Monday’s New York Times reports that individual states and the federal government are currently working on new laws to address the problem of teenage runaways. A couple of different problems with runaways have received public attention lately, and a fair amount of attention has been focused on teenage prostitution. According to the Times, there is evidence that increasing numbers of runaway teens are turning to prostitution as the recession makes it difficult for them to obtain other, safer forms of employment. Kids who are caught engaging in sex trafficking are often arrested and charged, but there is no evidence that this is having any positive effects on the larger problems that left the kids homeless and engaging in prostitution in the first place.
The new initiatives discussed in the Times article, especially some policy guidelines being drafted by the National Conference of State Legislatures, are a big step in a positive direction.
The guidelines would, for example, require persons who work with juveniles to report suspicions of youth involvement in prostitution to child welfare agencies. At first glance, this requirement might seem unnecessary, because all states currently have child abuse reporting statutes that require adults working with children to report instances of suspected sexual abuse. Since minors cannot consent to sexual activity, in reality adults working with exploited minors already have an obligation to report child prostitution as a form of sexual abuse of a child. A new specific law is probably necessary, though, because not only do adults currently not report child prostitution to child welfare agencies, it is likely that the minors will be arrested and charged with prostitution instead of receiving services. Along the same lines, the ABA is planning to lobby Congress for increased services for runaways, as well as a law that prevents minors from being charged with prostitution when they are not even old enough to legally consent to sexual activity.
Our society has always been conflicted about what should be appropriate policies for dealing with runaway youth, and current laws reflect that conflict. On the one hand, our society has become increasingly intolerant of law-breaking teenagers, and American law has a tradition of recognizing young people as adults if they choose to live independently from their parents (the doctrine of emancipation). On the other hand, social science research has shown that teenagers who run away from home are usually facing serious difficulties such as school adjustment problems, mental illness, substance abuse, or family problems like abuse or neglect. A significant percentage of runaways are actually “throwaways” – meaning that their parents have kicked them out of the home. Once kids hit the streets, they are vulnerable to all sorts of dangers, including addiction, sexual exploitation, and exposure to the elements.
Tracking down the runaways and returning them home or putting them in jail for drugs or prostitution may seem like reasonable solutions because such policies get the kids off the streets and away from the dangers there. To the missing teens, though, being treated like fugitives who are taken into custody can only feel punitive. Some of these kids are in circumstances that are punishing enough as it is, and their desire to escape their home situations makes them avoid any agents seen as aiming only to return them to their former school or family situations. These minors need compassion, education, and safe shelter; some need psychological counseling, family counseling, or treatment for addiction or STDs as well. Punishment has been counterproductive.
It’s time that we recognized that minors – even disobedient, violent, or addicted ones – are still minors. They are especially vulnerable to exploitation by adults, and they deserve policies that will help them to escape prostitution and lives on the streets.