Which States Hold Child Victims of Sex Trafficking Liable for Their Crimes?

October 20, 2019 | Human Trafficking

According to the International Labour Organization, approximately 10 million children are victims of human trafficking worldwide, and of that, an estimated 1.2 million are victims of forced sexual exploitation.

State laws against sex trafficking and slavery are aggressively enforced in the United States, but many emphasize harsh punishments and quick prosecutions – even against children who are victims of sex trafficking.

Although some states have enacted “safe harbor” laws – provisions that provide legal protections to children who have been forced into sexual labor by human traffickers – many still continue to hold child victims of sex trafficking criminally liable for engaging in forced sex acts. The map below highlights a breakdown of states which do and do not have safe harbor laws in place for minors impacted by sex trafficking.

In all, 25 states still do not have any provisions protecting child victims of sex trafficking from prosecution. The rest of the 25 states (and Washington, D.C.) have passed some form of safe harbor law which protects minors from prostitution charges, preventing them from being criminally liable for any sexual labor they may have been coerced into committing.

2 of these states – South Dakota and Michigan – have provisions for safe harbor, but they only apply to minors who are under 16 years of age.

Third Party Control: A Caveat to Safe Harbor Laws

It is important to note that, of the states that provide protections, five states require third party control in order to qualify for these protections:

  • Mississippi
  • North Dakota
  • Rhode Island
  • West Virginia
  • Wyoming

This requirement states that a minor working in prostitute may only be considered a sex trafficking victim if there is an identifiable, controlling third party in place who has “forced” the minor to engage in commercial sexual activity. This means that child sex workers who have been personally “bought” by a direct buyer do not legally qualify as victims of sex trafficking – despite still having been sold and forced into sexual labor.

Additionally, some states take the provision even further, mandating an explicit identification of the third party in order to qualify for legal protections. This can be equally problematic, especially in situations where the victims may be too scared or psychologically traumatized to willingly identify the traffickers.

Abolishing the third party control requirement in these states would not only hold all involved parties accountable in the sex trafficking trade, but would also provide immediate help to victims who may have otherwise not received the support they deserve.

A Note on Texas

It’s important to note that Texas has no safe harbor laws explicitly in place to protect child victims of sex trafficking, nor does it have any explicit age requirements in its prostitution laws. However, Texas caselaw expressly prohibits the prosecution of a minor under 14 years old for prostitution.

Closing Thoughts

Although roughly half of the country has provisions protecting minors from sex trafficking charges, more can be done to support those who have been wrongfully forced into sexual labor. Enacting more safe harbor laws in states would be great progress toward that direction, while also reverting any third party control requirements in those 5 states which do have safe harbor laws. If you’d like more information, please contact a human trafficking lawyer at The Dunken Law Firm at (713) 554-6780.