ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP) — When the advocacy group Shared Hope released its first report card on efforts to combat sex trafficking of America’s children, 26 states received a failing grade. This year’s report card, released Nov. 11, proved a surprise to Shared Hope founder Linda Smith.
“I was excited there were no Fs,” Smith said. “In 2011, we had 26 states with failing grades — so many places in the United States that could be scary places for our children.” In addition to no Fs, more than half the states earned either an A or a B.
The Protected Innocence Challenge assigns A through F letter grades to all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It evaluates states on critical elements in the fight against sex trafficking of minors, including special criminal provisions for the men who buy children and legal and restorative services for their victims.
This year, Louisiana retained its top spot on the list. Michigan earned the title of most improved. Two other states, Montana and North Dakota, improved their scores by two letter grades. While the scores this year show dramatic improvement, Smith said they reflect several years of persistent effort on the part of state attorneys general and legislators.
She said lawmakers in the states that received higher marks found a way to work together, across party lines and without hubris, for the common goal.
Critics say existing legislation is sufficient to prosecute sex traffickers and more laws are not needed, suggesting anti-trafficking advocates should focus on enforcing existing laws.
Smith noted she believes in new legislation as well as enforcement.
“We have to build law and then practice what we have built,” she said. “Good people make laws work.”
While Smith is greatly encouraged at the progress of the last five years, she still sees more ground to cover. For example, only 15 states protect minors from being criminally charged as prostitutes, a stigma that can keep victims from getting support and recovery services. Smith also believes many states have much work to do toward punishing buyers to lower demand.
In 2013, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduced a trafficking survivor who shared her story, illustrating the need for legislation that targets buyers and protects victims. “Brianna” was 9 years old when her school janitor kidnapped her, raped her, and sold her to a pimp. She recounted a life controlled by a series of brutal pimps who sold her “to men who knew my age and bought sex because of it.”
During her ordeal, Brianna saw her mother out the window of the room in which she was trapped. Her mom was hanging “missing” posters with Brianna’s face on them. She screamed, trying to get her mother’s attention, but her pimp yanked her away from the window by her hair.
When police finally came, it didn’t feel like a rescue.
“I was arrested and placed in handcuffs. … I was called a prostitute even though I was a child, even though I was a trafficking victim,” she said.
A jury eventually convicted her abuser of kidnapping — a charge for which he will serve about four years, Brianna said.
“This man who owned me as a slave, who sold me to child rapists, who profited off of my body deserves to be punished more harshly,” she said.
Shared Hope plans to continue monitoring legislative efforts to fight sex trafficking but in the future the group also hopes to track implementation.
“We’re going upstream,” Smith said. “Improvement doesn’t happen overnight. We’re in this for the long haul.”