ABA urges increased protection for child trafficking victims

ABA Governmental Affairs Director Thomas M. Susman expressed the association’s strong support last month for efforts to increase protection of and assistance to victims of human trafficking in the United States.

Susman’s letter, sent May 24 to the Administration on Children and Families in the Department of Health and Human Services, was in response to a notice inviting informal public comment on “Coordination, Collaboration, Capacity: Federal Strategic Action Plan on Service for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States 2013-2017.” The plan, unveiled by the government in April, lays out a series of coordinated actions among numerous federal agencies to strengthen the reach and effectiveness of services provided to all victims of human trafficking, regardless of the victims’ race, color, national origin, disability, religion, age, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, or the type of trafficking they endured.

 In his comments, Susman noted that ABA policy adopted in 2011 specifically addresses issues related to child trafficking and recommends the following:

· permitting immediate protective custody for minors as dependent children;

· amending juvenile dependency laws by making suspicion of trafficking victimization a basis for mandatory reporting to child protective services agencies;

· requiring screening and risk assessment for trafficking victimization whenever a youth enters the child welfare system;

· requiring immediate reporting when children are missing from care; and

· authorizing courts to issue and enforce protective orders prohibiting harassment or intimidation of child trafficking victims;

A major area of concern reflected in the ABA letter is the need to educate lawyers, judges and other justice system professionals regarding legal issues pertaining to child trafficking.

“We recognize that most lawyers who represent children, or who represent child welfare agencies and their staffs, unfortunately know little about either sexual or forced-labor trafficking of children, or the important role that child welfare agencies and juvenile courts could be playing in addressing these issues,” Susman wrote. He said the ABA recommends that the Department of Health and Human Services, on its own and in collaboration with the Department of Justice, address this education gap.

The association also supports measures to aid states in improving their child welfare systems’ identification of and response to child trafficking victims, including assessing and disseminating successful laws and policies and making technical assistance readily available to those providing services.

At a July 12 hearing, the Senate Finance Committee addressed the role that the child welfare system is currently playing in the fight against child sex trafficking, as well as needed improvements to the system.

Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) agreed that more needs to be done to end child sex trafficking in the United States.

“The juvenile justice system is making progress,” Baucus said in his opening statement, “but law enforcement needs the help and expertise of social workers, mental health professionals, judges and teachers to find the right solutions for vulnerable children.”

Hatch also emphasized the need for cooperation amongst the various agencies and players. “This hearing should put child welfare agencies on notice that they must begin to work with Congress and with stakeholders in the field to properly identify and provide appropriate prevention and intervention services to victims of domestic sex trafficking and exploitation,” he said.

The senators acknowledged how challenging these cases can be, but were also in agreement that this should not mean a slackening of effort in fighting sex trafficking.  “Difficulty is not an excuse for inaction,” Baucus said.

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