The first ever comprehensive law passed to prevent human trafficking and protect victims was called the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000. Subsequent re-authorizations (TVPA) expanded protection and services for international and domestic victims. This act made a difference for victims trafficked from overseas into the United States because victims could be issued T-visas that allowed them to temporarily stay in the United States and make use of victim services. T-visas give victims from overseas a way of gaining independence away from their pimps or from the people who brought them to the United States. After gaining the T-visa, they can also choose to continue staying in the United States or go back to where they had originally come from.
On top of attending to the needs of the victims, the TVPA also brought about tools for the prosecution and punishment for traffickers. Traffickers who kidnapped, sexually assaulted, attempted to kill or killed their victims could be sentenced to life in imprisonment. In addition, traffickers who used fraud, force or coercion to sexually exploit minors could also face life in prison.
Safe Harbor in Minnesota
The TVPA is one of the forces pushing states to implement similar laws that punish traffickers and protect victims. The Advocates for Human Rights in Minnesota pioneered and led a coalition of non-profits and activists to write and lobby for the Safe Harbor bill which Governor Mark Dayton signed into law in 2011.
The Safe Harbor bill explicitly defines sexually exploited minors as victims who are in need of protection and victim services, and not delinquents. This law that will be enacted in 2014 charged the commissioner of public safety, the commissioner of human services and the commissioner of health in alliance with many groups of people involved in providing services and stakeholders to put together a comprehensive child victims services almost from scratch.
According to Jeff Bauer, Director of Public Policy at the Family Partnership and a member of the Safe Harbor coalition, there are virtually no shelter beds in the state that are dedicated to housing minor victims of sexual exploitation now. But all that will soon change because he is now traveling all around the state to string together resources and connecting service providers, translators, hospitals and stakeholders into a system that would potentially be dedicated to serving and protecting minors who are sexually exploited.
Although this Safe Harbor bill is one big step forward, Bauer believes that more should be done. While children under 15 are immune from prosecution, children who are 16 and 17 could still be prosecuted under the juvenile justice system if they have already gone through the mandatory first referral to victim services. He believes that all minors under the age of 18 should be protected and never be treated as criminals.
Updates on the Safe Harbor coalition
I had the opportunity to shadow Bauer to some of the daily meetings where I got to meet many dedicated professionals who are as passionate about this issue as he is. At the No Wrong Door meeting that brought together the whole Safe Harbor coalition to unveil and review the whole system of services they had worked so hard on, I learned the basic workings of the sexually exploited child victim services. Victims could be referred from anywhere such as getting picked up on the streets, hospitals or even self-referred. Once they are referred, they will work with an expert from their region who will make sure they get all the services and protection they need to regain their lives. Services include chemical dependency rehabilitation, education, legal services, mental health consultations, employment help and many more.
According to Bauer, similar system had been set up in other states but most of the systems turned out to be a failure. This is because most of the time, only one department of the government worked on creating the system, which caused many conflicts within a framework where it is necessary for multiple parties to work together. With that in mind, I was hopeful that our system might just be one of the successful systems while I sat in a room full of lawyers, social workers, law enforcement officers, lawmakers and other professionals with a variety of expertise and watching them debate about definitions, talk about procedures and basically working together.
What is needed from the Asian Community in Minnesota
While there seems to be hope of child victims of sexual exploitation, human trafficking is a problem that is not only prevalent but even increasing in Minnesota, Bauer said. Bauer recommends that communities of color should start talking about this hidden problem and “accept that it is happening to their own children.” “Silence is what allows this problem to grow in our state,” he said. The Asian community can also work together with the Safe Harbor coalition to create a culturally appropriate system that would serve Asian victims better. The victim services should not be a one-size-fits-all system. He hopes that more people from the Asian community can give their input on how services can be more culturally specific. If you have any ideas or questions at all, please leave a comment and I will be sure to address them all.