August 8th, 2013
10:04 AM ET

Rescued children shouldn’t be in handcuffs

Editor’s note: Francesca L. Garrett is a long-time victim’s advocate and Executive Director of the Holocaust Memorial Museum of San Antonio.

By Francesca Garrett, Special for CNN

The girl on the news is wearing pink flip flops.  An oversized plaid shirt hides a figure that has barely begun to develop. According to the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, as a minor who has been forced to perform a sexual act for money she is a victim of sex trafficking. Yet under prostitution statutes in most states she has also committed a criminal offense - and now she is in handcuffs.

About three-quarters of  the children rescued last week by the Federal Bureau of Investigation through Operation Cross Country VII live in states that afford them no legal protections from prostitution charges.

Some could face up to two years in juvenile detention, others, thousands of dollars in fines (pdf). Many may also be charged for possessing the cocktail of drugs that traffickers use to create dependency and compliance in the children they sell. And though the FBI is likely to afford special leniency to those rescued in the sting, without change, the same may not hold true for the children arrested on the streets in the coming months and years.

Nor has it in the past. In 2007, a Texas District Attorney prosecuted a 13-year-old girl for prostitution while her 32-year-old “boyfriend” went free. She was one of 1,500 sexually exploited children arrested nationwide that year.

Treating a child as an offender breeds mistrust in a legal system that ought to protect him or her, and traffickers and pimps exploit this, threatening their victims with arrest and criminal records if they try to seek help.

They are threats Dominique, whose named has been changed to protect her identity, knows all too well. Three days after the FBI’s raids, she sits across from me in a local coffee shop. Like the girl on the news she’s in flip flops, which dangle from her feet. Dominique is 21, but entered what is commonly known by survivors of sexual exploitation as ‘the life’ at 14, when her middle-aged boyfriend sold her for the first time.

“He said if I ran, he’d call the police and say what I’d done. He said no one loved me now, that I was trash now, and I’d always be trash. He said only he loved me now.”

And so she stayed, afraid of rejection from her family, and of prosecution from local police. That mistrust of the law remains seven years later, and as Dominique and I watch footage of Operation Coast to Coast VII on my laptop, she shifts uncomfortably as a victim’s fingerprints are taken.

“Are they booking her?” she asks warily. “Is she under arrest?” I have no easy answers. But I could if so-called ‘safe harbor’ laws were passed across the country.

‘Safe harbor’ laws remove the conflicts between federal and state law by exempting children from prosecution for prostitution, while ensuring strict punishment for people who sell children.

They also require that law enforcement agencies undergo training on how to identify and assist victims, and prompt agencies to participate in the creation of statewide multidisciplinary systems of care.

Since 2008, ‘safe harbor’ laws have been passed in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and Washington, with a Texas Supreme Court ruling offering the same security.

These states work with non-profits like FAIR Girls, the Polaris Project, and GEMS: Girls Educational and Mentoring Services to provide comprehensive case management, court advocacy, survivor support groups, and life skills workshops.

But the cost of such inclusive care can be challenging. Teresa Tomassoni, Director of Programs at FAIR  Girls, said: “We want ‘safe harbor’ laws to pass in every state. But we also recognize that these laws are what we call an ‘unfunded mandate.’ The law demands that child victims be offered specialized services and be kept out of the juvenile and criminal justice systems, and yet if there is no safe house for law enforcement to place a recovered child in, that’s exactly where they often end up.”

And juvenile detention centers are often ill-equipped to meet the staggering needs of trauma victims. Some research indicates that two-thirds of girls and women who have been commercially sexually exploited suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), surpassing rates found in returning Iraqi and Afghan war veterans by nearly 30 percent. Others are pregnant, addicted, or have severe physical health problems.

Jail is not where these children will find the care they need. But for children in the 42 states without ‘safe harbor’ laws, there are few alternatives.

We need to show girls like Dominique that we can do better. We need to show them that we care about their futures by funding the agencies and organizations that aid them, and by advocating for the passage of ‘safe harbor’ laws country wide.

Operation Cross Country VII is undeniable progress, but that progress will remain flawed as long as we continue to prosecute children for the crimes others perpetrate against them.

Are you a victim of trafficking, or do you have information about someone who is? Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center 24/7 at 1-888-373-7888‎.


soundoff (84 Responses)
  1. Lois Hamilton

    I am shocked by this I mean these are children? have you know child abuse protection laws for children or duress/public interest tests that would prevent this happening?

    August 8, 2013 at 2:13 pm | Reply
  2. Robert Taylor

    Maybe even those of us who are not black can learn from Langston Hughes Poem:
    Justice by Langston Hughes

    That Justice is a blind goddess
    Is a thing to which we black are wise:
    Her bandage hides two festering sores
    That once perhaps were eyes.

    August 8, 2013 at 7:23 pm | Reply
  3. Jorge

    Francesca, what you are inadvertently saying is that legislatures and judicial systems throughout the U.S. are infested by social idiots who should know better, but cannot think this issue through any more than illiterate, pre-Abrahamic era tribesmen. Deliberately, I couldn't agree more.

    August 8, 2013 at 10:43 pm | Reply
  4. msfreeh

    To view a partial list of FBI agents arrested for pedophilia go to
    ldsfreedomforumdotcom click on the NEWS SECTION then scroll down to FBI WATCH Making Cruelty Visible
    The post begins with a list of books 6 pages long all dealing with crimes committed by FBI agents, What follows is a partial list of FBI agents arrested for pedophilia including John Conditt head of the FBI Office of Professional Responsibility

    August 9, 2013 at 1:10 am | Reply
    • patricia

      I typed in the address you told and there is nothing there–just advertising crap- they r hiding everything from us

      August 9, 2013 at 7:29 pm | Reply
    • Jenny

      Is that you, Norma Jean?

      September 6, 2013 at 3:56 am | Reply
  5. JoePub

    As usual, common sense in our lawyer ridden society is out to lunch.

    August 9, 2013 at 7:17 am | Reply
  6. jerzygirl45

    Reblogged this on ... but I digress.

    August 9, 2013 at 2:11 pm | Reply
  7. Casual

    Reblogged this on Casual Contentment and commented:
    This is a very informative and I highly recommend you read it.

    "Are you a victim of trafficking, or do you have information about someone who is? Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center 24/7 at 1-888-373-7888‎."

    August 9, 2013 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  8. Counter Human Trafficking Bureua

    These children were victims not criminals. The fact that they are handcuffed and taken to a police station for finger printing and presumably interrogation is a complete disregard for the the statutes and guidance in working with victims. It is not acceptable that the 'Process' takes precedence over the needs of children. What message does this sent to victims who are still in a place of exploitation?. Could it be 'if you get away from the traffickers you will be treated as a criminal and locked up'? That's what traffickers and child abusers say to children to frighten them in oder to get them to say nothing. Come on Law Enforcement get with the program!

    @chtbuk 30th July_
    "Hard to gauge the full picture from the article. Rescued children in handcuffs? How does that work? #childprotection http://dailym.ai/1e655Le "

    August 12, 2013 at 5:20 am | Reply
    • reallaplaine0

      Precisely! The law is antiquated, and the traffickers know how to use it against their victims, knowing full-well that if they try to turn them in, that they too will be indicted. It's a double-edged sword.

      August 12, 2013 at 5:53 am | Reply
  9. bweir

    Let's just face the obvious here: America is a nation that simply loves to arrest and incarcerate people. We put 8-year olds in handcuffs and throw people in jail for often the most trivial reasons. So this should just be yet another wake up call that our "justice" system is in for a serious overhall.

    August 15, 2013 at 10:11 pm | Reply
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