Human trafficking — the illegal practice of buying and selling people for the purposes of their forced labor or sexual exploitation — affects more than 27 million people around the world. It has become our nation’s fastest growing criminal enterprise, generating over $32 billion in illegal revenue every year. And the great majority of victims are women and children.
Sadly, North Carolina ranks among the worst places in the country for crimes associated with human trafficking: many of the same qualities that make our state attractive for business and commerce — easy access to seaports, a network of major interstate highways, and a large transient population — also provide the conditions that help this modern-day form of slavery to flourish.
International traffickers lure victims to our shores with the promise of marriage, jobs, schooling, and opportunities for a better life. Here in the United States, targets come from poor neighborhoods and homeless shelters. Many have run away or been kidnapped. So often they go unnoticed, mistaken for willing workers. Before they can be properly identified and assisted, many are forcibly relocated never to be seen again.
Traffickers provide forced labor to a wide range of industries, including personal care and beauty services, home cleaning, construction, textiles, food and beverage, commercial fishing, agriculture, and the commercial sex trade. Approximately 75-80% of human trafficking is for sex; the U.S. Department of Justice estimates that as many as 300,000 of America’s children are at risk of entering the sex-for-sale industry every year.
Eighty percent of those sold into sexual slavery are under 24, and some are as young as six years old. The average age that most girls are forced into a life of prostitution is between 12-14; for boys the age is between 11-13. Most have been physically and mentally abused or neglected and suffer frequent psychological breakdowns, and have little hope of getting adequate medical treatment for diseases to which they have been exposed. Many children turn to drug and alcohol abuse in order to cope with their misery.
But bipartisan legislation introduced by Representative Michele Presnell would help to address this troubling situation by increasing protections for minors who are so often the victims of human trafficking.
House Bill 855 changes the definition of “abused minors” to also include juvenile victims of human trafficking, allowing them to become eligible for services such as the Guardian ad Litem program (“Guardian ad Litem” teams include volunteer attorneys and other advocates who work to ensure that the best interests of a minor are protected in court).
HB855 also prohibits perpetrators from using the claim of mistaken age or apparent consent as a defense in court, provides mandatory restitution for victims, and shields minors from prosecution. The bill also provides additional resources to raise public awareness of the issue.
“I learned more than I ever wanted to know,” commented Representative Presnell regarding her research into human trafficking. “And I was very moved to do something about it. This bill won’t fix the whole problem, of course — but if just one child is saved from this horrible life, then at least we’ve accomplished something.” Representative Presnell is working on further measures to combat North Carolina’s human trafficking problem, and plans to introduce additional legislation next year.
On May 15, the North Carolina House of Representatives gave its unanimous approval to House Bill 855. The legislation now awaits Senate approval.