By Sebastien Malo
NEW YORK, Feb 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Judges in the United States could better help child sex-trafficking victims by giving them services and not punishment when their cases arrive in court, advocates said on Monday.
Providing benefits and programs to young victims would be most effective in U.S. states where laws do not label child sex trafficking as prostitution, they said at a juvenile justice conference in New York.
An increasing number of states have become so-called safe harbors by adopting laws to prevent children from facing criminal charges of prostitution or solicitation. But most states still treat child sex-trafficking victims as criminals.
Judges in safe-harbor states can demonstrate how providing services is an effective alternative to punishment, said Stacy Boulware Eurie, a juvenile-court state judge in California.
The Sacramento judge said she has tried to tackle problems that make children vulnerable to sex traffickers since California became a safe harbor state last month.
"Unfortunately, too many of these youth are presenting not only with significant trauma experiences, but with alcohol and substance abuse, use and addiction," she said at a conference organized by the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
Previously, a young victim might have been sentenced to community service but now her California peers might opt for counseling, the judge said.
"We peel the onion, we look behind the charge," she said.
More than a dozen states are safe harbors, including New York, Tennessee and Florida, said Yasmin Vafa, executive director of Rights4Girls, a Washington, D.C.-based group.
Vafa said authorities should punish the buyers of child sex trafficking rather than its victims.
"There should be no difference between raping a child and paying to rape a child," she said.
Some 1.5 million people in the United States are estimated to be victims of trafficking, most commonly for sexual exploitation. Most sex trafficking victims are children, according to a recent U.S. Senate subcommittee report.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, each year as many as 300,000 children are at risk of being trafficked for commercial sex.
The United Nations children's agency estimates 1.8 million children are trafficked in the global sex trade every year.
(Reporting by Sebastien Malo @sebastienmalo, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)