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Report: Sexually-exploited minors too often treated as criminals, not victims

Children exploited in the commercial sex trade in the United States are too often overlooked—and tend to be treated as criminals rather than victims, according to a Department of Justice-commissioned study released on Wednesday.

The report, "Confronting Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Sex Trafficking of Minors in the United States," from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council, “is the most comprehensive report of sex trafficking of minors in the U.S.,” said Jennifer Walsh, a spokesperson for the Institute of Medicine.

According to the authors, commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors refer to a range of crimes, which include exploiting a minor through prostitution, survival sex (minors trading sex for something they need or want), sex tourism and performance in sexual venues. Use of a minor in pornography is also considered sex trafficking, the study said.

There is no reliable estimate of the scope or prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors, the report says; estimates of the number of affected youth vary widely, from 1,400 to 2.4 million. This report doesn't try to quantify the problem, but instead focuses on identifying and assisting sexually-exploited minors, said Ellen Wright Clayton, co-chair of the study committee and Craig-Weaver Professor of Pediatrics and professor of law at Vanderbilt University.

“The crimes that we’re talking about here are crimes that occur in the shadows and behind closed doors, so it’s hard to get good criminal justice numbers,” Clayton said. “Rather than identifying the scope of the problem, we would profit from spending more time looking at high-risk groups."

Those groups include children who were previously abused, ethnic minorities and lesbian, gay, transgender, and bisexual youth, the report said. Other children who could be prone to sexual exploitation include those who have been kicked out of their homes, are in foster care or juvenile detention and those whose families are homeless.

The study urges parents, caretakers and teachers to be especially vigilant to red flags that may indicate sexual exploitation, such as class absences, changes in behavior and academic decline. Additionally, health care providers should watch for young patients who seek contraception, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases or abortions by themselves or in the presence of an adult other than their parents, said Clayton.

Rather than assist child victims of sexual exploitation, law enforcement officials often treat them as criminals, which prevents these youth from getting the treatment and help they need, the report said. “These young people are not prostitutes, they are prostituted,” said Clayton. 

According to the study, which surveyed case files from six police agencies, law enforcement officials treated 40 percent of prostituted youth as “offenders.” “Sadly there are a lot of cases where [sexually exploited] young people are arrested,” Clayton said.

Many children who are sexually exploited do not see themselves as victims either, said Clayton. The study found that as a result, they are afraid to cooperate with police, who in turn treat the children as perpetrators. Many law enforcement officials are not properly trained to handle sex trafficking cases and detain victims because they believe doing so will protect the minors from further involvement in abuse.

Illinois is the only state that currently has safe harbor laws, which prohibit prosecution of anyone under the age of 18 for prostitution. Meanwhile, other communities are shifting the focus of law enforcement to apprehending and investigating predators rather than exploited youth. Clayton said these laws are a step in the right direction, but that communities also need to establish ways “to address the factors that led [minors] into 'the life' initially.”

She said many young people who get involved in the sex trade lack housing; the study highlights other “gaps in services” for these vulnerable youth, including mental health, legal and health care provisions. If communities ensure that every child has these basic needs met, they will come closer to “eliminating the environment that leads to 'the life,'” Clayton added.

The study makes clear that government, law enforcement officials and anyone who works with children need to employ methods that identify sexually-exploited youth and determine how to best intervene and treat these individuals. 

The best weapon against child sex trafficking, Clayton said, is public awareness.

 “Those who ignore the problem … in fact are promoting this problem,” she said.