On Tuesday February 24, the Senate Judiciary Committee considered the issue of human trafficking and two bills that approach the issue beyond what was debated within child welfare in 2014 through amendments to child welfare law.
Under the hearing title, Human Trafficking in the United States: Protecting the Victim, senators focused attention on providing services, criminalizing adult sex with minors and making the public more aware of the extent of trafficking in both sex and forced labor. The main purpose of the hearing was consideration of S. 166 and S. 178.  Grassley said the legislation (S. 178) the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, would ensure that additional resources are available to survivors of both sex and labor trafficking to aid in their recovery and that S. 178 would help fight demand for domestic sex trafficking by ensuring any person who is trafficking an adult or purchasing a child for sex will be punished under the full force of the law.”

Committee Chair Charles Grassley (R-IA) said, “…much work remains to be done, particularly to protect our most vulnerable youths from traffickers and to curb the demand for sex trafficking…experts widely agree that any efforts to reduce the prevalence of child sex trafficking—as well as other forms of trafficking—should address not only the supply, but also the demand.”

Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said “As I listen to the stories of survivors, many of them begin with a homeless or runaway teen who is scared and desperate.  Traffickers prey on that desperation because there are so few places for these kids to turn.  If we want to prevent more of our youth from becoming targets for human trafficking, we need to offer that safe place.  Right now, we are failing these vulnerable kids.  There are far too few shelters in this country and those that exist are too often losing, not gaining beds due to budget cuts.” Leahy also commented on a bill his is cosponsoring with Senator Susan Collins (R-ME)  to reauthorize the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, (Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act).  The legislation would update the federal grant programs,

The testimony began with remarks by Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), Kirsten Gillibrand (DNY), Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).  Collins, who is sponsoring the Runaway and Homeless Youth reauthorization, said homeless youth, in particular, are more likely to fall victim to sexual exploitation.”  Collins referenced statistics that “approximately one in four homeless youth are victims of sex trafficking or engage in survival sex, and 48 percent of youth have done so because they did not have a safe place to stay.”

The panel included testimony from Holly Austin Smith, Trafficking Survivor and Author of Walking Prey, Malika Saada Saar, Human Rights Project for Girls, Jayne Bigelsen, Covenant House International, Michael Ferjak , Iowa Department of Justice.

Smith’s testimony was particularly compelling as she discussed her journey from being a fourteen year old, being coerced into prostitution by a man she had met at a New Jersey shopping mall and how the man exploited “a young teen girl who had just graduated eighth grade middle school and was afraid of going into high school.”
Smith went on to say, “to create effective anti-trafficking bills, solutions, and services for victims, I encourage legislators and advocates to consult with many survivors having diverse experiences – no single experience can represent all situations of sex or labor trafficking. Male, female, and transgendered survivors; survivors who were children when exploited and those who were adults; and survivors who were U.S. citizens and foreign nationals when exploited – each survivor has a different experience, a different perspective, and a different insight into effective programs that can prevent exploitation, protect victims, and prosecute traffickers and other exploiters.”   Smith spoke in favor of effective community programs that she says can prevent human trafficking and child exploitation from happening in the first place.”

While testifying about the variety of potentially vulnerable young people she highlighted the story of sex trafficking survivor Nikolaos Al-Khadra from Chicago who had been ordered to leave home after accepting his identity as a gay male.   Telling his story Smith quoted him, “I grew up with

[a lot] of emotional and physical abuse,” He describes a home life in which his father regularly attempted to “’beat the gay out’” of him. “I drove to the gay area of Chicago. I had parked my car, met some other kids who were hanging out on a street named Halsted. I had went back to my car to get something not paying attention and was snatched from my car.”

S 166 attempts to incentivize states to not prosecute minors for commercial sex and calls for the Department of Justice to implement a national anti-human trafficking policy.  S 178 attempts to establish new funding through the use of the Crime Victims Fund to provide services to victims of all human trafficking (not limited to sex trafficking), it also creates greater law enforcement to prosecute human trafficking.

The Judiciary Committee passed both S 166 and S 178 on Thursday, two days after the hearing.
To read the full testimony go to the Senate Judiciary Hearing site.