Safe Harbor for Exploited Children

Print Friendly

A child arrested on prostitution charges in New York State faces a cruel tangle of legal double standards. By law, a child younger than 17 cannot consent to sex; yet the Family Court Act allows the state to prosecute and incarcerate sexually exploited children as “juvenile delinquents,” convicting and locking up children, even as young as 11 years old, for prostitution. While New York State’s recently enacted human trafficking legislation protects victims of the international sex trade from criminal prosecution, it fails to offer the same safeguards to New York’s children.

In partnership with the Juvenile Justice Coalition, the Correctional Association’s Juvenile Justice Project is working to end the criminalization of sexually exploited children by promoting the Safe Harbor Act for Exploited Children. Project staff helped draft this landmark bill, which, if enacted, will prevent the state from prosecuting and incarcerating children on prostitution charges and create a range of specialized services for victims, including safe houses, counseling and crisis intervention.

The bill gathered remarkable momentum this year due to the Coalition’s intensive advocacy efforts and statewide editorial support and press coverage, including pieces in The New York Times, Albany Times Union, Legislative Gazette and New York Magazine, and reports on NPR radio and NY1 news. On April 20, the Office of Children and Family Services released a report estimating that there are at least 2,900 sexually exploited young people in New York State, with 85% having been in the child welfare system. The study’s methodology counted only the sexually exploited young people already identified—leaving out youth who had not had contact with city and state agencies—so the true number is likely even higher. In response, on the day of the report’s release, the Juvenile Justice Coalition held a press conference to bring attention to the issue of commercial sexual exploitation and to call on the state to enact the Safe Harbor Act. On April 24th, the Coalition organized an effective Advocacy Day in Albany that helped to educate more legislators about this issue.

As a result of the Coalition’s work, the bill passed the State Assembly with unanimous support. Unfortunately, in the State Senate vote, a last-minute language change seriously undermined the bill’s core purpose. During the upcoming session, the Coalition will urge the Senate to endorse the Assembly version and leave the bill in its original, undiluted form. The Juvenile Justice Project will continue to promote passage of the Safe Harbor Act, so that sexually exploited children in New York State will receive the help and support they need to escape the sex trade and rebuild their lives.