At SJC Hearing On Human Trafficking, Witnesses Unify Behind Prevention Efforts

One Witness Tells Committee: “To prevent trafficking, we must understand the pipeline between homelessness and the commercial sexual exploitation of young people”

WASHINGTON (TUESDAY, Feb. 24, 2015) –Congress must enact legislation that prevents vulnerable kids from falling victim to human trafficking and sexual exploitation, witnesses said at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday.

Tuesday’s hearing came as the Judiciary Committee is poised to consider legislation later this week to address human trafficking.  Jayne Bigelsen of the Covenant House, an organization serving homeless youth, cited a 2013 study by her organization that found that 1 in 4 homeless youth became a victim of sex trafficking or was forced to provide sex for survival needs, such as food or a place to sleep. Of these victims, about half reported that the number one reason they had been drawn into commercial sexual activity was because they did not have a safe place to sleep.

“To prevent trafficking, we must understand the pipeline between homelessness and the commercial sexual exploitation of young people,” Bigelsen said. “We urge the Senate and House to pass the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act so that we can help young people before they fall into the hands of vicious predators who prey on homeless youth, on teenagers aging out of the foster care system without families, on young people who feel alone and desperate on the streets of America.”

Ranking Member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is the coauthor of the bipartisan Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act (S. 262), which aims to prevent trafficking by supporting grant programs that provide housing, education and job training to homeless youth.  The bill had the overwhelming support of the Judiciary Committee last year, and Leahy will offer the legislation as an amendment at the Committee’s markup this Thursday. The bill has 15 bipartisan cosponsors in the Senate, including all four women Senators who appeared before the Committee today.

Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), the lead Republican cosponsor of the legislation, said that “Homeless youth need access to safe beds at night and services during the day so that they never have to choose between selling their bodies and a safe place to sleep. I hope this Committee will reauthorize these programs, which for 40 years have helped protect our most vulnerable children.”

Senators Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) also spoke in support of the legislation at Tuesday’s hearing, which was scheduled at the request of all 20 women Senators.

Committee members also heard compelling testimony from Holly Austin Smith, who ran away from home and was trafficked at the age of 14. Austin Smith emphasized that pimps and traffickers target vulnerable young people like runaways or those without families to protect them.

“Many survivors, including myself, agree that policies on prevention should be one of our highest priorities, which is why it should also be a priority for policymakers,” she said, urging Congress to reauthorize programs to protect young people before they fall prey to these criminals. “With effective community programs, we can prevent human trafficking and child exploitation from happening in the first place.”

The Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act is supported by the National Network for Youth, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, the True Colors Fund, the Center for American Progress, and the Human Rights Campaign, among many others. 

Testimony and a webcast of Tuesday’s hearing is available online.  A copy of the Leahy-Collins bill is also available online.  Senator Leahy’s statement at Tuesday’s hearing is also available online.


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