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Safe Harbor bill nears passage in General Assembly

Child Trafficking poster in Germany. Translation: In 2020, there was a measurable increase in commercial sexual exploitation of minors in Germany. Corona-related daycare and school closures also reduced detection opportunities.
Child Trafficking poster in Germany. Translation: In 2020, there was a measurable increase in commercial sexual exploitation of minors in Germany. Corona-related daycare and school closures also reduced detection opportunities.

A bill that would protect children who have been victims of sex trafficking is nearing passage with just a few days to go until the end of this year’s General Assembly Session.

The Safe Harbor and Service Response Act prevents children ages 17 and under who have been trafficked from being charged with prostitution. The bill also protects victims from prosecution for other charges related to their trafficking. It passed the House of Delegates comfortably and is awaiting action in the Senate.

“We're including crimes beyond just prostitution and to other crimes that we know that children are forced to commit as part of their having been trafficked, there just needs to be a direct nexus to the child having been trafficked,” explained Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of TurnAround Inc., a rape crisis center for Baltimore County and City.

During a House committee hearing in February, the bill’s sponsor Del. Brooke Lierman, a Baltimore Democrat, recalled proposing similar legislation in 2018 but said she was met with pushback from some lawmakers and the Maryland State’s Attorney’s Association.

They argued that a network of regional navigators that law enforcement officials and social service workers would be required to contact for help when a trafficking victim is identified should be in place first. That program was established in 2019.

But now, Lierman and the program's organizers say it’s time for Maryland to make the protection of child trafficking victims law.

“The navigator organizations have seen how this system works; advocates have seen how things are going and they all believe that there's more work to do to ensure that Maryland joins the 40 plus other states in this country that have laws that divert victims of sex trafficking away from the juvenile justice process.”

During a Senate Judicial Proceedings committee session Wednesday, Harford County Republican Sen. Bob Cassily said it’s counterintuitive to divert children away from the justice system when he contends the state has worked so hard to reform it.

“We just finished doing all kinds of bills in here to change departmental services to make it much more kid-friendly across the board,” Cassily said.

He argued this is the precise population of kids who would benefit from this reform.

“Now we're sort of running away from that and saying, we don't want to put kids into that,” he said. “These are people who clearly have a problem. And let DJS do what the hell it's supposed to be used for, which is identifying kids' problems and getting them the treatment, the services they need.” 

Sen. Susan Lee, a Montgomery County Democrat who sponsored the Senate version of the bill, explained it was informed by a workgroup and included people who work directly with victims.

Our focus was to uplift a child victim of trafficking who did any qualifying offense that was the direct result of being traffick[ed]. And our purpose is to help these children get out of this downward spiral and avoid having to go through even the juvenile justice system,” Lee said.

Liz Kimball, a Board Member and Program Specialist with the Restoring Ivy Collective and the Secretary of the Maryland Survivor Network, says that as a survivor of child sex trafficking, she knows what it’s like to go through this.

She said she was met with hostility from arresting officers. The justice system she said made her feel unsafe by using her to build a case against her pimp.

“I'm doing this to keep you safe. You have to trust me, I'm keeping you safe. But also if you don't cooperate with me, I'm gonna throw you in jail like your, your pimp told you I would,” she recalled being told. 

Safe Harbor, she said, would have changed her life.

“I would have never gone to lockup, I would have gone to a regional navigator who would have provided me with therapeutic services from housing to case management to everything else that we possibly need.”

That, Lierman said, is the whole intent of her bill.

Rodriguez, of TurnAround Inc., told WYPR that trafficking statistics can be unreliable, but according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six children who go missing are either victimized or touched by trafficking. And in Maryland, an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 kids go missing every year.

Callan Tansill-Suddath is a State House Reporter for WYPR, where she covers the General Assembly.