Upon hearing the term “human trafficking,” most Americans envision foreign nationals who have been smuggled into the United States to engage in sex work within our borders. While this situation is common and grave, it is important for Americans to know that the trafficking of American citizens is on the rise right here at home. Our children are at great risk, being bought and sold in our own neighborhoods – terrorized, prostituted, and forced to participate in the making of child pornography. Polaris data indicates that approximately 300,000 American children are at risk for this kind of human trafficking. Traffickers lure children into slavery with promises of stability and a loving home. Shortly after reining them in, the terror begins. Some of these victims are forced to have sex up to 48 times a day.
A bill brought before the United States Senate this spring, The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 (S. 178), was presumed to have been a “purple” bill that would unite both parties toward the common cause of combatting the sex trade. Instead, it followed an unpredictably dramatic course. While the bill ultimately passed, it reached a partisan fever pitch when a filibuster tabled the bill over an ideological clash that had little to do with human trafficking. The cause of this brinkmanship? On the sly, the bill’s sponsor, Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas), attached the Hyde Amendment to the bill, which would not allow any human trafficking restitution funds to be used for abortion. The measure was intentionally omitted from the list of Republican changes to the bill with the anticipation that it would fly under the radar. It did not.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) said, “The bottom line is this: Democratic Senators have been working in good faith on this critical legislation for years, assuming their Republican partners were being forthright when they provided a list of changes that did not include the addition of the Hyde language. Republicans are now saying that trusting them was a mistake. There is a clear path forward to passing this trafficking bill…it is so simple: just take it out. Take the abortion language out… [it] has no place in a bill designed to protect victims of human trafficking.”
Victims rescued from the underground sex trade need immediate shelter, medical care, and counseling to overcome the horrors they have witnessed and experienced. The U.S. Department of Justice reports that the average age of a child entering the sex trade is 13 years old, and one in three teens living on the streets will be lured into the sex trade within 48 hours of leaving home. The most basic need of a rescued trafficking victim is shelter, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that fewer than 100 public beds are available in the United States for underage victims.
This self-funding bill provides essential financial resources to combat human trafficking – funds collected from increased fines for convicted perpetrators. The bill reads, “Grant funds may be used for the establishment or enhancement of: (1) specialized training programs for law enforcement officers, first responders, health care and child welfare officials, juvenile justice personnel, prosecutors, and judicial personnel to identify victims and acts of child human trafficking and facilitate the rescue of child victims of human trafficking; (2) anti-trafficking law enforcement units and task forces to investigate child human trafficking offenses and to rescue victims; and (3) problem solving court programs for trafficking victims. Grant funds may also be used for activities of law enforcement agencies to find homeless and runaway youth.”
The bill launched with widespread bipartisan support, unanimously passing the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Upon discovery of the Republicans’ lack of disclosure of the Hyde Amendment, though, Democrats asserted that this was a surreptitious attempt to restrict reproductive rights by circumventing Roe v. Wade. Republicans retorted that the clause would not limit abortion funding at all because the Hyde Amendment allows abortion funding for rape victims. But the burden of proof often falls on the rape victim.
Though forced child prostitution is clearly rape, requiring a recently rescued victim to prove she was impregnated by non-consensual sex in order to be approved for an abortion is an almost insurmountable burden. According to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), 68 percent of rapes are never reported to police, and the percentage is likely higher for victims of human trafficking. Some states require a police report to be filed within days of the rape to qualify for abortion, thereby immediately nullifying the possibility of funds for the procedure.
Pennsylvania requires a rape be reported “to a law enforcement agency or to a public health service within 72 hours of its occurrence” to be eligible for abortion funds. A 2013 report by the National Women’s Law Center listed restrictions in several other states, including a Minnesota bill banning insurance coverage of abortion unless a rape report is made within 48 hours of the attack. These loopholes allow localities to deny an abortion to a pregnant, traumatized, penniless young girl if she cannot provide this “proof” that non-consensual sex caused the pregnancy.
Roe v. Wade clearly states that abortion is legal until the time of viability of the fetus, citing a woman’s right to privacy and requiring no disclosure of the origin of the pregnancy. Sadly, attempts by legislators to limit access to abortion, clause by clause, has stalled extremely important legislation. This time, it denied funds to victims in dire need of help re-assimilating into society after repeated, systemized victimization.
A safe house in St. Louis, Missouri, for women and children rescued from trafficking, The Covering House, is an excellent example of the assistance offered to these victims. In her 2014 retrospective, Founder and Executive Director Deidre Lhamon said, “The estimated 300,000 child victims in the United States are no longer a statistic to us; they have faces and hearts. They have fears and dreams. They giggle with the carefree innocence that every child should experience, yet they have to work through the very real trafficking trauma that NO child should experience.”
The Covering House provides housing, counseling, medical care, legal services, education, and life skill development – at an average cost of $431 per girl per month. Increased fees for perpetrators would go a long way in providing care at this facility and others like it. Yet the inclusion of the Hyde Amendment parlayed this bill into one of the most partisan pieces of legislation that has faced the U.S. Senate in 2015, stalling the bill indefinitely. What’s more, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) refused to allow a vote to confirm Loretta Lynch’s nomination for Attorney General until the Democrats’ filibuster of The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 ended. Democrats said changes to the Hyde language in the bill would be necessary for that to happen.
During A Global Conversation on Human and Sex Trafficking, former Colorado State Representative Alice Borodkin said, “Human trafficking is absolutely a nonpartisan issue. I was responsible for the first piece of human trafficking legislation in the Colorado House, creating an inter-agency law enforcement task force on trafficking. We discovered that Colorado is a major trafficking state because of highway I-70, so I put together another bill to create a task force to teach the state patrol to identify trafficking victims.” Borodkin is the founder of Women Engaging Globally, an organization focused on human trafficking and violence against women.
“The trick is to introduce legislation in both the House and the Senate and get as many Democrats and Republicans as possible to sign on as sponsors in both houses,” Borodkin continued. “Our right wing contingent, none of whom would normally talk to me because I’m too far left, strengthened my bills and asked if I would testify for them. My committee laughed when I brought a conservative to a meeting and introduced him as my new best friend – but you coalesce when you need to coalesce, and you get it done. I don’t care how it gets done; just get it done. That’s very difficult to do, and you have to work together.”
Regardless of who was to blame, the impasse in the U.S. Senate regarding The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act left thousands of girls (and boys) devoid of desperately needed social services. Thankfully, on April 21, the two parties agreed on language that both found acceptable. The compromise was to create a dual channel of funds for trafficking victims. The first channel would use funds collected from fines on perpetrators, and those funds would go to services unrelated to health care. The second channel, which would pay for health care services, would be funded by money already appropriated to health centers. This allowed both sides to claim victory. The original channel of funds, as proposed in the original bill, would not pay for abortion – but human trafficking victims would have access to abortion through the other channel. This compromise cleared the way for the bill to pass on April 22.
This poison pill – the Hyde Amendment – almost killed what would otherwise have been a feel-good piece of “purple” legislation. Partisan politics should never interfere with human rights, and the debacle surrounding The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 revealed the manner in which ideological motives often dictate public policy. Doing so placed American children at greater risk for falling victim to the sex trade, and there is no room for such antics in our government. Thankfully, swallowing the poison pill was not fatal for the U.S. Senate or for victims of human trafficking – but a decidedly bitter aftertaste lingered.
If you are being trafficked or suspect trafficking activity in your area, please call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text “Be Free” to 233733.
Shannon Fisher is a writer, radio talk show host, and board member of a national human rights advocacy organization; she wrote this story as part of the Journalism for Social Change course at the University of California, Berkeley.