Baltimore nonprofit TurnAround Inc. is one of the groups advocating for a Maryland bill that would protect child victims of human trafficking from being prosecuted for crimes they committed as a result of their trafficking. Photo courtesy of TurnAround Inc.

Maryland lawmakers are again considering a bill that would protect child victims of human trafficking from being prosecuted for prostitution and other crimes they committed as a result of their trafficking.

Lawmakers, service providers, community members, and survivors have been pushing for the “safe harbor” bill for several years now. Last year, as the final minutes of the legislative session ticked away, the Maryland Senate failed to vote on the bill 

Advocates hope this year will be the time the bill passes.

“Frankly, Maryland is way behind the rest of the country on this,” said Amanda Rodriguez, executive director of TurnAround Inc., a Baltimore-area domestic violence and rape crisis center. 

“New York passed the first Safe Harbor bill nearly 15 years ago and by now 38 states have some version of Safe Harbor in place,” Rodriguez said. “Once people understand what child sex trafficking is and understand that the current system allows victimized children to be punished as criminals, people become angry that such a thing is possible, and they join the fight for Safe Harbor.”

For nearly half of child victims, a family member is involved in their trafficking.

“Calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2021 indicate that 46% of children are trafficked by a family member and 45% are introduced to their trafficker by a family member or caregiver, including their own parents,” said Jean Henningsen, senior director of strategic initiatives at TurnAround Inc. “They trust this person. Over time, traffickers convince the child they are the only one the child can trust and isolate them more and more from their support systems.”

Traffickers often identify children with unfulfilled needs, such as food and shelter, and exploit them. Henningsen said 29% of child trafficking victims are unhoused or unstably housed.

If you suspect someone is a victim of human trafficking, Henningsen said you should not approach them because this intervention can place the person in greater danger. Instead, contact emergency officials or a crisis center like TurnAround.

“If you suspect child trafficking, reach out to TurnAround using our phone (443-279-0379) or text helpline (410-498-5956),” said Henningsen. “We are available 24 hours a day and all our services are free. We also have support services available for family members trying to support a loved one who is experiencing human trafficking or is a survivor.”

People can also call child protective services in their county, Henningsen said.

Maryland received a grade of F in an annual assessment of how effectively its laws protect child human trafficking victims. Maryland has higher human trafficking rates than most states, ranking among the 10 worst states and 44th place overall in the report by Shared Hope International.

In 2019, Maryland established the Regional Navigator Program, which connects child sex trafficking victims with trauma experts and other resources.

But Rodriguez said the Safe Harbor bill would provide additional protections for child victims by preventing them from being arrested and placed in the juvenile justice system.

“If sex trafficking victims cannot be arrested on prostitution charges, they will be immediately cared for by experts in childhood sexual trauma through the Regional Navigator Program,” Rodriguez said. “Children who become part of the justice system miss this system of care altogether. As one recently told us ‘Safe Harbor would bypass so much unnecessary trauma.’”

“Safe Harbor will ensure children get the best care right away,” Rodriguez added. “And it will avoid the additional trauma children experience from being treated like they are to blame for the crime that was committed against them.”

Rodriguez encouraged individuals to contact their legislative representatives about the Safe Harbor bill, as well as participate in person on Lobby Day on March 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the State House in Annapolis. TurnAround Inc. and the Safe Harbor Coalition will also be there.

“No experience is necessary,” Rodriguez said. “To help, just wear blue and bring your energy. A crowd of supporters has a lot of persuasive power.”

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Tyneisha Lewis

Tyneisha Lewis's work has appeared in Baltimore Style, Baltimore Child, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere.

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