Tuesday, July 5, 2011

LGBTQ Youth: Why GLAD has joined the fight for a Mass. law against human trafficking

As a legal fellow at GLAD, I was approached by a more senior attorney to prepare testimony in support of Massachusetts House Bill 2277, “An Act Relative to Safe Harbor for Exploited Children.” At first glance, the bill, which will ensure that children coerced into prostitution are treated as victims of commercial sexual exploitation and provided access to the services and care to which child abuse victims are entitled, did not appear to fit within what I had considered to be GLAD’s “traditional” areas of expertise. However, a closer look quickly demonstrated the value of GLAD’s involvement in this broader coalition effort.

At a State House hearing in May, Attorney General Martha Coakley introduced the bill to the Joint Committee on the Judiciary as the companion to another bill which would criminalize human trafficking in Massachusetts (one of only four states who currently have no such laws). AG Coakley explained that the only difference between the trafficking of humans and the trafficking of weapons and drugs, which is already prohibited by law, is that human trafficking is even more lucrative – once traffickers sell guns and drugs, they must get more; however, human “commodities” can be sold over and over without any additional cost. The focus of her testimony, as well as that of Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley, was on the invisibility of human trafficking and thus the anonymity of its child victims.

All of the testimony in support of the bill pointed strongly toward the necessity of its passage, but I believe that GLAD uniquely gave these children a voice by detailing the struggles that often lead to their victimization. DA Conley alluded to the fact that many victims are runaways with a history of sexual abuse but GLAD’s testimony provided additional insight into their plight. While the focus of GLAD’s testimony was on LGBTQ youth, as they represent a disproportionate number of homeless youth (up to 40 percent of the homeless youth population as compared to 4-10 percent of the overall population), the underlying notion highlighted was that these are children who have often left home to escape physical, verbal, and sexual abuse. Studies indicate that up to 40 percent of girls and 30 percent of boys who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation have also been victims of physical or sexual abuse at home.

Having nowhere else to turn, these youth are thrust into the danger of living on the streets and many are forced into engaging in acts of prostitution as a means of survival to obtain basic necessities like food and shelter. Young, frightened, with limited or no skills and unable to find basic sustenance, these youth are easy prey. LGBTQ homeless youth are 7 times more likely to experience acts of sexual violence toward them and, often having difficulty accessing necessary services due to their LGBTQ status, are also more likely to engage in acts of survival sex. Homeless transgender youth in particular, who are often deprived of gender affirming medical treatment, are 3 times more likely to be victimized in this manner.

All youth, regardless of their LGBTQ status, coerced into prostitution are victims of sexual exploitation. By demonstrating to the legislature the confluence of factors that lead these youth to become victimized, GLAD’s testimony attempted to make clear that criminal prosecution is not the appropriate response. Because homeless youth become involved in commercial sexual exploitation as a result of desperation for resources and past emotional issues, the bill correctly recognizes that it is access to services, and not punishment, that will aid in their recovery. Having left home to escape abuse and then being thrust into the danger of living on the streets, youth arrested for commercial sexual exploitation have not had the benefit of any positive interventions on their behalf. Rather than treating them as delinquents, the law should take this opportunity to provide assistance to youth that have found such help lacking throughout their lives.

GLAD’s testimony was greatly appreciated by the office of Rep. Liz Malia, an out lesbian and one of the bill’s sponsors, and I’d like to think by the legislative committee as well. The bill received a favorable recommendation from the committee and passed the House in June. The Senate passed the bill unanimously on June 30, and Sen. Mark Montigny, the lead Senate sponsor, expects that it will soon be signed into law.

Read Ashley's testimony here.

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