BOISE – In an annual testimonial that rated state laws protecting victims of child sex trafficking, Idaho received 28 out of a possible 100 – an F.
Shared Hope International, a Vancouver, Washington-based organization focused on the elimination of sexual slavery, has been evaluating all 50 states and Washington, DC based on anti-sex trafficking laws for 11 years. The framework of the classification system was changed this year to focus on identifying and treating victims of child and youth sex trafficking – rather than identifying and criminalizing their potential buyers and sellers.
Due to the change, representatives of the organization expected lower grades than in previous years. But Idaho’s failed 28% score is better than just two states – Arizona at 24.5% and Alaska at 21% – the worst in the nation. To make matters worse, Idaho is one of the few states that has not responded to testimony from government officials.
According to Shared Hope spokeswoman Sarah Bendtsen Diédhiou, Idaho lacks a “mechanism to identify and provide comprehensive services” to victims of child and youth trafficking.
“There isn’t even this basic foundation for protecting children from criminalization and providing a route to services,” she told EastIdahoNews.com. “Almost half of the country has a legal system that allows victims of child trafficking to be criminalized for prostitution.”
Under current national law, a minor who is bought and sold for the purpose Diédhiou describes as “commercial sex” is legally considered a prostitute, regardless of whether the child was coerced.
The Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition, headquartered in Eagle, has been operating across the state for about four years, offering training, education programs and victim support.
Jennifer Zielinski, the coalition executive director, provided an example of where Idaho state falls short in treating victims of child trafficking.
The coalition is currently working with the family of a child who was lured over the Internet to meet a trafficker. The child met with the trafficker, who then abducted the child.
When the family reported the child missing, local police authorities introduced the missing child as an outlier, meaning the child’s information was not shared with any other local, state or national agency. The parents contacted the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and Idaho State Police and the child was recovered.
However, the child was arrested by local police who then focused on the parents and possible prosecution for neglect and vulnerability.
Police denied possible human trafficking and advertising despite online evidence of a relationship between the child and a trafficker, Zielinski said.
Because of a lack of understanding on the part of the state and adequate training of the police authorities, victims are treated like criminals. There is no legislation in Idaho aimed at identifying and protecting victims, both Zielinski and Diédhiou said.
“Traffickers are aware of our outdated laws. They are aware of the loopholes, “Zielinski told EastIdahoNews.com. “This testimony really shows the loopholes. It underlines … how far we are behind. “
Idaho received a 72.5% grade – a C – from Shared Hope on last year’s report card.
This classification, Zielinski said, is the result of two bills passed by the state in recent years that specifically aim to identify and criminalize sex traffickers.
One of the bills passed in 2019 provided the first legal definition of the state of human trafficking. Before 2019, the state had no legal recourse to criminalize sex trafficking. The only way to arrest a person for sex trafficking was if it was a secondary criminal act – a trafficker could only be punished if he was also involved in additional crimes, often with drugs being linked to such cases.
The new law, said Zielinski, is a big step forward for the country. But a legal definition and protection for the victims was lacking and still is.
Victims also become middlemen for other crimes, she continued. If a child is manipulated, coerced or asked to sell drugs, for example, the child has no legal protection from prosecution for these crimes.
In such cases there is no Safe Harbor for the child. And law enforcement agencies are not trained in any action other than making an arrest.
“As a state, we lack the funds that flow into our state and local agencies – we lack the really necessary training and further education for each of these agencies,” said Zielinski.
Idaho 2021 Report on Child and Adolescent Sex Trafficking. | Courtesy Shared Hope International
In addition to state ranking, Shared Hope reaches out to governors and attorneys general for guidance.
A copy was sent to the office of Governor Brad Little prior to the public dissemination of the Testimony, as did the office of the Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. And while Shared Hope has received responses and requests for this guide from numerous other states, the organization has received no response from anyone in the state government.
EastIdahoNews.com has received multiple requests for comment from Little’s office and has received no response.
If a state representative asked Shared Hope or the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition what corrections would benefit the state’s treatment of trafficked persons, the answers would be simple.
Both Diédhiou and Zielinski said the first correction the state of Idaho needs to make to improve its dealings with victims of child trafficking is creating a legal definition for those victims.
A simple starting point, Diédhiou said, would be to acknowledge that children who work in the commercial sex industry often find themselves in this position as a result of manipulation or coercion.
The next step, she said, would be to fund training for law enforcement agencies to identify and help those victims of human trafficking.
And when it comes to funding such training, Diédhiou believes a good starting point is to redirect adequate fines imposed on sex criminals at conviction into programs to help victims – including enforcement training.
As in the past, responding to human trafficking is not the kind of thing that a simple math could fix. But to do nothing, said Zielinski, only help those who would fall victim to the children.
“Most states have actually been (anti) trafficking in human beings for at least 10 years,” she said. “As a state, we haven’t even scratched the surface. … If at least we don’t prescribe any training to our government agencies, then we’ll just keep breeding it. Ultimately, we are only seen as a state that simply denies these efforts. “
“It’s a lot,” said Diédhiou. “It’s not going to be a bill or a fix or a year that fills some big outstanding gaps. But hopefully there is an impulse or desire to at least begin to develop a response so that children who have experienced exploitation receive protection, care and services. “
Anyone who is or knows a victim of sex trafficking can call the Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition’s 24-hour Crisis and Resource Hotline at (208) 630-6601.
Visit idahoatc.org for more information. The Idaho Anti-Trafficking Coalition also offers training and resource training and seminars – inquiries for such an event can be made through the same website.
RELATED | A look at the sex trafficking in east Idaho from women who work in it