor, services, or commercial sex, while others engage in commercial sex for survival purposes. According to the FBI, the average age at which children are sold into sex trafficking is from 11 to 14. These children often come from unstable homes; they’re foster children, runaways, undocumented immigrants, victims of domestic violence, LGBT youth and familial abuse victims. No one knows exactly how many minors are trafficked in America or how many are arrested by authorities.  Safe Harbor laws were developed by states to address inconsistencies with the way sexually exploited children are treated and ensure that these victims are provided with appropriate response and comprehensive services.

Colorado is one of 16 states that does not have a Safe Harbor Law to protect children who are exploited; as a result district attorney offices are unfortunately inconsistent with the way they treat minors who are victims of human trafficking.  This lack of consistency has created a system of mistrust and a feeling of fear among minor victims, discouraging them from coming forward and naming their traffickers/pimps. Sadly, a trafficked child may be forced to engage in illegal activities such as prostitution or the selling of drugs, and instead of being treated as victims, many are treated as criminals and are prosecuted accordingly. Arrest and prosecution can further traumatize the victim as well as leave him or her with a profound distrust of law enforcement, which can further prevent victims from both seeking assistance and aiding in the prosecution of their traffickers or other offenders.

Colorado is one of 16 states that does not have a Safe Harbor Law to protect children who are exploited; as a result district attorney offices are unfortunately inconsistent with the way they treat minors who are victims of human trafficking.

This is the reason state Sen. John Kefalas, and Reps. Paul Lundeen and Lois Landgraf have come together with survivors, anti-trafficking advocates, and several members from the Colorado Human Trafficking Council — who voted overwhelmingly, by 19-2, in favor of establishing Safe Harbor Laws, and also voted 21-2 in 2016 in favor of establishing legal protection to minors —  to protect child victims of human trafficking from further trauma by recognizing them as victims rather than criminals.

The bi-partisan sponsors of SB 084 would like to establish immunity for minors (under 18) who commit certain delinquent acts because of being a victim of sexual exploitation, human trafficking for involuntary servitude, or human trafficking for sexual servitude.  These delinquent acts are currently defined as non-Victim Rights Act misdemeanors, and petty or municipal offenses.

These legislators also wish to establish that the minor is entitled to a pretrial determination of statutory immunity within 14 days of filing a motion, which allows minor to raise immunity with the court. Therefore, if a prosecutor files charges and does not believe that the immunity provision in law applies or has insufficient evidence/information to decide if immunity applies, the minor can have a court review the evidence and decide accordingly. The bill sponsors have held many stakeholder meetings and have brought many child advocates to the table to discuss their positions to strengthen this bill and not impede on the DA’s ability to prosecute for crimes under Colorado Victims’ Rights Act.

The legislation does not establish blanket immunity or take away the district attorney’s ability to prosecute violent crimes; does not lead to legalization of prostitution, and does not give immunity to anyone over the age of 18. Nor will it incentivize false cooperation from minors with DA’s, in order to not be charged for a crime while being identified as a human trafficking survivor.

The American Bar Association Commission on Homelessness and Poverty has reviewed Safe Harbor data and concluded that states with Safe Harbor are more effective in their efforts to support and identify victims of human trafficking and have an increase in prosecution of traffickers. To date, 34 states have passed Safe Harbor laws while 23 states, along with the District of Columbia, have removed criminal liability for minor victims of trafficking.

We are asking the Senate to pass SB 18-084 to ensure trafficked and exploited children — Colorado’s most vulnerable population — are provided a fair chance to emerge from their traumatic experiences and restart their young lives.

Kelly Dore

Kelly Dore

Kelly Dore, a former Elbert County commissioner, is the founder and executive director of the National Human Trafficking Survivor Coalition. The coalition provides support and bridges the gaps in services for survivors of human trafficking.