Missouri bill would prevent children from being accused of prostituting

Preventing children from being charged with prostitution and providing more resources for survivors of human trafficking are the goals of new legislation being considered by a Missouri House committee.

Although there was general agreement on the bill at a recent hearing, some experts said the technical wording could be improved.

Shima Rostami, executive director of Gateway Human Trafficking, had some recommendations for sponsor, Rep. Ed Lewis, R-Moberly. She said that legally defining children who have survived sex trafficking as victims of abuse can potentially prevent them from helping them.

When classified as victims of abuse rather than victims of sex trafficking, survivors lose certain benefits provided to them by the federal government. Agencies have been created to house and care for these children. Rostami said that without being specifically a “victim of human trafficking”, the children simply enter the regular care system without specialist support.

Lewis said he was prepared to make changes to his bill, HB 2032, to maximize its positive impact on victims of child sex trafficking. So far, representatives from the National Association of Social Workers, Missouri KidsFirst and the Missouri Association of Attorneys have offered advice on what changes should be made.

“We want to make sure we do no harm,” Lewis said. “It’s important to us that there are no unintended consequences.”

The bill will be revised to include language that ensures children do not have criminal records of sexual exploitation and are not charged as prostitutes, Lewis said. Anyone under the age of 18 coerced into sexual activity would automatically be considered a victim and not a criminal.

“We try not to re-traumatize people,” Rostami said. “Classifying them as victims of human trafficking is the minimum. If we want to do even better, we should classify them as survivors.”

Nanette Ward, a member of the Anti-Human Trafficking Task Force and advocate for the Stop Human Trafficking Coalition of Central Missouri, agreed with Rostami’s concerns.

“In the state of Missouri, we arrest our minors for prostitution,” Ward said. “When there’s a child involved, it’s not prostitution, it’s rape.”

Ward said sex trafficking bills often struggle to pass through the Legislature because of the stigma surrounding prostitution, misconceptions people have about children in the sex industry and the the seriousness of the subject.

“Just because this bill lacks information and needs fixing doesn’t mean lawmakers should ignore it or not fix the problem,” Rostami said. “We’re going to make sure there’s a bill that helps our survivors.”

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by students and editors of the Missouri School of Journalism for publication by member newspapers of the Missouri Press Association.

HB 2032: Trafficking in human beings

https://bit.ly/3t38OJc

Sponsor: Representative Ed Lewis

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