Safe Harbor Laws Aiding Exploited Children Need Better Implementation

According to research released in January, the nine states that enacted safe harbor laws by 2012 were found to lack adequate funding for services necessary to aid commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC).

Safe harbor laws aim to enhance protections for sexually exploited children by decriminalizing youth prostitution and/or establishing methods to re-direct exploited children from the justice system into the child welfare system. The trafficking of such victims hit a dramatic spike during the Super Bowl earlier this month.

The study, conducted by Susan Abrams and Elizabeth Barnert with practitioners in Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Tennessee, Vermont and Washington, compared the successes and challenges of implementing safe harbor laws. Follow-up research was conducted to gather more insight on the importance of the study’s findings as well as how Los Angeles County is dealing with CSEC issues.

“Right now, it’s really unknown how many victims there are,” said Susan Abrams, an attorney at the Children’s Law Center of California. “We just don’t know a lot.”

This was one of the common issues Barnert and Abrams found across the nine states: the lack of statistics on trafficked victims. Without proper data on those being served by the safe harbor laws, states are finding it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of their programs, which can make it harder for officials to justify requests for increased funding.

Improper implementation of safe harbor laws is a direct result of insufficient funds, which is a main reason for large discrepancies in placement and service availability within the nine states, according to the study. Safe harbor laws that are being put into practice without proper funds end up limiting the amount of placements and programs available to victims.

“Budget is really the true policy. We need to invest in alternatives,” as one advocate quoted in the study said. “Otherwise it’s an unfunded mandate.”

Without the proper funding or service-provider training, sexually exploited youth may end up in the juvenile justice system instead of the child welfare system. For example, police officers, who may not be allowed to bring in a minor for prostitution, will often bring CSEC victims in on a lesser charge because of the lack of beds available in the child welfare system. Bypassing the law in such a manner can often impede a youth from receiving the proper services as well as increase their trauma, according to the researchers.

“Decriminalization, basically, either helps or doesn’t accomplish anything [for the victim’s situation] depending on the availability of services, programs, and placements for the kids,” said Elizabeth Barnert, co-author of the study and assistant professor of pediatrics at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine.

The study did find reasons for optimism, though, revealing what seems to be a paradigm shift underway where service providers are no longer treating sexually exploited youth as criminals, but rather as vulnerable victims that need distinct services.

The practitioners interviewed in the nine states agreed that an important function of safe harbor laws was the establishment of methods to redirect exploited youth from juvenile hall to child welfare agencies where they would then be able to receive support services.

Barnert and Abrams concluded that states “need more placement options, a continuum of services, and a method to ensure that everyone who is interacting with a victim is trained on what services are available.”

Child welfare officials in Los Angeles County have a front row view of many of the CSEC issues presented in the study, having been identified as one of the nation’s top three “high intensity child prostitution” areas by the California Child Welfare Council.

Xiomara Flores-Holguin, a children’s services administrator at the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Families (DCFS), reflected back on a time when DCFS did not know much about CSEC. In a phone interview, she described how just a few years ago a CSEC victim could go unidentified, due to the lack of training on the part of officers and social workers, and unknowingly be put at risk for retaliation.

Officers and social workers, according to Flores-Holguin, would treat CSEC cases as child abuse cases without ever taking into consideration the extra services a sexually exploited youth may need, such as extra medical attention and mental health services.

“We had to learn the hard way,” Flores-Holguin said. “By encountering a child and never asking the obvious question: where were you?”

According to Flores-Holguin, DCFS has gotten a lot better at working with CSEC cases. DCFS now has special CSEC trainings for its employees, a specialized unit dedicated to CSEC cases, and a higher awareness of sexually exploited children on their caseload.

Similar to the study’s findings, though, Flores-Holguin said that there is still a need for increased funding in order to provide the proper services required by a unique population.


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Omar Avila is a candidate for a Master of Social Work degree at USC’s School of Social Work. He wrote this article while taking the Media for Policy Change course offered at USC’s Sol Price School of Public Policy.

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