For years, anti-trafficking advocates have worked to garner support for legislation to tackle human slavery, one of the cruelest crimes on the books. Legislators from both sides of the aisle were receptive to this work, and were set to consider the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, called "the most significant anti-trafficking legislation to come before the Senate in over a decade."
The gist of the bill is unassailable: Traffickers and people who buy the sexual services of children should be punished, trafficked people should be given help, not handcuffs, and the services they need should be funded with the help of the people who exploited them.
When it reached the full Senate, the bill, which has passed the House, faced no opposition — after all, who is in favor of selling the bodies of vulnerable children? As the act headed to the full Senate, it seemed like a vote to crack down on sex trafficking would be a shoo-in, as uncontroversial as a law in favor of, say, salt, or sunshine.
But no. For going on three weeks now, the Senate has been hung up on an amendment to the bill prohibiting its victims' fund, collected from fines on traffickers, from being used for abortions. As the abortion language represents the sole area of disagreement among lawmakers on this vital legislation, trafficking abolitionists are eager to see a compromise worked out.
The basic principles of the bill must prevail. The law would provide justice to some of the most vulnerable people in our nation: young people who do not have homes and do not have the strong family support needed to keep them free from people who would exploit them.
Recent research with Loyola University in New Orleans, involving young people helped by Covenant House, the largest charity in the Americas serving homeless, runaway, and trafficked young people, shows that about a quarter of the homeless youth surveyed had been victims of sexual exploitation, either because they were trafficked, or because they had engaged in survival sex or sexual labor.
Our 2013 study with Fordham University in New York City showed our young people there had suffered similar levels of exploitation. And half of the kids interviewed at our shelter said they could have avoided being commercially sexually exploited if they'd simply had a safe place to stay.
One critically important proposed amendment to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act is the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act, which provides important resources for homeless young people, keeping them safe from exploitation.
There's only one silver lining to this deadlock: As more and more people hear about the trafficking bill, more will learn what trafficking is, how it hurts the most vulnerable among us, and how it is more likely to involve U.S.-born victims than those brought here from other countries. Yes, it is a problem in our own towns and cities, with our own teenagers — mostly girls — being trapped, repeatedly raped, kept away from their families and schools, and losing the chance to grow into the bright futures they deserve.
It is long past time for the Senate to set aside politics and protect the most vulnerable among us. Stranger things have happened. A similarly toxic political quagmire actually produced a terrific law in New York State last week, after two years of wrangling. The Trafficking Victims Protection and Justice Act, passed in Albany on March 16, increases penalties for trafficking, ensures that penalties for buying sex from a minor align with those for statutory rape, and allows trafficking victims to bring civil suits against their traffickers. It will also help inform law-enforcement officers on how to identify and help human trafficking victims.
If New York State's lawmakers, not known for getting along terribly well, can find a way forward together, I'm hopeful that our U.S. senators can, too. And they must. It is time for them to resolve their partisan differences and pass the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which is crucial to the well-being and protection of our most vulnerable youth. The Senate's failure to reach an agreement is not the final word, and we look forward to working with lawmakers in both parties to find a constructive path forward to ensure justice, safety and protection for trafficked, homeless and runaway youth.
Commentary by Kevin Ryan, president of Covenant House International, the largest charity in the Americas serving homeless, runaway and trafficked young people. He is the co-author of "Almost Home: Helping Kids Move from Homelessness to Hope" (Turner 2012). Follow him on Twitter @CovHousePrez.