Funds lag for sex trafficking victims

Associated Press

As awareness of America’s sex-trafficking industry increases, state after state has enacted new laws to combat it. But while a few have backed those get-tough laws with significant funding to support trafficking victims, many have not.

In Michigan, for example, a cluster of legislators beamed with pride as Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed a package of 21 anti-trafficking bills. For a state ranked by advocacy groups as woefully behind in addressing the problem, the package was touted as a huge step forward, making Michigan, in Snyder’s words, “one of the leading states in fighting this tragic crime.”

Yet the bills contained virtually no new funding, even though a high-powered state commission had reported a serious lack of support services and specialized housing for victims.

“For all the hoopla, it’s blatantly not true that we’re now at the forefront,” said professor Bridgette Carr, a member of the commission and director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan Law School. “For many of these victims, there’s often no place to go.”

For a long time, sex trafficking was considered a foreign problem — something relegated to Eastern Europe or Asia. But in recent years, advocacy groups have called attention to people who were similarly victimized in this country, and legislators in every state have embraced the issue, taking the politically easy step of toughening laws.

But national advocacy groups such as the Polaris Project and Shared Hope International say relatively few states — Minnesota and Florida are notable exceptions — have appropriated substantial funding to support victims with shelter, mental-health services and life-skills training.

Without such services, advocates say, many victims are less useful as witnesses against their traffickers and more vulnerable to being forced or lured back to the sordid underworld that exploited them.

“We are seeing some states stepping up, but the majority don’t have anything specific in their budgets,” said Britanny Vanderhoof, policy counsel for the Polaris Project.

Arizona was among the latest states to board the bandwagon, enacting a bill in April that toughens sentences for traffickers of children and stipulates that being a trafficking victim is a defense in prostitution cases.

As in Michigan, however, Arizona’s bill did not include funding for victim services.

“We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go,” said Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain and co-chair of the Arizona Human Trafficking Council.

Brian Steele, who oversees programs for trafficking victims as head of the nonprofit Phoenix Dream Center, predicts it will be two or three more years before significant state funding materializes.

The package of anti-trafficking measures in Michigan, signed into law in October, was drafted in response to a comprehensive, often hard-hitting 2013 report by the Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking. Among its members were Attorney General Bill Schuette, 10 legislators and several top law enforcement officials.

The bills strengthened penalties for traffickers and established the presumption that minors entangled in sex-trafficking cases should be considered victims, not criminals.

However, none of the bills made new state allocations for housing and specialized programming for victims, despite the commission’s conclusion that those were “particularly lacking” in Michigan due to inadequate funding.

Schuette, who praised the bills as a shift to a “victim-centered approach,” suggested it might be unrealistic to expect comprehensive state spending for victim support.

“It cannot simply be a state government fix,” said Schuette, who hopes some of the need can be met through philanthropic grants and public/private partnerships.

“We know we have more to do,” said state Sen. Judy Emmons, a lead sponsor of the legislation. “We need to find safe housing. We aren’t there yet.”

The Michigan commission’s report noted that some states have appropriated significant funds for victim services. It cited a $2.8 million allocation in Minnesota, which is widely considered the national leader in the field.

Minnesota got moving earlier than most states, passing a “safe harbor” law in 2011 making clear that sexually exploited youths would no longer be treated as criminals. Key parts of the law did not take effect until last August, providing time to get funding and programs in place to support victims who would no longer go into the juvenile justice system.

“We took our plan to the legislature and said, ‘We’ve thought it out. Now you have to give us money,’ and they did,” said Lauren Ryan, a Health Department official who now oversees the program. “It was amazing that Minnesota took that leap of faith.”

At Brittany’s Place, a shelter in St. Paul that has served dozens of trafficking victims since opening Aug. 1, there’s enthusiasm for the initiative even though it’s yet to receive any state funds.

“Those young women wouldn’t be coming to our shelter if the law hadn’t changed, and made it necessary to treat them like the victims they are,” said Richard Gardell, president of 180 Degrees, which operates Brittany’s Place.

Jeff Bauer of the nonprofit Family Partnership, which serves vulnerable children and families in the Twin Cities, considers Minnesota a model for the rest of the country.

“In other states, legislators are all for prosecuting,” he said. “But when it comes to paying for the supports these kids need, often that moral outrage has not translated into the investment that’s required.”

Florida is another that state that has stepped up with significant funding for victim services — $3 million in the 2014-15 budget.

Yet Florida and Minnesota, with their seven-figure allocations, are exceptions; many states have invested little or nothing from their general funds for victim services. Several states have created funds to be financed with fines and forfeitures from traffickers.