Shared Hope International has been working in Wisconsin, across the country, and internationally for over 20 years to guide and support appropriate responses to protect survivors, hold offenders to account, and ultimately prevent the crime entirely. 11 years ago we launched the Protected Innocence Challenge project (i.e. State Report Cards) to assess the status of state’s laws and to drive legislative progress. Since 2011, we have called on states to recognize any minor engaged in commercial sex as a victim of a sex trafficking, not a “prostitute” or “delinquent youth.” We know that survivors of child sex trafficking have the best outcomes when they are met with protection, trauma-informed services, and a response that is appropriate for the horrific experiences they have endured—such a response cannot be rooted in juvenile justice practices and systems.
Amending the prostitution statute to be inapplicable to minors recognizes that children never engage in commercial sex by choice; rather, a child does so out of coercion, force, fraud, fear, or survival. This is not consensual sex; money does not sanitize rape and treating the child as consensual actor not only misplaces criminality, it directly re-victimizes the child. Oftentimes, children entangled in a life that includes commercial sex carry years of trauma, generational vulnerabilities, and abuse on their backs. Other times, such children have trusted the wrong adult, been fed a false promise, or have fallen for an exploiter who later sold the child to someone all too willing to pay for the chance to rape him or her. Children with unsafe or unstable home environments may find the streets safer and, resultantly, sell their bodies in exchange for something to eat or someplace to sleep. These are not choices; children living in such circumstances deserve, at a minimum, specialized services and long-term care, not the traumatizing impact of an arrest, detention and prosecution, or juvenile records that carrying devastating collateral consequences far beyond childhood years.
In 2014, four years after releasing the first State Report Cards, we graded Wisconsin a “B” state for having a set of strong, comprehensive laws that address child sex trafficking; for the last 8 years, Wisconsin has consistently scored higher than the national average in developing robust policies and practices related to child sex trafficking. However, despite holding a position of leadership, the state has lagged seriously behind a majority of the country in designing and prioritizing protective responses for survivors. 31 states and D.C. have made clear that children engaged in commercial sex are victims of sex trafficking, no prostitution offenders. While Wisconsin state law clearly defines children who are bought and sold for sex as victims of sex trafficking, those same minors can be and are arrested and prosecuted for prostitution. SB 245 is not only critical for remedying this legal paradox; this legislation embraces a nationally-regarded promising practice for protecting children and preventing harm.
Concerns have previously been raised that, without the ability to arrest child sex trafficking victims, law enforcement are limited in their ability to keep vulnerable youth safe. We wholeheartedly share the desire to ensure survivor safety; however, arrest is not the only and certainly not the appropriate mechanism for doing so. Alternatively, many states that have enacted and successfully implemented Safe Harbor responses have abandoned the use of arrest and adopted more child-friendly and appropriate tools for taking children into custody, including the use of temporary protective custody provisions. Fortunately, Wisconsin has already developed this mechanism under Wis. Stat. § 48.19(d).
SB 245 not only aligns with promising and child-centered responses to sex trafficking but amplifies survivors’ calls for justice. Our decades of research and collaborative work with trafficking survivors has illuminated the harms of punitive responses to victims; survivors continue to reiterate the additional trauma and harm that is caused during arrest, detention, and prosecution, even if such responses are well-intended and designed break the cycle of exploitation, including
Wisconsin’s current diversion response to child sex trafficking victims. Conversely, responses outside of punitive systems are proven to be more effective, cost-efficient, and impactful in addressing survivors comprehensive needs and goals, and preventing the predictable cycle of vulnerabilities, exploitation, criminalization, and increased vulnerabilities to reexploitation.
We commend the Sponsor’s leadership on this issue and are grateful for the Committee’s interest in supporting an alternative, more survivor-centered and justice-oriented response.
If you live in Wisconsin, urge your legislators to support Senate Bill 245 and end the criminalization of children with prostitution.