By Lynsey Clark
A bill that would allow police and courts to treat child trafficking as a child welfare issue passed unanimously through the California state senate yesterday.
The bill authored by state Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco), would “expand the list of minors that may come within the jurisdiction of the juvenile dependency court to include victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation.”
Currently, children who have been trafficked are processed through juvenile delinquency court, which tries cases involving children who have committed crimes.
Advocate agencies have long rallied for the expansion of the child welfare’s jurisdiction to include sexually trafficked children. They believe child welfares focus on addressing abuse and neglect is especially relevant to the needs of victims of trafficking. Additionally, anti-trafficking organizations on the state and national level have spoken out against the criminalization of children in California who have suffered the effects of sexual trafficking.
“These children are not viewed as sexually exploited,” said Dan Lieberman, a spokesman for Sen. Yee. “And that is one of the challenges this bill intends to correct. We want the courts to recognize that sexual exploitation is not prostitution. It is not a choice.”
Yee’s bill would require that the child welfare system train group homes, foster parents and kinship caregivers on the best practices for caring for a victim of child trafficking.
The trafficking of minors has become a pressing issue in California. Within the United States, California has emerged as a magnet for commercial sexual exploitation of children. The FBI has determined that three of the nation’s thirteen High Intensity Child Prostitution areas are located in California: the San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego metropolitan areas.
The rapid increase of child trafficking in the state has resulted in an investigation by The Child Welfare Council. The council serves as an advisory body responsible for improving the collaboration of agencies that serve the children in the child welfare system.
“Most commercially sexually exploited children have a history of abuse, neglect, and trauma prior to being victimized by traffickers,” said the report published by the state’s Child Welfare Council this year, which estimated that between 50 and 80 percent of trafficked girls were in foster care. “Because of this history, many have been involved with the child welfare system.”
Exploiters actively seek out vulnerable children to exploit and recruit the report explains. “They seek out vulnerable children at schools, homeless shelters, malls, bus depots, and foster care group homes.”
“Sadly there may not have been the terminology to correctly describe the problem or legislation that appropriately responds to the clearly complex nature,” Lieberman explained. “The legislation intends to modernize the law to recognize how sexual exploitation operates.”
Some counties in the state have already implemented policies similar to SB 738. Los Angeles and Alameda Counties encourage and finance collaboration between law enforcement agencies, non-profit agencies and the juvenile court system.
Lynsey Clark is a second year student at University of California-Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare. She is currently a fellow in Fostering Media Connection’s Journalism for Social Change Program