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Too many states still inadvertently provide safe havens when it comes to sex trafficking — even when children on the streets bear the consequences. That's the conclusion of a new report released Thursday by the advocacy group Shared Hope International.
The study grades each state on whether it has laws to protect children who are pushed into the sex trade — and to punish the adults who seek out those services. Leaders of the group say there's lots of room for improvement. More than half of the states they examined got grades of D or F.
"I was absolutely shocked when we started sending people into states [posing] as sex tourists, and they would go in, and they would come into the city maybe from another country, maybe from another state, and they could buy kids so easily," says former Republican Rep. Linda Smith of Washington. Smith founded Shared Hope International after she left Capitol Hill.
Smith tells NPR that she's devoting all her energy to making life harder for criminals and to helping victims, especially children, who are trafficked for sex and domestic work.
Laws in Washington state and Texas are strong, Smith says, but many other states are falling down on the job — miserably.
"They didn't have trafficking laws, or if they had a trafficking law, it didn't deal with commercial sex ... or didn't distinguish between children and adults," Smith says. She says the report, prepared with the American Center for Law and Justice, is designed to help states draft model laws to help fight trafficking.
And she has an important ally: the National Association of Attorneys General, which put the fight against human trafficking at the top of its agenda this year.
The president of NAAG, Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna, says there's a lot of work to be done.
"In our understanding of human trafficking, we are today about where we were with the problem of domestic violence about 40 years ago," he says — "low levels of awareness, low levels of law enforcement response, almost no services for victims."
McKenna says the area is so misunderstood that experts still aren't sure how many victims suffer every year. He says estimates start at around 100,000 people in the U.S.
Around the world, he says, the United Nations and U.S. data show human trafficking ranks only behind narcotics as one of the most lucrative and fastest-growing criminal enterprises.