#minorsextrafficking | Opinion: Texas leaders must pass a safe harbor law for underage sex trafficking victims

In Texas, a child cannot consent to sex until they are 17, and an adult having sex with a child is almost always considered statutory rape. However, if a child is paid by their rapist, Texas law allows children 14 years of age and older to be prosecuted for prostitution.

This forces young boys and girls to face a criminal conviction as a result of being sold, despite not being old enough to even consent to sex.

In practice, this means presumptions of child rape and sex trafficking can be negated by handing a $5 bill to the underage victim.

Thirty states have passed some form of a “safe harbor” law, which prevent children from being charged with prostitution and instead recognizes their victimhood.

This leaves almost half of states, including Texas, denying full protections to molested children.

The Texas Legislature passed such a “safe harbor” bill
in 2019. The bipartisan bill would have prevented people under 17 from being charged with prostitution and allowed law enforcement to apprehend children in an effort to separate them from their traffickers. Instead of being sent to court, law enforcement would connect the children to services.

Gov. Greg Abbott, however, vetoed the bill, citing its “unintended consequences” and presenting no other solution to protect statutorily raped and trafficked children who are being convicted of prostitution.

From the Houston Chronicle Editorial Board: Abbott could have protected child sex trafficking victims. He chose not to.

Namely, he said that the bill would limit law enforcement’s tools to separate victims from abusers and could incentivize traffickers to increasingly prostitute underage children if minors could not be prosecuted.

This rationale is misguided, as the bill does not prohibit law enforcement from detaining children suspected of being prostituted and specifically instructs law enforcement to connect the children to vital services to separate them from abusers. And trying to disincentivize traffickers, who are already perverse enough to subject children to rape and torture, is no excuse for wrongfully criminalizing the children they abuse.

His veto leaves in place a legal scheme that effectively faults children, who are otherwise legally unable to consent to sex with an adult, if they are paid for illegal sex.

Such a payment should not dictate whether a victimized child will spend the proceeding years getting the assistance they deserve, or instead fighting their way through the criminal justice system.

Last week, Gov. Abbott declared January Human Trafficking Prevention Month, where he acknowledged the prevalence of human trafficking within Texas’ borders and encouraged all Texans to educate themselves on this egregious human rights issue.

Despite this declaration, our state, year after year, overlooks child sex trafficking victims, charging them as criminals for their own abuse.

It is estimated that at least 200,000 children are at risk of being trafficked for sex every year within the United States, and there are close to 80,000 children sex trafficked in Texas at any given time.

Local and national campaigns have attempted to shed light on the safe harbor issue but have been met with great resistance, in part because of the charged arguments surrounding prostitution laws in America.

Prostitution laws across the country, such as the decision to legalize the buying and selling of sex, have been hotly debated in recent years. However, it should not be controversial that children are unable to consent to selling sex to adults, no matter the circumstance.

Rep. Shawn Thierry, the original sponsor of the safe harbor legislation, said she will reintroduce a safe harbor bill this legislative session.

I urge Abbott to work with the new Legislature being sworn in this week to support such a bill and prevent this perverted loophole. Otherwise, the “unintended consequences” will include dismantling the fundamental principle of consent designed to protect our youth.

It is long past time for Texas to protect its minors, unequivocally labeling children being sold for sex as what they are: victims.

Binzer is lawyer and graduate of Georgetown Law who has worked in anti-trafficking efforts since 2010, having provided direct services to sex trafficking victims and worked in anti-trafficking policy advocacy.

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