1. Opinion

Editorial: Helping victims of sex trade

Florida's 2012 Safe Harbor Act was celebrated for ensuring that victims of sex trafficking got help rather than rap sheets. But now more restrictive trafficking bills making their way through the Legislature have created a sharp divide between lawmakers and child advocates who disagree about the best way forward. At issue is a provision that would call for the involuntary confinement of girls who are most at risk of flight. The Legislature should remove this controversial portion of the bills and keep the focus on saving girls from exploitation without doing more harm.

The Safe Harbor Act called for girls to be delivered to safe houses where they could receive shelter, treatment and a plan to establish a life outside of prostitution. The legislation was sorely needed as Florida has one of the country's highest numbers of sex trafficking victims. But operators of safe houses observed that protecting the victims from themselves has emerged as one of the biggest challenges. Many of the girls are runaways, homeless and suffer from low self-esteem — all characteristics that make them ripe for recidivism. They also have significant trust issues. Records show that 64 percent of rescued girls in a state-run pilot program ran away from secure facilities at least five times. Often they returned to their pimps or were victimized anew by strangers.

Two of the bills, SB 7088 and HB 7141, would establish standards for admitting children to safe houses and create safe foster homes. The bills' most controversial provision calls for the creation of a secure safe house, a pilot project that would restrict access 24 hours a day and provide intensive treatment for the most at-risk girls. Assignment to the 15-bed house would come after judicial review and is intended for sex trafficking victims who cannot be treated in less restrictive settings. Confinement could range from five days to 10 months.

Opponents say secure safe houses deprive girls of due process and will further traumatize them by treating them as criminals rather than victims. The bills' supporters say secure safe houses amount to tough love for a population that needs intensive help. Both sides have a point. They also have a shared goal, and they should join forces to build on the Safe Harbor Act's solid foundation. The bill's sponsor in the House, Rep. Gayle Harrell, R-Stuart, plans to amend her bill today to remove the secure safe house plan. The Senate should follow suit.

There is growing evidence from respected educational institutions and experts that suggests that placing sex trafficking victims in detention is the antithesis of what they need. Legislators should examine those findings more thoroughly. There is no harm in taking the time to get this right. But lawmakers could cause significant damage if they create the wrong solution to such a complex problem.