By Mark Couch | School of Medicine
A national committee co-chaired by the Dean of the University of Colorado School of Medicine today issued a report on commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors finding that these crimes are often ignored and that stronger prevention and response efforts are needed.
"Commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors are often-overlooked forms of child abuse," said Richard Krugman, MD, co-chair of the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council committee that wrote the report, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
"Our national, state, and local laws and policies should recognize that and provide these children and adolescents with the support they need," Krugman said. "Right now, they are often invisible to us, and when we do recognize them, we fail to see them as victims and survivors of abuse and violence. We hope our report will help open our nation's eyes to a serious domestic problem in need of solutions."
The crimes considered in the report range from recruiting or transporting minors for the purpose of sexual exploitation, exploiting them through prostitution, or exploiting them by requiring them to exchange sexual acts for something of value, such as shelter or food. The victims and survivors of these crimes face immediate and long-term social, legal and health consequences.
There is no reliable estimate of the scope of prevalence of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors, the report says; estimates of the number of prostituted children and adolescents in the U.S. have ranged from 1,400 to 2.4 million. These crimes are underreported because they typically happen at the margins of society and behind closed doors.
"Our community has to forget the idea that sex trafficking only happens in other countries," said Callie Marie Rennison, PhD, a committee member and associate professor at the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Affairs. "It happens here in the U.S. and in our community. Until we all open our eyes, we will never see it."
The report says commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors should be considered acts of abuse and violence. While all U.S. states have statutory rape laws specifying that a child under a certain age cannot legally consent to having sex and must be treated as a victim of a crime. Federal law on sex trafficking recognizes children as victims.
But in most states, the crimes of commercial sexual exploitation and sex trafficking of minors are viewed through the lens of prostitution laws. As a result, the prostituted minors are arrested and charged with crimes instead of being treated as sexually exploited victims of crimes. And while prosecutors and law enforcement work hard to catch and punish individuals who sexually exploit children and adolescents, the report found the perpetrators largely escape accountability.
The report recommends that all jurisdictions review and strengthen laws that hold exploiters, traffickers and solicitors accountable for their roles in these crimes. These laws should include an emphasis on deterring demand, through prevention efforts and with penalties for those who solicit sex with minors.
The committee also recommends that the U.S. Departments of Justice, Health and Human Services, and Education collaborate and partner with others to implement a national research agenda to advance understanding of this kind of exploitation and develop evidence-informed interventions to prevent youth from becoming victims and to assist those who have been exploited.
The study was sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice. Established under the charter of the National Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council provide independent, objective evidence-based advice to policymakers, the private sector, and the public.