Victims of child sex trafficking are one of the most marginalized populations in the justice system. Every year, hundreds of child sexual assault victims run the risk of being arrested, locked up, and prosecuted because they are commercially sexually exploited, and forced into prostitution.
January is National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month, a time to reflect on the realities for victims of sex trafficking. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ), which celebrates its 80th anniversary this year, has been steadfast in its position that victims of child sex trafficking should never be prosecuted for their own victimization. To quote Rights4Girls, a national organization working to end sex trafficking and gender-based violence, “There is no such thing as a child prostitute.”
Criminalizing children for their own exploitation is illogical and self-defeating. For centuries, prostitution has masked rampant sexual violence perpetrated against women and girls. The stigma of criminalization prevented victims from coming forward about abuse and provided an advantageous situation for exploiters. Traffickers capitalize on women and children who are young, disabled, addicted, gender non-conforming, impoverished or members of a community of color. All of these traits create unjust barriers to accessing court remedies. Victims also face an uncertain reception from law enforcement who may be untrained in trauma or trafficking dynamics. Victims risk violent reprisal from their exploiter and face the stigma of sexual victimization when disclosing in small or rural communities. In short, the system has always been stacked against the victim and in favor of the exploiter.
In Nevada, where approximately 80 percent of the state is rural, programs that assist survivors are few and overburdened. In Washoe County, Awaken is an organization specifically dedicated to survivors of sex trafficking. But in rural areas survivors may be forced into a Hobson’s Choice of disclosure – “Reveal your sexual victimization to everyone, or get no services,” an inequality that drives victims back to their exploiter and sends the message that disclosure is not beneficial or rational.
Kelly Ranasinghe is a senior program attorney for the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, based in Reno. This article originally appeared in the Reno Gazette-Journal.