30 states and DC have laws that minors cannot be arrested for solicitation or prostitution. But in other states, a child may arrested for prostitution, even when many of these same states and federal government recognize that children cannot consent to a commercial sexual act.
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) is a piece of federal legislation that provides legal protection to victims of trafficking. Under this law, children under the age of 18 who are involved in commercial sex are considered victims and offered protections. This law and most state laws recognize that anytime there is a child involved in a commercial sexual act, that child is a victim of trafficking.
Why is it important for laws to recognize these children as victims? Because they are, and when our laws don’t recognize this, our criminal justice system ends up punishing them for their own victimization. According to 2019 data from the United States Department of Justice, at least 290 minors in the United States were arrested for a prostitution-related offense. Forty of those children were 14 or younger.
Traffickers exploit vulnerabilities and being a child is an inherent vulnerability. When laws don’t protect children and recognize their victimization, traffickers can use this to their advantage. Traffickers may tell children that their exploitation is their fault and that anyone they tell will see them as a criminal not a victim. When law enforcement arrests children, it reinforces these messages and hinders children’s willingness to disclose their victimization. Law enforcement has an important role to play in the fight against trafficking, but with scarce resources it is critical that we focus on arresting the traffickers, not the children.
At Love146, we believe that no victim of child trafficking should be treated as a criminal, and we’ve seen firsthand the damage of victim blaming. We know that children don’t need to be arrested to be “rescued”, that services can be offered without incarceration, and that laws that protect children offer them the best chance at a future without exploitation.