Advocates seek immunity for young victims of sex trafficking, but police object

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By Hannah Lang

Capital News Service

A state workgroup is recommending that juvenile victims of human trafficking will not be prosecuted for sex crimes in Maryland, despite objections from law enforcement.

From 2012 to October of this year, 82 girls in Maryland were confirmed as victims of human trafficking, said Audra Harrison, communications director for the Department of Juvenile Services.

Youth victims of human trafficking are usually recovered in areas near airports with higher population density, and often come from low-income families with a history of neglect and substance abuse, said Sgt. Johnny Murray with the Hagerstown Police Department.

“I think there’s this notion when someone says human trafficking that it’s a container ship full of girls from a foreign country,” said Capt. Steven Hohman, commander of the Special Investigations Section for the Baltimore Police Department. “It really is more on the streets of our cities and streets of our neighborhoods and the awareness needs to be raised.”

The Workgroup to Study Safe Harbor Policy for Youth Victims of Human Trafficking was created last year to identify the needs of victims and programs and resources that are offered in the state.

The workgroup came up with 10 recommendations, the first being to offer immunity to youth aged 17 or younger charged with prostitution or prostitution-related charges.

“The workgroup agreed there had to be some type of immunity for child victims of sex trafficking, and we did get into a fairly lengthy discussion about what would be the age that we would suggest be used,” said Maryland Secretary of State John Wobensmith, who chaired the workgroup.

Police objections

However, police in the state do not support immunity and advocate for prosecution as a tool to compel cooperation. They also said it could lead to more children pimped out as sex workers.

While police generally choose not to charge minors with prostitution, it’s an option that shouldn’t be taken off the table, Murray said.

“I don’t know of a single case where someone has been doing an undercover operation, recovered a juvenile and then wanted to charge them,” he said. “It’s just not the way that they approach business.”

A law that would take the option to charge victims away would be “craziness,” he said.

“What about the girl who’s 16, 17 years old that is doing this and she’s doing this on her own accord? She’s not really being pimped out,” he said.

Hohman said he thinks immunity for youth victims should instead be granted on a case-by-case basis, left up to the discretion of the police.

“I would be worried that it’s going to give the pimps and the handlers a greater incentive to go after juveniles because they know even if they’re caught, the juveniles have immunity and they’re not going to be charged, so when you take immunity off the table, or put it on the table, rather, there’s really no incentive for victims to cooperate,” he said.

The Baltimore Police Department hasn’t charged any minors with prostitution this year, Hohman said.

No evidence scare tactics work

Using charges as a scare tactic doesn’t seem to be effective when recovering a youth victim of human trafficking, Wobensmith said.

“I haven’t seen any data so far that would convince me that this is something that is in fact useful as a threat for cooperation,” he said.

The Samaritan Women — an organization in Baltimore that operates a shelter for victims of human trafficking — gets calls “across the country all the time” about minors, but can’t take them in because there’s no legal framework in Maryland for organizations to serve youth victims, said Melissa Yao, the group’s church impact manager.

“By the time the residents come to our program, they’ve already been … prostituted for between six to eight years, and so our average intake (age) is between 20 and 21, so they started very, very young,” she said. “By the time they get to us, they’re so used up that they’re not worth the effort for the trafficker to deal with any longer.”

The policy right now is to send underage victims to Child Protective Services, which often transfers them to foster families, who aren’t usually equipped to deal with the trauma human trafficking survivors experience, said Yao.

More protocols and legal framework, including those proposed in the workgroup’s recommendations, could alleviate this transition, Wobensmith said.

“The problem we heard was for the most part, we don’t have facilities and resources available to help the youth folks involved in this,” he said.

The workgroup’s other nine recommendations look to address the lack of resources through programs such as mandatory training for police officers and the development and expansion of a risk assessment tool.

The workgroup will be pushing for legislation to be passed to provide immunity to youth victims during the next year’s General Assembly session, he Wobensmith said.

“The biggest issue is there’s no way for us to help minors,” said Yao. “That’s what our priority would be, to create some sort of legal framework where we can just do the work that we want to do.”