National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges leads charge to make change
Reno, Nev. – Domestic child sex trafficking, one of the most heinous of child abuses, is on the rise as criminals relish in its profitability and the lower likelihood of severe punishment, when compared to other crimes. With an estimated 293,000 American children currently at risk of commercial sexual exploitation, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) has made it a priority to help judges identify victims and children at risk of sex trafficking – and the public can help.
“Awareness is paramount,” said Yasmin Vafa, Esq., Director of Law and Policy for Human Rights Projects for Girls and partner to the NCJFCJ. “Many of the victims come from the foster care system where they have been abused. Many are runaways or kidnapped, and forced into sex slavery.”
“Domestic child sex trafficking is recognized as a serious issue,” said Shawn C. Marsh, Ph.D., Chief Program Officer of Juvenile Law at the NCJFCJ. “In some states, when trafficked children come into contact with the court system, they are processed through the juvenile justice system as youthful offenders instead of being treated as victims.”
Backing from the federal government has put a spotlight on this serious issue and the children who are enduring child abuse and neglect. Marsh notes that technology is compounding the problem.
“Traffickers can ‘post’ a body for sale and in real time, attracting those cruising for a young child,” said Marsh. “Offenders have become very sophisticated in using GPS tracking or phone tracking technology, as well as using code words in posts and texts. Technology can make it easier for traffickers to control their victims by knowing their location and movements in real time.”
“A lot of the research and practice work I do focuses on victimization and trauma,” said Marsh, whose work appears in scholarly journals such as Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice and Victims & Offenders, as well as chapters in textbooks such as Correctional Psychiatry and Juvenile Crime and Justice. “There is no such thing as a typical victim, and these children can be very challenging to work with due to the numerous ways they respond to trauma.”
The NCJFCJ is preparing to host the National Judicial Institute on Domestic Child Sex Trafficking: Improving Outcomes for Vulnerable and Victimized Children through Judicial Action, which will be held in Reno from Nov. 3-5. This interactive judicial training will help participants to identify victims at risk of trafficking and determine appropriate services while exercising judicial leadership within the court and community to improve outcomes for victims.
When a case comes through a court, it brings together prosecution, defense attorneys, mental health professionals, educators and judges. Marsh calls this the ideal forum to ask the right questions and hold people accountable, and the primary reason why it’s critical for judges to be able to identify potential victims and risk factors, and to make recommendations for treatment and services.
“In many ways, the judge is the ultimate administrator of justice and he or she must be broadly competent on issues impacting the lives of some of our most vulnerable children and families,” said Marsh. “With additional training in the area of child sex trafficking, they will be better positioned to ask important questions from the bench.”
According to the NCJFCJ partner Human Rights Project for Girls (Rights4Girls), a human rights organization focused on gender-based violence and its impact on vulnerable young women and girls in the U.S, punishment for sex traffickers and buyers is minimal. Buyers are very rarely charged or convicted for solicitation, let alone statutory rape or child endangerment. Demand is high because a sale can be executed quickly, conveniently, and anonymously over the Internet. In most situations, it is the sexually exploited child who ends up in jail for prostitution, despite not being of age to provide valid consent.
“There is no such thing as a child prostitute,” said Vafa. “They are victims of crime and not even old enough to provide consent to sex. We work with the NCJFCJ to address domestic child trafficking in the juvenile justice and dependency systems. Many of these girls continue to be put behind bars for prostitution and labeled as ‘child prostitutes’ because they are being bought and sold. We are striving to change that.”
Many people think of child sex trafficking primarily as an international issue, but it is happening in cities and rural communities of all sizes in the U.S. The FBI reports that between 2008-10, 83 percent of sex trafficking victims found within the U.S. were U.S. citizens. These children are often branded as delinquent, but they are actually in desperate need of advocates and life-saving services.
“These kids are not being afforded the same services and protections as foreign victims—they’re being criminalized,” said Vafa. “It became critical to partner with the NCJFCJ to be able to reframe what we were seeing in courtrooms. Judges are key to sparking systems change by advancing alternatives to detention and providing treatment to these youth rather than locking them up. The hope is that by training judges we can make these practices the norm, instead of the exception.”
While the NCJFCJ’s private training is exclusively for judicial officers, the public can help identify and assist victims by taking the following steps:
- Know the telltale signs of trafficking, including a girl who is constantly with an adult male other than her father. Girls who show signs of withdrawal, disassociation, aggressiveness and an inability to engage may be at risk.
- Flag this inappropriate behavior.
- Say something if it looks suspicious. Contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-373-7888, text 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”) or visit the website at traffickingresourcecenter.org.
Founded in 1937, the Reno, Nev.-based National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, is the nation’s oldest judicial membership organization and focused on improving the effectiveness of our nation’s juvenile and family courts. A leader in continuing education opportunities, research, and policy development in the field of juvenile and family justice, the 2,000-member organization is unique in providing practice-based resources to jurisdictions and communities nationwide.