Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Improving the Wyden Bill – Proactive Protection of Vulnerable Youth

On March 16, Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) reintroduced an important bill that aims to provide resources to combat sex trafficking of minors. The Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking and Victims Support Act (S.596) would provide funding for law enforcement training and for services for victims. The proposed legislation is the 2011 version of a bill that passed both houses of Congress with strong bipartisan support in December 2010, but did not become law because it was not passed in time to reconcile differences in the House and Senate versions before the end of the 111th Congress.

The legislation, if passed, would support and reinforce IOFA’s work in several critical ways. As the actress Mira Sorvino pointed out in a speech that she gave in support of the bill,
it recognizes that minors involved in commercial sexual exploitation are, by definition, victims of trafficking, not criminals.
IOFA has taken a leadership role in the implementation of the Illinois Safe Children Act, which was signed into law in August 2010 and mirrors the proposed federal legislation in removing the criminal status of juvenile prostitution. As part of this effort, IOFA is advocating for the development of a coordinated service referral network that would link service providers and trafficking victims. IOFA also provides training to Illinois law enforcement on how to identify trafficking victims and handle cases of suspected trafficking. The legislation would tackle these issues on a national level by providing grants to fund similar efforts, as well as creating shelters for trafficking victims, at six sites across the country.

Despite these valuable provisions, however, more work is needed to draft policies that address the causes, not just the outcomes, of trafficking. In a statement introducing the bill, Sen. Wyden said of trafficking in the U.S.: “The reason that this crime has reached epidemic proportions is simple: the resources are not in place to help innocent victims escape from trafficking, nor to punish the violent, ruthless pimps who are trafficking them.” This assessment of the problem reflects the bill’s approach to trafficking, which is to focus on issues associated with existing trafficking cases. Service provision is of critical importance for current victims, but it does not prevent the creation of new victims. And while law enforcement training is essential, Wyden framed its primary purpose as enabling officers to work with victims to build strong criminal cases against traffickers. Wyden suggested that doing so would have a deterrent effect on traffickers who, he said, “have figured out that trafficking a person is a lot less risky, and just as profitable, as trafficking drugs.” The bill’s approach to the issue is thus to focus on existing instances of trafficking, rather than directly seeking to protect minors from becoming victims in the first place.

IOFA believes that it is necessary to go a step beyond this, taking a proactive, rather than reactive, approach to the problem of trafficking. We argue that trafficking can be effectively reduced by identifying youth who are vulnerable to exploitation and working to minimize those vulnerabilities. We’re in the midst of researching and writing a report, “The State of the World’s Vulnerable Youth,” that will have much more information on the factors that contribute to vulnerability as well as suggestions on possible policy responses that take a preventative approach to trafficking.

So if you’re interested in learning more about these issues, please check back in and read the report to be released in Summer 2011!

Charlotte Cahill
IOFA Resource Development & Policy Intern

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