Two smiling preteen girls

Children should never be classified as prostitutes. Yet each year more than 1,000 children are arrested in the United States on prostitution charges. It’s nonsensical when you think about it-these kids are not even at an age of consent. Last Wednesday, Rights4girls, a human rights organization that focuses on female gender-based violence in America, organized a briefing to discuss the current state of child sex trafficking in the United States.

Last year, the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) was signed into law, which created new resources and supports for victims of sex trafficking, including children. It also amended the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act to include victims of trafficking under the definition of sexual child abuse to ensure more services and coordination between systems. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., a sponsor of the JVTA, emphasized that the purpose of the law was to ensure states were not criminalizing victims, to bring the perpetrators of child sex trafficking to justice, and to set an example for the international community as trafficking is one of the most profitable and third largest organized crime industry in the world. She also said she was encouraged that the Department of Justice is making sex trafficking a priority.

Congressional leaders remain committed to ensuring that provisions of the JVTA are being implemented effectively. In his timely hearing, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, noted the importance of ensuring that the Department of Justice was doing all that it could to reach the goals set out by the legislation. The hearing coincided with the release of a GAO report detailing the status of the trafficking system and the efficiency of the implementation of the JVTA.

In addition to effective implementation, groups like Rights4girls are also pushing a public relations campaign to change the way systems perceive children who have been involved with the sex trafficking system. The Raben Group released a report with findings that the term “child prostitute” was used over 5,000 times between 2009 and 2014 in major news publications to describe children who have been involved in the trafficking system. This terminology sustains the perception that these children, 12- to14-year-old girls specifically, actively decide to participate in prostitution, even though in most states a person cannot consent to sex without restrictions until the age of 16.

In response to these findings, Rights4girls started the “No Such Thing” (as a child prostitute) campaign that strives to change the language surrounding children’s interaction with the sex trafficking system. It is pivotal that the perception be changed from seeing these children as criminals actively participating in illegal sex to victims of an odious sex trading system.

Children involved in trafficking are victims rather than criminals and the justice system needs to change its response toward this population. These children need services such as shelter, mental health services to recover from trauma, and educational supports instead of lengthy criminal proceedings against them which worsens their trauma. Collaboration between systems is a key component in achieving that goal. Rights4Girls recently achieved a victory in removing “child prostitute” from the Associate Press stylebook. They seek to have all major news outlets remove this term to change public perception.

Congress continues to push for reforms in the justice system. The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act (S.1169) aims to change the way victims are treated. The bill would decriminalize child runaways, recognizing that children often run away in order to find a place they feel safe and are loved. The enactment of S.1169 would also keep them out of detention and provide mental health and emotional supports to promote better outcomes for runaways. This is a positive step as the bill not only reduces the risk of incarceration, but decreases the likelihood of future runaway occurrences and kids falling victim to sex trafficking.

It is encouraging that Congressional leaders are committed to following through on the implementation of the JVTA and, that slowly, public perception of child sex trafficking is changing. It is time to stop treating children like criminals. We must ensure that laws are doing what they promise to do for these vulnerable victims and that the media portrays their plight in a blame-free manner.

Mattilyn Karst is a summer policy intern at First Focus studying public policy and sociology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She can be reached at

Each year more than 1,000 children are arrested in the United States on prostitution charges. This MUST stop #JVTA
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