Guest Post by Gretchen Hunt, Training Coordinator, Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs

The statistics are staggering.  Nationally, between 100,000 and 300,000 children are vulnerable to being trafficked into commercial sex in the United States. Runaways and homeless youth are particularly vulnerable, with one in three being exploited in commercial sex in the first 48 hours of being on the streets.  The average age of entry into prostitution in this country is between twelve and fourteen years of age, and the FBI estimates that one of five people in prostitution is a child. (Source: Shared Hope, International)

Since 2008, Kentucky Rescue and Restore Victims of Human Trafficking  has served 151 victims, 44 percent of whom were trafficked as children.  They are foreign nationals and United States born children lured into commercial sex and forced labor.  Of the 17 indictments in Kentucky, nearly all involve children trafficked into commercial sex.

Sometimes the cases are caught and referred through early screening by a nurse, a social worker, or a law enforcement officer.  More often, though, these children are never identified as victims. Some are locked up on adult charges, having been coached to lie about their ages, or sent to juvenile detention.  They may fall through the child protective service system because the person who is exploiting them (pimp/trafficker/”john”) is not considered to be the person with care, custody, or control of the child.

And so WE MUST INTERVENE, and INTERVENE EARLY. Children who are locked up for crimes of prostitution are re-traumatized and often re-victimized. And we know detention doesn’t work. For every detention center, there is a private child care facility just as close by, more equipped to provide specialized care to these children.

As the Justice Resource Institute, creator of the My Life, My Choice curriculum for at risk and trafficked girls explains, the trauma these children face is severe:

“Commercially sexually exploited girls are consistently the victims of violence and degradation.  They are beaten and raped by their pimps as well as the adults who are their “johns.”  For a large percentage of trafficked girls, this continued exposure to violence results in meeting the diagnostic criteria for PTSD.  Like soldiers returning from a war zone, these girls are damaged in mind, body and soul by that experience, and yet they must return to that war zone every night.”

We need a SAFE HARBOR that will ensure that these children receive the care and protection they need.  Rather than being arrested, they need a protective intervention to put them on the track to healing and self-sufficiency.   House Bill 3, the Human Trafficking Victims Rights Act, co-sponsored by Representatives Sannie Overly and Addia Wuchner, will ensure that children are not arrested for prostitution or crimes that would not be considered crimes if they were adults like running away. Instead, they will receive an intervention by child protective service workers and human trafficking victim advocates.  It also equips law enforcement with training and investigative tools and ensures that traffickers pay for victim services by leveraging fines and adding asset forfeiture and seizure to our trafficking laws.

We are not powerless to address the exploitation of children in our communities.

So what can you do?  Become a mentor to a child at risk of running away or becoming homeless, refer cases to the human trafficking hotline at 1-877-3737-888, voice your support of House Bill 3 at 1-800-372-7181, host a training or a screening of Very Young Girls.   A broader groundswell is needed to address the needs and the demand for trafficked children in our state.  I invite you to join us in this movement to end slavery in Kentucky.

Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs is a Kentucky Rescue and Restore Coalition partner. 

Photo credit: Maggie Boyd, 2012