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Florida ‘Safe Harbor’ Law Facing Problems

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Safe harbor” laws in relation to minors found in prostitution are in vogue. Several states have passed them, no two created equal. Some states decriminalize prostitution for minors — meaning selling sex is no longer a crime for minors to engage in, but it is still a crime for others to buy sex from them (johns) or to force them to sell sex (traffickers). Other states keep prostitution criminalized for minors but divert them (either automatically or through judicial/prosecutorial discretion) to restoration and rehabilitation programs.

Whichever path a state chooses, it is done ostensibly with the best interests of the children in mind and the intent to get them away from their exploiters. However, sometimes the best of intentions leads to unintended consequences.

Florida went the way of decriminalization with the Florida Safe Harbor Act of 2012. It is not blatant, wherein they changed the Florida statutes to prohibit the charging of minors with a prostitution offense, as was done in Illinois, Tennessee, Vermont, and Connecticut (Connecticut under the age of 16). Rather, Florida chose to declare sexually exploited children be treated as dependent children. That means that when the police take children they believe to be sexually exploited into custody, they are required to take them directly to the Department of Children and Families (DCF), not to the police station. If the child has no parent, legal guardian, or an adult relative capable of “providing the necessary and appropriate supervision and care,” the DCF may place the child into an authorized short-term safe house.

So far, this sounds like a good and compassionate plan. The child was taken away from her exploiter, not charged with a crime, and kept safe in a place where she can begin to heal. In a perfect world, this is the outcome everyone wants.

The reality in Florida, however, was different, and DCF is finding out that not every minor is willing to stay in a safe house. The Florida Senate’s Bill Analysis and Fiscal Impact Statement for SPB 7088 (2014), a bill that seeks to establish a secure environment for the victims, describes some of the problems arising from the Safe Harbor Act. The analysis found:

Serving victims of human trafficking presents challenges for a variety of reasons. These children often do not see themselves as exploited or victims and, thus, will not self-identify. Instead, they often develop a “trauma bond” with the traffickers, and see themselves as a companion to the trafficker. These children often run away from their placements, including from safe houses. In a DJJ [Department of Juvenile Justice] pilot program, DJJ found that of 64 percent of children who were confirmed victims of commercial exploitation had a history of over 5 instances of running away. Victims may also try to recruit other children from their placements to go work for the pimp.

To their credit, Florida lawmakers are not wasting any time trying to fix the problem for the more difficult cases. Senate Bill 7088 seeks, in part, to fund one secure safe house pilot project, which would “have security features to prevent any entry into or exit from the facility or its grounds without the involvement of staff. The bill specifies that these features may include, but are not limited to, walls, fencing, gates and locking doors.”

The lawmakers are trying to help “those sexually exploited children with the greatest needs and for whom no less restrictive placement has been or will be effective in addressing the effects of severe abuse, violence, trauma, or exploiter control endured by the child.” The lawmakers are also trying to protect minors in less restrictive facilities from being recruited by others within the facility to go work for their pimps. Pimps exploit the “trauma bond” for recruiting purposes, too.

Unfortunately for the lawmakers, the 2012 law created a situation wherein the minors’ Fourteenth Amendment rights (due process) would be violated if they are put into a secure safe house that they cannot voluntarily leave. In a move of compassion, lawmakers wanted to treat sexually exploited children as victims, not criminals, but they ignored the fact that criminal charges might actually protect the children.

Concerned Women for America (CWA) raised the issue from the beginning of the “safe harbor” trend, urging lawmakers to consider that the absence of charges pending against a minor means states cannot hold them against their will in a safe house, rehabilitation center, or treatment program, even if it is for their own good and protection. CWA has been vilified for this position, but as Florida’s experience bears out, it was the truth.

The only state thus far that seems to have gotten it right is Massachusetts. In 2011, Massachusetts House Bill 3808 became law. Sexually exploited children in Massachusetts may be charged with prostitution, but they are automatically diverted to treatment programs. Upon successful completion of the program, the charges are dropped. This way the state can legally provide the minors the help they need.

Critics of laws like the one in Massachusetts claim that anything short of decriminalization of prostitution for minors is cruel and unjust. Criticism in Florida of SPB 7088 has begun. Malika Saada Saar, co-founder and executive director of Human Rights for Girls Project, believes the bill amounts to violating the child’s human rights. Lawanda Ravoira, president and CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center, said, “It mirrors what happened to her in trafficking.”

In defense of SPB 7088, Rep. Gayle Harrell, (R-Stuart), chair of the Florida House Healthy Families Subcommittee, said, “It is not incarceration by any stretch of the imagination. They will receive therapy. They will receive a warm, loving environment.”

So the argument comes down to how best to help the victims. It is unclear how a voluntary program that allows a victim to leave a care facility to run back to her pimp is helpful. Other states considering safe harbor laws that decriminalize prostitution for minors should take note of Florida’s situation.

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