Feb 24, 2013 3:19 PM
FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Kentucky may soon join a small but growing number of states enacting laws to protect juvenile victims of the sex trade.
House Bill 3 would restrict authorities' ability to charge minors with offenses related to prostitution and require that minors suspected to be involved in prostitution receive social services.
If the bill passes, the state will join 11 others with "safe harbor" protections, according to the Polaris Project, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that pushes for stronger anti-trafficking laws.
"Across the country there's been this awakening that children shouldn't be prosecuted for prostitution-related offenses," said James Dold, senior policy counsel at the Polaris Project.
Florida passed legislation last year that treats trafficked children as dependents rather than delinquents. New Jersey's 2011 law creates a presumption that a prostitution defendant younger than 18 is a "severely trafficked person," according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. New York was the first state to approve safe harbor protections in 2008.
Kentucky passed its first human trafficking law in 2007, making it a felony to force someone into labor or commercial sexual activity. But state authorities have prosecuted fewer than 20 cases since 2008, even though an organization such as Catholic Charities of Louisville has helped at least 150 victims, state officials said.
The state's safe harbor proposal is part of a larger bill that would strengthen the 2007 statute and expand services. For instance, the measure would allow victims to sue labor traffickers for unpaid wages and receive punitive damages.
The bill also would create a fund to pay for more law enforcement training to identify victims. It would be financed through a requirement in the bill that convicted traffickers forfeit property and pay a $10,000 fine.
Advocates for a stronger law say juvenile victims sometimes end up in detention unrecognized, without any services. The minors have been charged with child prostitution or are more likely to be arrested for related offenses, such as repeatedly running away or skipping school. Children also can end up in adult jails on prostitution charges because they've lied about their age and carry a fake ID.
Kentucky's legislation, sponsored in the House by state Rep. Sannie Overly, D-Paris, has bipartisan support and more than 80 co-sponsors. It passed the House last week and awaits action in the Senate.
Marissa Castellanos, manager of Catholic Charities' human trafficking services, said more training can help police identify child victims.
"If it's not their parents (selling them into the sex trade), it's their older boyfriend, sometimes advertising them online," Castellanos said. "And right now if you have a 13-year-old who's being pimped out by her boyfriend, she doesn't qualify for services."
The Louisville Metropolitan Police Department already trains officers to crack down on trafficking. An undercover sting in 2011 led to the first indictment under the 2007 law in Jefferson County. Police arrested Justin Ritter, 22 and Rebecca Goodwin, 36, on charges of coercing a 17-year-old girl into prostitution and giving her heroin. Goodwin pleaded guilty and got a 10-year prison sentence. Ritter's case is still pending.
Despite such cases, data on unrecognized child victims in Kentucky's juvenile justice system are hard to find.
Stacy Floden, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, said her agency is unaware of having detained trafficking victims. The department supports the bill, Floden said, and already has doctors, nurses and psychiatrists who screen for abuse at detention centers.
"If there were any concerns, they would definitely be addressed," she said.
Castellanos said teens often lie about their age and carry fake identification, landing them in adult jails on prostitution charges. The juveniles often don't seek help because they've formed such a strong bond with their "boyfriends."
An exploited girl doesn't consider herself a victim, said Gretchen Hunt, with the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs. "She is mouthing off to the judge and wanting to go back to her boyfriend," Hunt said. "Trauma is messy."
Hunt said advocates are trying to find out exactly how many unrecognized victims are in the system.
"Two years ago there was only one child charged with prostitution in this state," she said. "But that data is very misleading because we know it to be true that they are often forced by a pimp to use a fake ID or to lie about their age."
Hunt said a strong indicator of the problem is Kentucky's large number of runaways, who are at high risk for being trafficked, and the number of kids incarcerated each year for "status offenses" such as running away or truancy.
Kentucky Youth Advocates, a Jeffersontown-based nonprofit, reported in May that more than 1,300 juveniles were locked up in 2011 for status offenses. The number fell from its peak in 2007 of more than 2,200 incarcerations.
"Up to fairly recently, these kids have been considered delinquents because they're committing crimes," said Kimberly Mitchell, a psychology professor at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes against Children Research Center. "There's been more and more of a push for this kind of change in the understanding of why (victims) are doing what they're doing."
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