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Victims of human trafficking put on hold by congressional gridlock

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    Now to a large, but often hidden issue in America, and why solving it is getting caught up in congressional gridlock.

    More than 100,000 American children and teens are currently estimated to be victims of sex trafficking. In the past month, senators from both parties had come together on a bill to combat the problem and help victims.

    It was to be a shining example of bipartisanship, but has now hit a major political wall.

  • SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, Majority Leader:

    Democrats owe these victims, not lobbyists, help, help the Senate is now so close to passing.

  • SEN. HARRY REID, Minority Leader:

    It's insane to keep going forward on these votes that everyone knows are going to turn out the same way.


    Party leaders dug in this morning, as the Senate standoff over the human trafficking bill entered its second week. The measure initially had wide bipartisan backing.

    It creates a fund for U.S. victims of trafficking, who are often forced into prostitution, and it toughens fines and penalties for so-called johns, who buy services. But the dispute is centered on a provision banning any funds from paying for a victim's abortion.

    Democrats acknowledged today they originally missed that provision, that an aide didn't flag it. But Minority Whip Dick Durbin and others charge Republicans deliberately made the wording obscure.

  • SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, Minority Whip:

    There was a representation made to several senators that this — this — there was nothing else in the bill to be concerned about, other than a few listed issues, and this wasn't included.


    In turn, Republicans, like Deb Fischer of Nebraska, deny ill intent.

    SEN. DEB FISCHER, (R) Nebraska: To have the other side come out and say they didn't read the bill, they were caught off-guard, you know, come on. Those are excuses, I believe, for trying to stop the work of the United States Senate.


    For now, the dispute has stopped any work on confirming Loretta Lynch to be attorney general.

    Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists that won't happen until the trafficking bill is voted on.

    For more on the bill before Congress and the issue of human and sex trafficking, we are joined by Bradley Myles. He's CEO of Polaris. It's a nonprofit that works to combat slavery and human trafficking. And Holly Austin Smith, a former victim herself who now advocates for victims of sex trafficking, she is also the author of the "Walking Prey: How America's Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery."

    And we welcome you both.

    Holly Austin Smith, let me start with you. You were a victim at the age of 14. Tell us briefly what happened to you.

  • HOLLY AUSTIN SMITH, Advocate and Former Trafficking Victim:


    I was a young teen victim. I was 14. I was confused, angry, depressed. Like many young teenagers, I was struggling with the transition between middle school and high school.

    And I met a man at my local shopping mall who turned out to be a pimp. He convinced me to run away from home with ideas of being a model or a music artist. But within hours of running away from home, I learned the truth, that he was a pimp, and he forced me into prostitution in Atlantic City, New Jersey.


    Bradley Myles, I mean, her story is just — is just so tough to hear. And I think many Americans hear about this and they say, this doesn't really happen in this country. It's kind of an invisible crime.

    How widespread is it?

  • BRADLEY MYLES, Polaris:

    I think that most people really do believe this is happening overseas, but there is a disbelief that it's happening here.

    And for us, we know that this is happening to hundreds of thousands of people, like you mentioned, 100,000 U.S. citizen youth. We operate the national hot line for the country called the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. We're on the hot line every day.

    Last year, we learned about over 5,000 cases of trafficking. And two-thirds of those were cases of sex trafficking. So it's truck stops. It's in hotels. It's in elicit massage parlors. It's in residential brothels. It's in street prostitution. It's all these places.

    And people, I think, see it as prostitution, but they don't realize that it might be children involved. They don't realize it might be people involved who are there by force or violence or coercion. And they don't see the deeper control that is there.


    And, Holly Smith, who are the victims? They come from all walks of life, all parts of the country?


    A victim can be any age, any gender, any class.

    Traffickers have the ability to reach out to victims in any community, especially with social media today. But, certainly, those who are most at risk are those kids who are lacking in resources or adults who are lacking in resources.


    And, Bradley Myles, tell us. We did talk about it in the setup that people just heard, but what, in essence, would this bill or these bills do for these victims?


    Well, one of the primary focuses is providing more services for survivors.

    There's this trafficking victims fund that was going to be put together with proceeds from different criminal prosecutions that would go to survivor services. There's ways that survivors could get more restitution and compensation. There's more official recognition for survivors. There's even a potential of the reauthorization of the full apparatus of runaway and homeless youth programs in the United States to prevent trafficking, because homeless youth are some the most vulnerable youth that pimps are targeting.

    So there's all these different provisions to look at survivor support. There's also provisions to crack down on traffickers more and crack down on the buyers of sex. And we feel like there is a strong package of bills that were really teed up there.


    Holly Smith, from your perspective, why is it important to pass this?


    I think that it's important to pass legislation that's going to support victims, pass legislation that's going to bolster community programs, pass legislation that's going to bring training to law enforcement and education to our schools in order to educate youth about tactics of sex traffickers.

    I think it's important to bring prevention into our communities. I don't know if there's enough focus on prevention in this bill. But part of what would be focused on prevention is the Runaway and Homeless Youth Reauthorization Act.


    I want to ask you both about the language that's been holding this up, the abortion language in the bill.

    And, Bradley Myles, to you first.

    We know that it says in so many words that government money could not be used to pay for an abortion for victims unless they were the victim of a rape in coerced circumstances. Without weighing in on the merits of abortion or not, what difference could that make, do you believe, for the young people we're talking about, the young women if they were pregnant?



    So, for us, we're a direct service provider for victims of trafficking. And we know that when someone comes out of one of these situations, they describe being in a situation of total control. They have been raped. They have been sexually assaulted. They have had so much of their life controlled.

    And so when we're providing services, we want to create a spectrum that is as wide as possible and as empowering as possible and let them chart the course of their own services, and not put limits on what is possible. And so sometimes there's a debate about would this cover this or would this cover that, and could you always define it as rape or not?

    And we didn't even want to get into that debate. We didn't want that to enter this dialogue, because we knew that the entire Senate, there's so much passion around this bill from the Republicans and the Democrats.




    Both sides are incredibly passionate about fighting trafficking. We just didn't want to have to go there to begin asking those questions.


    And just finally, Holly, Holly Smith, from what you know — and you have studied this, obviously, for a long time, and from your own personal experience — would this — would covering abortions for the young people, young women who are victims of this who may have gotten pregnant, would this cover all circumstances where these young women became pregnant?


    Are you asking if the bill would cover all circumstances?


    The language in the bill now.


    I am not sure about the language in the bill.

    But I think that it needs to not be a part of the conversation. Victims need to have total control over what options are available to them, because they're being taken out of a situation where they had no control, where they had no ability to decide what was available to them and what wasn't available to them. They weren't able to choose what they did and what they didn't do.

    For anyone who is really interested in whether or not these services are really valid or valuable to victims, I encourage you to reach out to service providers who are working with victims on a regular basis. And I would especially encourage you to reach out to survivor-led service providers.


    Holly Austin Smith and Bradley Myles, very tough subject. Thank you both.


    Thank you for having me.


    Thank you.

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