In 2008 the New York State Legislature passed the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act, a critical law in the fight against child sex trafficking. The law has numerous provisions, but the primary function of the law is to prevent commercially sexually exploited children from being charged with prostitution. The legal basis is that a minor under the age of 18 is unable to legally consent to a sexual act and thus cannot be held accountable for prostitution, but are in reality victims of sexual exploitation.
Since the law’s passing in 2008, 11 states have followed suit and passed similar Safe Harbor laws. While some states have passed some measures that fall in line with some of the Safe Harbor provisions, there are still a total of 38 states that have yet to pass true “Safe Harbor” laws. That means in 38 states children can be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted as criminals when they are being sold for sex. The government recognizes the fact that children do not have the mental capacity to consent to a sexual act, but at the same time is holding them responsible for a criminal act. On top of their lack of the ability to consent, these children are immersed in an environment of constant duress, suffering from physical and sexual abuse from their trafficker or pimp. When these children are committing these acts they are doing so in a very confused and damaged mental state created by their trafficker or pimp.
With increasing awareness of the sex trafficking of children it has been acknowledged that these children are not criminals but victims, but both the laws and enforcement of child sex trafficking have not yet been modernized thus these children are not always treated as the victims they are. It is imperative that Safe Harbor laws are passed and implemented in the 38 states that have not already done so.
Even though there are 12 states that have Safe Harbor laws, few of them have yet to properly enforce their laws. Minnesota, one of the states to pass such a law, has been the first to make substantial efforts to enforce the legislation. “Safe Harbor laws go into effect August 1, 2014 and will shift the paradigm for at risk and sexually exploited youth, viewing them as crime victims rather than criminals,” said Linda Riddle, the program manager of Safe Harbor at Life House, a grantee agency in Duluth . Since the law’s passing, Minnesota has allocated 2.8 million dollars for the provisions of the Safe Harbor laws which include training for law enforcement when dealing with child trafficking victims as well as housing for rehabilitative services for child victims . While this is a substantial amount of resources diverted to these necessary programs, the estimated amount of money required to fully implement the Safe Harbor laws is 13.5 million dollars . “The 2.8 million the Legislature allocated last session is about 21% of what we need to fully fund Safe Harbor,” stated Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free . Even Minnesota which has been pushing Safe Harbor into implementation can be doing more to increase and improve its efforts.
While New York was the model for the law itself, Minnesota will be the model for the law’s enforcement. Hopefully other states will follow Minnesota’s example and realize how essential Safe Harbor laws are for our children.