Governor’s sex-trafficking bill would help child victims

Governor Larry Hogan (Hannah Klarner/Capital News Service via AP)

by Carrie Snurr
Capital News Service

A bill proposed by the governor would change Maryland’s sexual abuse law to allow law enforcement to more effectively prosecute suspected sex traffickers of children, regardless of whether the trafficker is a relative of the victim.

Hogan’s Protecting Victims of Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 would change Maryland’s definition of sexual abuse to allow for police to open investigations into allegations of sexual trafficking of children even if the suspect is not related to the victim by family or through the household. The bill has bipartisan support.

“It ensures minor victims of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation in Maryland are treated as victims of child sexual abuse,” Amelia Rubenstein, with the Child Sex Trafficking Victims Initiative, said in written testimony.

Current Maryland law states that for a local department of social services to investigate allegations of sexual trafficking, there has to be evidence that the perpetrator is a member of the victim’s family or in charge of the victim’s care.

Under current law, doctors, teachers and some others must report suspected sex trafficking of a child. But law enforcement investigators must verify a familial or caregiver relationship between the victim and the suspect in order to pursue criminal charges.

The Maryland Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee heard arguments on the bill on Thursday. Committee Chair Sen. Robert Zirkin started the hearing by thanking the committee for staying late the night before. He said he wanted to show thanks to the committee because of a walk-out of Republican senators during the Senate session Thursday morning.

The bill is also part of recommendations from the Maryland Safe Harbor Workgroup, which was created to investigate legal protections for minor victims of human trafficking and to report their recommendations to the governor and General Assembly.

In the workgroup’s December 2016 report, it recommended that Maryland expand the definition of sexual abuse to include victims of sex trafficking regardless of the identity of the trafficker.

Charles County Director of Social Services Therese Wolf said that this bill would expand her department’s ability to protect victims of sex trafficking.

Adam Rosenberg with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center said that children who are suspected of being victims of trafficking would be given help and support rather than be treated as criminals for participating in commercial sex.

“We are federally mandated to do this,” said Rebecca Jones Gaston, executive director of the Social Services Administration in the Maryland Department of Human Resources. “We run the risk of losing federal funding.”

The federal Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015 requires that states receiving federal funds under the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act have to take steps to address sex trafficking

If the bill is passed, it has to take effect by May 27 so that the state of Maryland is in compliance with the federal law. The state risks losing about $450,000 annually if it does not comply with the federal requirements, according to a state document.

That funding is sent to local Maryland departments of social services to use for prevention of sex trafficking and child abuse, Jones Gaston said.

“Cases of sex trafficking vary widely in terms of the relationship dynamics between trafficker and victim, methods used to recruit victims, where the exploitation took place and for how long,” Rubenstein said.

Hogan’s bill is part of his Justice for Victims Initiative, which includes other bills that would allow a defendant’s prior history of sexual abuse to be admitted into court and would make drunken driving a felony offense after three or more prior convictions.

“Making Maryland safer begins with making sure that we have a criminal justice system that holds offenders accountable for their actions and the harm they cause, while also supporting victims and the community in the process of healing,” Hogan said in a press release.