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Strip clubs team up with authorities to bust sex traffickers

In this Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016 photo, members of the industry group Club Owners Against Sex Trafficking attend a presentation given by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security agent teaching owners of strip clubs and strippers how to spot sex traffickers, at the Burbank Community Services Building in Burbank, Calif. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)

On Jan. 1, 2017, California adopted Safe Harbor laws for caring for children enslaved and trapped in the commercial sexual exploitation of children, or sex trafficking. Missouri did not. In California, the law treats children rescued from sex slavery as victims, and they are given needed services. In Missouri, the law still treats them as criminals, and they may be given jail time. How can this be?

And how bad is it in our backyard? According to a St. Louis Public Radio report, Missouri has the 17th most human trafficking cases in the country.

According to the FBI, St. Louis is one of the top 13 “hot spots” in the U.S., and the National Human Trafficking Hotline further reports that St. Louis is among the top 7 U.S. cities in number of calls per capita through 2016. Worse yet, according to the FBI, the average life expectancy of children after engaging in prostitution is only 7 years. And every child is at risk: The youngest recently encountered by the author was only 3 years old. Just what are we doing to our kids?

Most of the victims being sex trafficked were born right here, in America, and while some are boys, more than 90 percent are girls. How bad is it for them? They are given quotas by their pimps as to how many men they must service each day, which can range from 5 up to — according to one FBI victim-advocate — the FBI’s known record of 45. Miss the quota, and you get a “beat down,” even a brutal or savage one. Doctors at one large university medical center report that the most common injury they see in the emergency room involving these helpless victims is a broken jaw with missing teeth.

When children are involved with courts in Missouri, judges have the discretion to afford them protections against being traumatized. This is important because convicted traffickers and other exploiters will appeal on any number of issues to get out, including plain error, prejudice or evidentiary reasons, even claiming for instance that Article I Section 18c of the Missouri Constitution is unconstitutional. But if they do get out, even those exploiters who engage in psychological rather than forceful pimping are still a danger to the victims.

The state of Missouri is of several minds when dealing with sex-trafficked minors. On one hand, the state defines the age of sexual consent as 17 years old, upheld in Bewley v. State and affirmed again several months ago in Matson v. Missouri. Below 17, assent is not consent, as there is, by definition, no capacity to consent. On the other hand, penalties for the exploiters are inconsistent according to the age of the victims, defined as under 12, under 14, under 17 and under 18.

As for those victims, if they can show they were trafficked, they can escape prostitution charges, and apply for services. But then comes the Catch-22 in Missouri: For them to be eligible, they must prove they were subjected to “force, abduction or coercion.” That is, although Missouri defines the age of consent as 17, below which consent is not possible, the child victim, in order to avoid a charge of prostitution, must prove “force, abduction, or coercion.”

And just how does a 3- or 5-year-old do that? Or even a traumatized, frightened 15-year-old?

And if by law a child under the age of 17 cannot consent, then under what rationale does the state bring a charge of prostitution against that trafficked child? Notably, the appellate judges in Bewley v. State and Matson v. Missouri, given this conflict in the law, focused only on the importance of the age of consent.

It is time for Missouri to stop putting our children, who are daily being victimized by sex-trafficking gangs and pimps, into a contradictory legal limbo. The age of sexual consent is 17. Nothing else should be relevant when rescuing our children from their nightmare of sexual slavery and abuse. It is time for Missouri to join other states that have passed Safe Harbor laws, and treat the victims as the victims they are, and not as the criminals they are not.

Our children deserve nothing less.

Dr. David V. Habif Jr. teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, and has been working with San Diego County in California for the last 18 months to help create their new CSEC system.