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New efforts target young victims of trafficking

The FBI proudly announced recently that its Operation Cross Country had rescued 105 sexually exploited children who were victims of human trafficking.

The FBI proudly announced  recently that its Operation Cross Country had rescued 105 sexually exploited children who were victims of human trafficking.

For some, however, "rescue" evidently is a matter of interpretation.

In the case of at least one local teenager, almost immediately after she was freed from her traffickers, she was charged with prostitution and placed in the Bucks County juvenile detention facility.

"Can we treat her as a 100 percent victim right now? I can't say that until an investigation is done," Bensalem Township Public Safety Director Fred Harran said last week.

Harran said Monday that the 17-year-old had been transferred from the Bucks County Youth Center in Doylestown to a facility where she was receiving services.

The teenager's situation reflects a dilemma for the freed children: They are considered victims, yet often are charged with a crime and jailed, advocates say.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 children in the United States are exploited through prostitution every year.

"That shouldn't be," said Pennsylvania State Sen. Daylin Leach, a Democrat who represents parts of Montgomery and Delaware Counties, after hearing about the teen.

Leach is sponsoring a "safe harbor" bill, aimed at steering trafficked children away from criminalization and toward being treated like abused children who need services.

When adult prostitutes are caught up in law enforcement sweeps, the situation can be murky. To prove sex-trafficking occurred, authorities generally have to be willing and capable of ascertaining whether force, fraud, or coercion were used.

With children, there should be no question that they are victims, say many lawmakers and advocates, since those under 18 legally are too young to consent to sex. In Operation Cross Country, local authorities decide how to handle the children according to their own state and local laws.

"Yes, it is correct that in rare cases, detaining some kids may be the best option to protect them, although it falls far short of ideal," Jason Pack, who works for the FBI in Washington, wrote in an e-mail.

FBI victim specialists work to get youngsters the help they may need, but, he said, "the infrastructure to support the range of services just isn't there in many places."

It is unclear whether the FBI even tracks the rescued. "A breakdown on what happens to kids is not available," the agency said.

"We do worry about how victims, whether they are adults or minors, will be treated by the system whenever they are encountered," said Krista Hoffman, who leads the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape's antitrafficking program. "I can't think of any greater injustice than being charged with their own victimization."

Others think so, too, which makes trafficking a bipartisan issue.

Many children in the sex industry previously were sexually abused, said Republican State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf.

"This is ongoing sexual molestation, and it makes it even worse when society treats them as perpetrators," he said.

The state's 2006 trafficking-in-persons law is so vague that it has resulted in only one conviction - in Delaware County.

Greenleaf, who represents parts of Montgomery and Bucks Counties, is the prime sponsor of a bill whose provisions include specifying sex trafficking in addition to labor trafficking, and toughening penalties.

The other human-trafficking bill in Harrisburg is Leach's.

As with the one passed in New Jersey, Leach's proposal calls for the presumption that children 17 or younger engaged in prostitution are victims to be diverted to child protection agencies and support programs, rather than the criminal-justice system.

New Jersey strengthened its 2005 human-trafficking law with a safe-harbor provision a few years ago. Another law that went into effect this year is much more comprehensive and requires the reporting of underage prostitution arrests to state child protection officials, and the training of police, hotel personnel, and others to identify victims.

Part of the new law has been stalled as two websites filed suit in federal court challenging a provision that would fine and possibly jail operators of online or print services that publish ads for sex acts featuring minors.

A U.S. District Court judge in Newark, N.J., on Friday issued a preliminary injunction restraining New Jersey officials from enforcing that provision, saying it clashed with federal law.

Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D., Bergen) would like to see the issue fully resolved before the Meadowlands sports complex in New Jersey hosts the Super Bowl next February. Advocates say sex-trafficking increases at large athletic events such as that. Said Huttle:

"Every tool should be made available to law enforcement to eradicate human trafficking."