WASHINGTON (July 7, 2004) -— A representative of the U.S. Catholic Bishops called on the Senate to protect children exploited by human trafficking in the United States.
Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty, a School Sister of Notre Dame and a member of the Bishops' Office for Migration and Refugee Services, urged the action in testimony, July 7, before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights, headed by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX). She testified at a hearing on "Examining U.S. Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking and Slavery."
Sister Dougherty said trafficking is "a modern-day form of slavery" and "the largest manifestation of slavery today."
"Human beings are being sold into bondage as prostitutes, domestic workers, child laborers and child soldiers," she said.
An estimated 700,000 persons annually are being trafficked worldwide, with about 17,000 in the United States. One-third of the victims in the United States are children.
"We must pay particular attention to child trafficking victims and ensure that they are protected and provided special care," said Sister Dougherty.
"While efforts to find and assist victims of trafficking have been pursued with commendable commitment over the last several years," she said, "I fear that children, as a group, have fallen through the cracks of these enforcement efforts."
Since the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000, only 34 child victims have been identified within the United States and referred to trafficking victims assistance, she said.
"However, knowledge of the nature of trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children, and statistics gathered by the State Department on worldwide numbers of trafficked kids leads one to conclude that many more children are being held involuntarily in trafficking situations in the United States than we have so far identified," she said.
"Those children who are discovered are in need of special protection. Most are unaccompanied, without a parent or guardian to care for them, and their immigration status may be in doubt," Sister Dougherty said. "Currently, the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) ably cares for trafficked and other unaccompanied children without a firm immigration status. Congress could assist ORR by resolving structural ambiguities created when care and placement of these children was transferred from the now defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to ORR."
Sister Dougherty outlined principles to be invoked in any decision-making process regarding child victims:
- The "best interest of the child" standard should be used as the basis of all decision-making related to any child identified in any trafficking situation. In any question of age or "victimhood," the benefit of the doubt should go toward the greater care of the child.
- All children should receive immediate safe haven with a systematic plan for assessing the child's needs.
- Family reunification should be explored as a priority but with great care taken to assure that the claimants are genuine family members, do not have connection to traffickers, and are capable of providing safety for the child.
- Children should be placed in the least restrictive setting commensurate with their safety and emotional and physical needs.
- Children need assistance with legal obligations to assist prosecution and with immigration assistance to ensure that they remain in the United States, if that is in their best interest.
- All children should have a long-term plan for self-sufficiency.
To avoid these devastating consequences for children, she recommended the following:
- Procedures should be developed for all federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel to refer immediately children in trafficking-like situations for assessment and age determination with benefit of the doubt going to the child;
- A system of immediate safe haven should be developed where a child is safe while being determined eligible, which includes immediate care and assessment of needs and a strategy to assess family for possible safe reunification;
- Determination of eligibility for child victims should be expedited; and
- Long-term care in a least restrictive setting should be arranged, with capacity for therapeutic intervention; assistance with legal obligations; plan for family reunification; or eventual self-sufficiency.
- A Child Welfare specialist should be appointed to oversee the child from rescue to self-sufficiency. Such an expert can act as a decision-maker for a traumatized child in a complex legal and child welfare system.