Typically when we’re talking about a harbor, we think of ships, the sea. I’m sure many have heard such inspirational quotes as- “A ship in harbor is safe — but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd. But what happens when safety is something you’ve not experienced or at least, remember? What happens when you are a child, and you don’t know how to get into a safe harbor? What happens when people who have control of you keep you out in dangerous seas? What if, when you think you’ve finally found safety, you are instead taken to juvenile detention? Put through the “justice” system. Told you have committed crimes, many of which you still may not even understand- you’ve not known anything different for a long time.
In 26 states within the United States, that is the reality. Until recently, Pennsylvania was one of those states. When minors are found in compromising situations, they are typically put through the justice system, charged with sex crimes. These children are usually passed over as victims, and instead, treated as criminals, with minimal support. In 2016, 28 states enacted 51 bills, taking steps to pass legislation addressing the trafficking of minors. As of October 24th, 2018, PA State Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf’s Senate Bill 554 was signed by Governor Wolf. As of December 23rd, 2018, this bill will officially take effect. Senator Greenleaf, known as a champion of children, animals, and human services, is passionate and outspoken about the treatment of survivors.
“We must stop treating the victims as criminals and the criminals as victims. These are the victims of sexual assault and abuse. They’re abused physically and mentally with threats, violence, and drugs at a very young age, and during times of vulnerability such as homelessness or addiction. They often do not even recognize themselves as victims.”³ -Senator Stewart J. Greenleaf
So what safety does being a safe harbor state offer? SB 554 provides FULL immunity for all potential sex crimes committed by any minor who has been the subject of sexual exploitation or human trafficking. Instead of being treated as criminals, they will now be treated as they are- victims. Along with criminal immunity, minors will receive counseling and physical care; including therapy, housing, and education.
SB 544 is more than decriminalizing sex crimes and giving trafficked youth the support they need. It also entails “funds for anti-trafficking efforts and survivor services, provision of services for youth survivors, increased penalties for traffickers of children, and training to recognize and respond to trafficking crimes and its victims.”¹ This legislation goes beyond the victim, and contains a focus providing resources for first responders. These trainings include topics from identifying trauma, fatigue or injury; fear to speak; living and working in the same place and debt bondage, and encourage interdisciplinary coordination, build cultural competency and develop an understanding of diverse victim populations.²
In PA, law enforcement officials are only required 2-3 hours of training on human trafficking each year. This is primarily due to budget, and it has greatly impacted the way these cases get handled. We want to equip law enforcement with the knowledge and tools they need to successfully spot and handle human trafficking cases. The passage of this law is going to require a huge shift. Not only in the way the cases get processed, but it’s going to require a mindset shift.
Police have been trained to look at these minors as prostitutes and criminals, and it’s going to take some time to adjust this perspective. Greenlight wants to see this change take affect not only on paper, but in the way these victims are treated and helped when they are rescued. We will be there to train on these changes, but will also be a group that holds our system accountable if this change is not actually being followed through on. GO is aiming to launch a law enforcement training curriculum in 2020. With the passage of this law, we’ll tailor the training to the new procedures law enforcement officials have to follow.
TODAY, the world changes for thousands of children in our corner of the world. Today, we accept the challenge of partnering with the men and women who are on the front lines to educate and encourage them. Today, we become the safe harbor for those who have been lost on treacherous, tumultuous, and hopeless seas. Today we become hope.