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A new court program will help child sex trafficking victims find help and heal in Washington D.C.

by Andrea Powell | FAIR Girls
Monday, 29 January 2018 13:42 GMT

The White House is reflected in a puddle in Washington, U.S., January 28, 2018. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The future is starting to look brighter for child survivors of sex trafficking who previously would have been treated as simply "delinquents" or "runaways"

Just blocks from the White House, children continue to be lured into sex trafficking by traffickers who make thousands of dollars off of their abuse. A White House proclamation naming January as "Human Trafficking Awareness Month" feels far removed from the plight of these often impoverished, homeless, and exploited teen girls and boys. In a basement level courtroom in downtown Washington, D.C., the future is starting to look brighter for child survivors of sex trafficking who previously would have been treated as simply "delinquents" or "runaways." It was not always this way.

Brianna, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, was trafficked by a local D.C. pimp when she was just 15 years old. When the police found her, she was arrested for prostitution.

“They [the police] tried to arrest me for prostitution and never stopped to think that I was a child who needed help or that I was a child victim of sex trafficking. I lived in silence about what was really happening to me,” she said before the District of Columbia City Council's Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety in 2014.

If the arresting officer, social worker, or even judge had identified her plight, she could have been referred to FAIR Girls, a nonprofit I founded in 2003 that has to date provided direct services to over 1,000 young women and girls who are survivors of human trafficking. Instead, she went back into the abusive home she had repeatedly ran away from with a prostitution charge, detention time, probation and shame.

On January 29, a new D.C. Superior Court program, HOPE Court, formally launched to offer court-involved child survivors like Brianna true help. HOPE Court youth will advocate weekly in court for themselves while being connected to specialized providers like FAIR Girls who support them with counseling and mentorship that addresses the root causes of how they were lured into sex trafficking, such as homelessness or domestic violence.

In many ways, HOPE Court follows the passage of the 2014 Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Act requiring law enforcement to be trained in how to best identify victims of human trafficking and to report to Child Protective Services any suspected or confirmed case of child sexual exploitation or human trafficking.

As a result, the number of exploited girls under 18 referred to FAIR Girls, including girls as young as 11, has more than tripled. At FAIR Girls, we know that early identification could save a young person's life. In fact, the average age of entry into commercial sexual exploitation or sex trafficking is just 14 years old. Like Brianna, survivors at FAIR Girls report that on average they suffer four years before getting help.

Sadly, even after the passage of the Sex Trafficking of Minors Prevention Act, girls like Brianna continued to be caught up in the court system for such things as running away (there were 170 known cases of abscondence from January to June 2017) and other minor charges. Many of the court-involved youth identified as child trafficking victims were a part of the 2,192 missing children cases reported in the District of Columbia in 2017. Each time a child runs away, his or her chances of being trafficked increase. Effectively, child sex trafficking victims were still being locked up and HOPE Court seeks to be the solution to the unjust and sometimes life-threatening problem.

HOPE Court is a pilot program created in March 2017 to test the theory of change we proposed. To date, all survivors identified as girls of color (all African American but one who identified as Hispanic). Teen graduates of HOPE Court work with their case managers to meet their goals that include counseling, staying in school, or building a support network of friends and family. Each week, the entire trauma informed team, including Magistrate Judge Mary Rook, meet prior to court to learn of the youth’s progress. During the court hearing, youth themselves share directly with the judge their own successes and challenges, which is a truly unique approach designed to make the court experience empowering rather than further stigmatizing.

Still, challenges remain in making the District of Columbia truly responsive to the needs of sex trafficked minors. Perhaps most profoundly, we lack safe housing that many child survivors need to recover. As FAIR Girls has learned by operating the only safe home specifically designed to serve young women survivors of human trafficking in the D.C. metro area, this kind of intensive housing support is needed to effectively break the cycle of human trafficking.

Brianna is now a young adult who, like many former child victims of sex trafficking, has struggled with homelessness and to remain free of exploitation.

“There are a lot of girls like me out there - and boys, too. They need help, just like I did when I was 15," she told District of Columbia lawmakers back in 2014. "I can say that I'm a changed person because of all that I have accomplished. I love who I have become."

Slavery still exists. It happens every day. Children living in the nation’s capital and across the country know this all too well. They deserve more than proclamations and press releases, they deserve to be treated with the dignity and care.  Here at FAIR Girls, we are finally starting to see that change coming.

Andrea Powell is founder and president of FAIR Girls.