Protecting our youth, ending human trafficking

This past New Year’s Eve, a man and woman were arrested in Bangor for allegedly forcing a 13-year-old Maine girl into prostitution. This child, who was listed as a missing person, was being sold for sex through ads on the Internet. A Bangor police officer, posing as a John, arranged online to meet the girl at a motel, where she was freed from a life of slavery and returned to her home.

This horrifying story is but the tip of an iceberg. These human traffickers prey upon the most vulnerable, often homeless runaways. They lure their victims into lives of commercial sex with promises of money and sometimes drugs, and keep them captive with lies, threats and violence. Many criminals who once dealt drugs now participate in sex trafficking because it is more profitable and less risky.

Every year, tens of thousands of American children and teenagers fall victim to sex traffickers, in addition to the countless other young people smuggled into our country from overseas for this despicable purpose.

Congress must do more to provide law enforcement with the tools it needs to pursue sex trafficking and to support preventive programs that help vulnerable young people who fall victim to trafficking. I recently had the opportunity to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee in support of legislation that advances those goals.

In January, I joined Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, in authoring bipartisan legislation, now pending in the Senate, for a preventive measure that would strengthen housing programs and services for homeless juveniles, who often fall prey to traffickers. No young person should have to choose between selling their bodies and a safe place to sleep.

The Judiciary Committee already has passed two anti-trafficking bills that will be up for full Senate consideration. One would create a new source of financing for victim services and law enforcement with enhanced fines on criminals convicted of human trafficking and child pornography. The other would encourage states to treat those who are preyed upon by sex traffickers as victims instead of prosecuting them as criminals. The House has approved similar bills.

Another story from Maine helps illustrate both the harrowing experiences faced by young sex trafficking victims and also the importance of service providers in changing the course of the survivor’s life. In 2013, Preble Street, an organization that operates a homeless shelter and teen center in Portland, formed the Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition – a group of outreach, health, case management, and legal service providers. With the support of a Department of Justice grant, this Coalition has brought together organizations such as Catholic Charities of Maine, the Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, and the U.S. Attorney’s office. It is currently working with approximately 50 trafficking victims, whose ages range from 15 to 42.

One young woman, now 20-years-old, had been a familiar face around the Preble Street Teen Center. She was in and out of the foster care system, and met other girls who introduced her to “survival sex,” a way to trade sex for a place to sleep and other basic necessities. At age 16, she traded sex for a ride to Boston. Once in Boston, she met a man who prostituted her to other men, in Boston and back in Maine. She was sold to other pimps and endured physical abuse and violence for many years. When she eventually escaped and her traffickers were charged by police, she had nowhere to go but the local homeless shelter.

In fact, police chiefs, prosecutors, and service providers in Maine tell me that the lack of aftercare services, including a safe place to sleep, is among the greatest challenges that victims face. Today, the Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition is helping this young woman and others like her start a new life. She is doing well and was able to testify against her trafficker in court – a very brave and traumatic ordeal for a victim.

It is not surprising that Portland’s homeless shelter is a critical partner in the fight to end human trafficking. Approximately one in four homeless youth are victims of sex trafficking or engage in survival sex, and 48 percent of homeless youth have done so because they did not have a safe place to stay.

The bill Sen. Leahy and I authored, the Runaway and Homeless Youth Trafficking Prevention Act, reauthorizes critical preventive and treatment services that help homeless youth around the country. Despite the recent decline we have seen in chronic homelessness, there are still more than 1.6 million homeless teens in the United States. As Chairman of the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, one of my goals is to make sure our nation’s homeless youth have the same opportunity to succeed as other youth.

Our healthcare workers in Maine are also tremendous partners in helping to address these crimes. St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, Maine, has focused its efforts on educating and training clinicians and emergency medical providers to recognize the signs of human trafficking among their patients. With the proper tools and training, these clinicians can intervene in human trafficking cases and help these atrocities from continuing.

Maine is doing its part to end this scourge, where the “Not Here” Justice in Action Network brings together law enforcement and service providers to raise awareness about trafficking. Maine’s Sex Trafficking Action Response Team and the Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Workgroup also provide statewide platforms for sharing resources. Those efforts, along with the work underway in Congress, are shining a bright light on some of the darkest stories imaginable.