Identifying Best Practices for "Safe Harbor" Legislation to Protect Child Sex Trafficking Victims

Decriminalization Alone Is Not Sufficient

Published in: Child Abuse & Neglect, v. 51, Jan. 2016, p. 249-262

Posted on RAND.org on January 22, 2016

by Elizabeth S. Barnert, Susan Abrams, Veronica F. Azzi, Gery W. Ryan, Robert H. Brook, Paul J. Chung

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Research Questions

  1. What are considered the best practices of safe harbor legislation to protect child victims of commercial sexual exploitation?
  2. What are the barriers, or unintended consequences?

Several states have recently enacted "Safe Harbor" laws to redirect child victims of commercial sexual exploitation and child sex trafficking from the criminal justice system and into the child welfare system. No comprehensive studies of Safe Harbor law implementation exist. The nine state Safe Harbor laws enacted by 2012 were analyzed to guide state legislators, health professionals, law enforcement agents, child welfare providers, and other responders to the commercial sexual exploitation of children on the development and implementation of state Safe Harbor laws. The authors conducted 32 semi-structured interviews with Safe Harbor experts in these states. Participants conveyed that Safe Harbor legislation signified a critical paradigm shift, treating commercially sexually exploited youth not as criminals but as vulnerable children in need of services. However, Safe Harbor legislation varied widely and significant gaps in laws exist. Such laws alone were considered insufficient without adequate funding for necessary services. As a result, many well-meaning providers were going around the Safe Harbor laws by continuing to incarcerate commercially sexually exploited youth in the juvenile justice system regardless of Safe Harbor laws in place. This was done, to act, in their view, in what was the best interest of the victimized children. With imperfect laws and implementation, these findings suggest an important role for local and state responders to act together to protect victims from unnecessary criminalization and potential further traumatization.

Key Findings

  • Establishing an alternative path from the justice system with the use of well-funded supportive services is critical to success.
  • Services such as mental health care, case management, medical care, survivor-led mentoring programs, and education and job training need sustainable funding in order to serve this population well.
  • A central agency should coordinate safe harbor programs and provide oversight.
  • Delayed implementation from passage of legislation may be worthwhile.
  • In communities without sufficient services, juvenile detention is sometimes viewed as a mechanism to protect youths from their exploiters.

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