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ARUN RATH, HOST:

If you're just joining us, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

It's hard to avoid the public service announcements about sex trafficking in America. They're plastered on buses and billboards, images of young women trapped and exploited and a hotline to call for help.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Human trafficking generates $32 billion a year. The average age of victims sold into slavery is 12 to 14.

RATH: The numbers are staggering. The Justice Department estimates that each year, at least 200,000 children are trafficked for sex in America. But when the law gets involved, teens get arrested on prostitution charges and victims are treated as criminals. That's our cover story today. And a heads up to parents, this is going to be an adult conversation.

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RATH: It's a stunning contradiction in the law: Girls who are too young to legally consent to sex are being prosecuted for selling sex. Amy Farrell is an expert who studies sex trafficking legislation. And she says some states are trying to fix the problem through what are called safe harbor laws.

AMY FARRELL: The safe harbor legislation that has been passed in 12 states, states that children should not be prosecuted for prostitution because children are too young to consent for sex, depending on the age range of statutory rape laws. Those ranged between 14, 16 and 18 in most states. So you have this kind of strange period of time where children could still be charged with prostitution offenses even when they might have been a victim in a statutory rape situation.

RATH: Can you talk about safe haven laws and what they are and where they've been instituted?

FARRELL: Right. So there are 12 states that have passed safe haven, safe harbor - they have sort of have different names - legislation. And the basic premise of them is that for minors that are prostituted, the police will either not be allowed to make arrests, or if they make arrests, prosecutors have the ability to divert those children out of a juvenile delinquency proceeding, and instead put them in what we call a child-in-need proceeding.

New York has probably one of the most comprehensive safe harbor laws. Massachusetts, Illinois, Florida, there are a few states that are doing this specifically with children. Washington, D.C., for example, has a court. And basically, this has been a whole series of individual judges seeing these cases coming through their courts and becoming passionate and involved on the issue and being willing to work with prosecutors, the defense bar and service providers to establish these problem-solving courts.

RATH: In California, there is no safe haven law. Minors can be and are prosecuted for prostitution. But here in Los Angeles County, one judge has set up a special juvenile court to help victims of sex trafficking. We went to visit the court's founder and judge, Catherine Pratt, at the towering federal court building in Compton.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Twelfth floor, going down.

RATH: Pratt meets me on the 12th floor of the aging high rise.

CATHERINE PRATT: Hi. Nice to meet you.

RATH: Likewise.

PRATT: Come on back. Don't know why I'm using my house keys to get into - it's been a rough few weeks. Well, few years, actually.

RATH: A rough few years because Pratt has been consumed by her work, helping young victims of sex trafficking get treated as just that: victims. In a typical juvenile court, young women who are picked up for prostitution are sometimes sentenced to juvenile detention or forced to testify in exchange for a plea deal. Judge Pratt told me about a case that haunts her and convinced her the system was broken.

PRATT: We had one girl who was asked to testify in a case against her pimp and trafficker. She was 15 at the time that she testified. And the incident for which they were being prosecuted was an incident where she was drugged to the point of having lost consciousness. And then she was gang-raped by five men, and it was videotaped.

She was in an adult court, which meant it was open to the public. There were five defendants there. All of them had family members and gang members there to support them. And the district attorney asked her to view the videotape that she had never seen and identify the men involved. And that was her role in testifying.

It was a devastating experience for her, and she has struggled ever since then. I feel like we did a very poor job of protecting her from that and preparing her for that. And it's one of the lessons that I learned about how to work with these kids and how not to work with these kids.

RATH: Pratt tells me she set out to create a court that would protect girls from trauma at the hands of the justice system and focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment. Girls in her court are placed into special group homes with trauma counselors and sexual education resources. And in general, the girls aren't compelled to testify against their abusers. Pratt tells me it's all about gaining trust.

PRATT: I will tell you that when you first meet some of these kids, they are pretty off-putting. They are hard. They can be combative. They have these levels of trauma that prevent them from really making connections with people.

RATH: To help victims of sex trafficking make those connections with trusted adults, her court works with nonprofit groups where adult survivors of sex trafficking work as mentors.

KRISTINA FITZ: My name's Kristina Fitz, and I am a mentor-survivor, advocate with Saving Innocence nonprofit organization.

RATH: Fitz is a mentor to 25 girls in Pratt's court. She meets with each one for three hours a week for one-on-one counseling. They have her cell number. If something happens, day or night, she's the first one they call. She told me the kids look up to her because she knows what they've been through. Fitz herself was a victim of sex trafficking for more than three years.

FITZ: I'm like a support system to them. So if they want to talk about certain issues that they can't really talk about or they don't have anybody to talk to at a group home or with their foster family, then they can come to me. I take them out on trips. I try to get them out of their communities so that they can see that there's others things in life besides just working and being exploited through prostitution.

RATH: When I spoke with Kristina Fitz, I saw a woman who had come through that experience with a strong desire to guide other young women. One of the things she teaches young girls is how to recognize men who will exploit them.

FITZ: There are instances where they might meet a guy - and we call this guy the prince charming guy - and he manipulates them, makes them feel loved. And he makes sure that all the needs and the wants - getting a cell phone or their hair or their nails done - those might be little things to us adults, but to children who have never had that before, that's a big deal to them. And so it's easy to manipulate a child by giving her these simple little things. It's like giving a little kid a candy.

We also teach them about sexual education, how to use a condom, different STDs, and we teach them about self-esteem, being able to speak up for themselves. And, like, you know, if somebody ever was to come in contact with them and things didn't sound right, the steps that they can use to get away and just to know, like, if that's just a bad situation before they even get involved in it.

RATH: It's not just about teaching girls to recognize pimps and traffickers. It's about prosecuting those people. I asked Judge Pratt if her new approach, focusing on treatment for the girls, hurt the court's ability to prosecute the pimps and traffickers.

PRATT: You know, initially when we started the program, I would have answered that question by saying that we were improving our ability to prosecute the pimps and traffickers. We were providing the kids with some support when they went and testified. But a lot of the boys who are coming out of the juvenile justice system are the ones who are becoming the pimps or traffickers. So the foster care system and juvenile justice system is creating both sides of this market, the suppliers and, you know, and actually the goods.

RATH: Nationwide, pimps are prosecuted far less often than the people they exploit. And the men who buy sex from minors are very rarely prosecuted. Amy Farrell says states are beginning to change the law, stiffening the penalties for purchasing sex from a child.

FARRELL: The bigger problem isn't so much changing the laws. We're starting to do that to make these more serious crimes. The real challenge will be convincing law enforcement and the judiciary to hold people who purchase sex from trafficked persons or from persons that are children accountable. And I think prosecutors are reluctant to pursue prosecution generally because it has been not politically expedient to do so in many communities.

RATH: As for the girls in Catherine Pratt's special court, Pratt says she thinks the court has been very successful. She's even working with a national organization of juvenile court judges to teach others how to work with victims of sex trafficking. Most rewarding, though, is her relationship with the girls. She shows me around her office, and it looks more like that of a beloved school principal than a judge - framed pictures of Pratt at birthdays and graduations for the young women who have come through her court.

PRATT: Next week, one of my girls who was on probation to me, turns 19. So she just contacted me and said she wanted to go to dinner. So we're making plans.

RATH: The grant that funds her court runs out at the end of this year, and Pratt tells me she is not sure what will happen then. The county has said the budget cannot support the program. At the same time, cities across the country are looking at setting up similar courts for juvenile victims.

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RATH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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