Anti-Sex Trafficking Advocates Discuss Competing Bills, Strategies

Anti-Sex Trafficking Advocates Discuss Competing Bills, Strategies

WRITTEN BY BO TEFU | CALIFORNIA BLACK MEDIA

Advocates from across California are challenging state officials and community leaders to support legislation that provides resources and services for survivors and victims of human trafficking, as well as assistance as they transition back into civil society.

Some of those advocates are also calling for more effective state policy to curtail trafficking, a crime that has an outsized impact on Black children, particularly girls.

According to the FBI, a report covering a two-year period found Black children accounted for 57% of all juvenile arrests for prostitution. In addition, 40% of sex trafficking victims were Black and 60% of those victims had been enrolled in the foster care system.

In Los Angeles County alone, “92% of girls in the juvenile justice system identified as trafficking victims were Black, 62% of those children were from the child welfare system, and 84% were from poor communities in the southeastern part of LA County,” stated a report provided by Rights4Girls, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy organization.

“It is time to hold the perpetrators who take advantage of our children accountable,” said the Rev. Shane Harris, a San Diego-based activist, former foster youth and founder of the Peoples Association of Justice Advocates, (PAJA), a national civil rights organization and policy think tank.

“It is time to send a thorough message that if you seek to buy a child for sex, you will pay the highest criminal penalties in this state,” added Harris who was speaking at a rally at the State Capitol earlier this month. Harris was speaking in support of Senate Bill 1414, authored by Sen. Shannon Grove (D-Bakersfield), which calls for people who buy sex from minors to be punished with a felony. The punishment includes a two-year prison sentence and a $25,000 fine.

Harris said the PAJA is the only civil rights organization in the state that supports SB 1414, which is currently under review in the Appropriations Committee. On April 16, the Senate Public Safety Committee voted 4-0 to advance SB 1414.

Harris urged other Black-led groups who favor anti-trafficking legislation more focused on criminal justice reforms (as opposed to stiffer penalties), to “join the movement.”

Many of those civil rights groups fear that SB 1414 could lead to the incarceration of more Black youth.

That sentiment was echoed in a panel discussion organized by Black women advocates on April 26 to examine the cause and effects of human trafficking in California’s Black communities. The virtual event was hosted by the Forgotten Children, Inc, a faith-based nonprofit organization that advocates for survivors and victims of human trafficking through anti-trafficking campaigns and initiatives.

Panelists shared the psychological impact of sexual exploitation on youth and children in the long term.

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Author and educator Dr. Stephany Powell shared statistics and information revealing that African American women and girls are the most trafficked nationwide.

Powell, who serves as the senior advisor on law enforcement and policy at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation said that national data indicates that sex trade survivors are disproportionately women of color. She stated that male survivors often go unnoticed because boys rarely report trafficked crimes. Powell added that labor trafficking is also underreported because victims have limited economic opportunities.

In some instances, survivors of human trafficking fail to self-identify as victims due to, “limited, economic avenues, dealing with things like self-esteem due to systemic racism, and capitalism,” Powell said.

Powell said that decriminalizing prostitution in California could increase human trafficking. She argued that Senate Bill 357, authored by Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), which was signed into law in 2022 and legalized loitering for prostitution, caused a surge in street-level prostitution.

Panelist and psychologist Dr. Gloria Morrow shared opposing views on decriminalizing prostitution. She said that decriminalizing prostitution could help survivors gain access to state resources and support.

California Family Council Vice President Greg Burt opposed the bill stating that it allows sex trafficking to thrive in poor communities with little police interference.

“Senator Wiener’s promises of increased safety for trafficked girls and women have not been fulfilled. His policies have instead empowered exploiters and those purchasing sex, all the while hindering police attempts to save victims from sex trafficking,” Burt said.

Senate Bill 1219, a bill that counteracts Wiener’s bill, authored by Sen. Kelly Seyarto (R-Murrieta), proposes classifying loitering in public spaces to engage in prostitution as an offense punishable by a misdemeanor. A public hearing on the bill was held April 2 in the Senate Public Safety Committee. No further action has been scheduled.

Despite opposing views, Powell and Morrow agree that the Black community needs resources and educational programs to address human trafficking. Both women called on state officials, community-based organizations, and mental health professionals to partner in creating initiatives and programs that support victims and survivors.

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