Curbing the growing trade in underage sex trafficking nationally is a cause with personal overtones for Democratic U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Republican House Rep. Erik Paulsen.
As Hennepin County attorney, Klobuchar saw firsthand cases involving underage girls forced into the sex trade. Paulsen co-sponsored Minnesota’s first statewide human trafficking task force in 2006 and says he continues to be reminded of his four daughters when he sees the damage caused by trafficking.
The two have tried before to pass a national “Safe Harbor” law that would protect underage victims of sex trafficking from court charges but failed to get it past a Democratic Senate.
But the recent flip in the Senate to Republican control may wind up working in the bill’s favor.
“Republicans have been good on this issue, and I have every reason to expect that we’re going to get it done,” Klobuchar said.
Paulsen, who has shepherded similar legislation through the House twice, said, “This is something we can do together, and are doing together, to literally save lives and help these young girls in particular.”
The bill, known as the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act, discourages charges against underage sex trafficking victims and would offer the prospect of enhanced community policing funding for states that enforce the act.
Victims would be able to take advantage of free education and training programs through Job Corps. By 2017, the federal government would make available grants for a national communication system that could connect victims to service providers. The Senate bill also would help bring together federal, state and local efforts against sex trafficking in a national strategy.
Paulsen and Klobuchar first tackled sex trafficking in 2013. Paulsen’s version passed the House, but Klobuchar’s stalled out in the Senate. In 2014, the bill again got held up in the Senate when an omnibus spending bill took priority at the end of the legislative session.
This time, Klobuchar has Majority Whip Sen. John Cornyn of Texas as the Republican lead on her bill. The two have talked to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky about the legislation, and Klobuchar said they now are “pretty positive” about getting a floor vote. The legislation has gotten bipartisan support every time it’s gone through Congress.
Last week, Klobuchar and every other female senator called on the Senate Judiciary Committee in a joint letter to hold a hearing on sex trafficking.
Minnesota is a step ahead of other states in revising its sex trafficking laws. In 2011 the state passed a safe harbor law, which redefines prostitutes under age 18 as victims rather than criminals. Minnesota has already criminalized sex and labor trafficking, said Brandon Bouchard, a spokesman for the Polaris Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing human trafficking.
Minnesota now has fewer cases than larger states. Last year, 201 reported calls out of 21,431 nationally and 36 human trafficking cases out of 5,042 nationally to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center were from Minnesota, according to Polaris Project data. Not all cases of sex trafficking are reported.
The state Legislature is considering passage of the 2015 Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Youth bill, which would increase statewide funding for sex trafficking aid services.
The push to end trafficking
Lori Stee is the director of public policy and education at the nonprofit Breaking Free, which provides support to women fleeing from sex trafficking and prostitution. Stee said Breaking Free — founded in 1996 — helps more than 500 victims annually by providing housing and other services.
Stee called sex trafficking “paid rape” and said that to curb what is now a $100-billion-a-year worldwide industry, legislation must target those running the market.
“I’m so encouraged by the flood of legislation at present,” Stee said. “It’s almost overwhelming, trying to keep up with everything.”
Bouchard said the next step will be to create task forces like Minnesota’s in states across the country and ensure that they have enough resources to staff them.
Lee Roper-Batker, president and CEO of the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, said several factors increase vulnerability to sex trafficking, including domestic violence, a history of sexual abuse, homelessness or neglect.
“These aren’t young girls making bad choices — these are young girls who are vulnerable, who are being preyed upon by very sophisticated adults,” Roper-Batker said.
She is encouraged by the bipartisan support she sees for reducing the underage sex trade.
“Nobody in the United States wants to see the sex trafficking of our children,” she said.
Beena Raghavendran • 202-383-6121