By Michelle Larkin
Monique Smith was sex trafficked from New York to Maryland at age 1. Because of the abuse she suffered, she decided to run away to Florida at age 18, where she experienced prostitution and trafficking again.
“As a survivor and advocate, I want to see more people come to the portal of having another chance,” Smith said to Capital News Service. “(Trafficked minors are) groomed, forced (and) coerced from a normal life.”
In Maryland, older child victims of sex trafficking can be arrested, handcuffed, detained and incarcerated for prostitution – a charge some would say is blaming them for the sexual abuse they’ve experienced. Shared Hope International, a non-profit Christian organization that is fighting against sex trafficking among women and children, gave Maryland an “F” in its 2022 annual report cards evaluating state protection laws for trafficked minors, placing it among the 14 worst states.
Now Smith, other advocates and senators have joined with Maryland State’s Attorneys in a news conference Tuesday designed to pry loose bills to help these young victims that they say are being held up in the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Senate Bill 292 is a “Safe Harbor” bill that recognizes sex trafficked minors as victims who have had a crime committed against them. It holds that no child willingly participates in their own victimization as there is no such thing as a child prostitute under federal law. Its chief sponsor is Sen. Jeff Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery), vice chair of the Judicial Proceedings Committee.
Another similar bill, Senate Bill 21, would strengthen the prosecution of child sex abuse by expanding the definition of “person in position of authority” to include an individual under contract with a child care facility, religious institutions and recreational programs, like camps, too. Its main sponsor is Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore and Carroll), who is also a member of the Judicial Proceedings panel.
“We should not be seeking to prosecute children who have been abused, but rather to assist them in living whole and complete lives,” said Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy (D). “We know that victims are not given a choice. They are forced and threatened to participate in unimaginable acts.”
At the news conference, Sen. William Folden (R-Frederick), a Frederick police officer and member of Judicial Proceedings and a sponsor of SB 21, said these bills, which have both already passed the House of Delegates, are bipartisan and the “most important victim bills” the Senate has had this session.
A few hours later, Senate Bill 21 passed out of the committee unanimously. But supporters say Senate Bill 292 has been idling in the committee for more than a month.
New York passed the first Safe Harbor bill nearly 15 years ago, and currently 38 states have Safe Harbor protections in place.
“It’s embarrassing…Maryland is surrounded by progressive states who understand children shouldn’t be criminalized for their own victimization,” said Liz Kimbel, a survivor leader and program specialist for The Restoring Ivy Collective, a support group that helps sex trafficking survivors. Kimbel has been working on the Safe Harbor bills for the last five years.
“A lot of children who are trafficked have some vulnerability factors, (which include) poverty, oppression, (Child Protective Services) involvement, being in foster homes (or) being LGBTQ+,” Kimbel said. “Children who are traumatized, their ability to recognize red flags is really low.”
Without a Safe Harbor law, Maryland not only criminalizes child trafficking victims, but makes them ineligible for Maryland’s Regional Navigator Program, which provides support services to victims of sex trafficking who are under age 24.
According to a 2020 report, the University of Maryland SAFE Center for Human Trafficking Survivors had served more than 265 people were human trafficked in the last five years; 12 percent of their clients were under 18.
“We’re talking about, unfortunately, children who have been forced into prostitution and also being forced to commit other crimes, so they are victimized themselves,” Del. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel), the chief sponsor of the House’s safe harbor bill, said to Capital News Service. “It is a very particular safe harbor for very particular individuals.”
If passed and approved by the governor, the bills would take effect starting Oct. 1.
Maryland Matters Editor Danielle E. Gaines and Capital News Service reporter Michael Charles contributed to this report.