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Study Revealed Safe Harbor Laws Increased Protections for Sex-Trafficked Youth, Identified Needs for Agency Support and Judicial Training

A study of Kentucky’s safe harbor laws revealed they have helped decriminalize sex-trafficked youth. However, the study also highlighted a lack of resources and training for child welfare personnel and judges who work with these youth.
Date Published
March 8, 2021

A University of Kentucky study on the impact of its state safe harbor laws showed that justice-involved children were more likely to be screened for sex trafficking and to be offered victim services, and were less likely to be criminally charged. However, agency personnel and juvenile and family court judges who were interviewed for the study raised concerns about the legislation, including the added workload placed on already overwhelmed child welfare personnel. Through these interviews, the University of Kentucky research team also identified needed improvements to policies, education, and practices related to sex trafficking of minors.

With the passage of the Human Trafficking Victims’ Rights Act in 2013, Kentucky became one of many states to enact legislation that aligns with the federal government’s “reframing of the legal status of trafficked minors detailed in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.”[1] Kentucky’s Human Trafficking Victims’ Rights Act includes safe harbor legislation for sex-trafficked minors that mandates state agencies — including juvenile court, child welfare, and juvenile justice agencies — must develop a coordinated plan to deliver comprehensive care and to serve and protect victims.[2]

In general, safe harbor provisions prevent sex-trafficked youth from being prosecuted for prostitution and provide them with special services such as safe housing, mental health care, and substance abuse treatment.

Study Design

Despite 70% of states reporting safe harbor legislation by the end of 2017, the University of Kentucky team reported that there is a lack of data for evaluating the impact these laws have on youth victims of human trafficking and judicial decision-making. The researchers worked to overcome this dearth of information through an NIJ-supported mixed-methods study.

The research team conducted in-person and telephone interviews with 375 Kentucky state agency personnel and 82 juvenile and family court judges about their experiences with cases of sex trafficking of minors, and their knowledge and perceived impact of safe harbor legislation. Of the 82 judges, 55 completed an online survey that included questions about their demographics, workload, and attitudes about sex trafficking of minors; past training assessments; and preferred training delivery methods. State agency personnel were not asked to complete a similar survey.

The researchers also collected data from a 2012-2013 pilot study that compared the responses of state agency personnel and judges to cases of sex-trafficked youth before and after implementation of Kentucky’s safe harbor laws in 2013. The researchers also collected state records on criminal charges of human trafficking and prostitution of juveniles from 2007 to 2018.

Researchers translated information from their interviews and surveys into quantitative data that could be compared with 2012-2013 pilot study data and 2007-2018 state records. By quantifying the interview and survey data, the researchers were able to evaluate agency personnel and determine awareness of and capacity for responding to sex trafficking of minors before and after implementation of safe harbor legislation.

Key Findings

The Impact of Safe Harbor Legislation on Juvenile Victims

The researchers’ analysis of state data on criminal charges of human trafficking and prostitution of juveniles both before and after the Human Trafficking Victims’ Rights Act was implemented showed:

  • A slight increase in the number of human trafficking cases.
  • A consistently small number of juveniles charged with prostitution-related offenses from 2007 to 2017.

In 2015, the Kentucky juvenile justice system implemented a mandatory eight-item screening tool for human trafficking and required all suspected cases to be diverted to child welfare. From July 2015 to March 2018, 733 (6%) of the 12,233 human trafficking screens resulted in reports to child welfare of suspected human trafficking. A detailed analysis of these suspected human trafficking cases showed that substantiation or confirmation of trafficking occurred in less than half of the cases and a very small percentage of substantiated or confirmed cases resulted in criminal charges (7.4%).

Child welfare personnel noted in their interviews that all victims identified by these screens received services, including mental health and trauma counseling, medical evaluations, anti-trafficking victim services, residential placement, placement with alternative caregivers, drug treatment, language services, legal services, and basic needs.

Changes in State Agency Capacity for Responding to Sex-Trafficked Minors

The researchers interviewed 365 professionals from state agencies that serve at-risk youth before and after implementation of the Kentucky Human Trafficking Victims’ Rights Act in 2013. Post-implementation, more of the professionals perceived sex trafficking of minors as a “fairly to very serious problem.” During the post-implementation interviews, the professionals also reported:

he researchers also reported:

  • Their familiarity with safe harbor legislation increased after Kentucky implemented the Act in 2013.
  • An increase in their coordinated responses with other agencies after the Act was implemented.
  • They were more likely to report that they received formal education or training on how to identify and respond to cases of human trafficking.

Most (58%) state agency interviewees did not comment on the impact of the 2013 legislation. Of those who provided comments, nearly all (96.7%) said the Act has had a positive impact on cases of sex-trafficked youth.

Judges’ Observations of and Attitudes Toward Safe Harbor Laws and Sex-Trafficked Minors

In online surveys, 40 of 55 juvenile and family judges from states with safe harbor laws replied that they observed “positive changes in practices consistent with the intent of the laws,” including:

  • Decriminalization of youth.
  • Increased penalties for traffickers and buyers.
  • Innovations in programming.
  • Increased collaboration between service providers.
  • Increased training of judges and court personnel.
  • Improved processes for screening and identifying youth victims.

More male judges agreed with statements that criminalized minors involved in commercial sex while more female judges agreed with less punitive interventions for these minors and harsher penalties for buyers and traffickers. Judges in metropolitan communities were more likely to agree with statements in line with safe harbor laws than judges in smaller, more rural communities.

Concerns Shared by State Agency Personnel and Judges

Judges and state agency personnel who participated in the study noted that although the transfer of cases involving sex trafficking of minors from juvenile justice to child welfare “created opportunities for service provision and protection,” it also raised questions about child welfare personnel’s knowledge of and ability to safely manage these cases.

Judges and state agency personnel also voiced concerns that juveniles identified as victims of sex trafficking might end up back on the streets because communities lack secure housing for these youth after they are removed from juvenile detention facilities in accordance with safe harbor provisions.

Implications for Criminal Justice Policy and Practice

Findings from the study show that judges and state agency personnel need — and are receptive to — more training on how to manage and respond to cases of sex-trafficked youth. For judges, that training could include a better understanding of the legal aspects of sex trafficking of minors. For agency personnel, training could cover how to identify victims, techniques to help youth discuss their experiences, details and statistics on trafficking (particularly in rural communities), and available community resources for these youth.

The study also revealed the need for more collaboration and coordination among juvenile court, child welfare, and juvenile justice agencies on sex trafficking cases and more community resources for victims, such as secure housing and trauma-informed mental health treatment.

To improve court response to potential youth victims of sex trafficking, juvenile and family court judges offered the following suggestions during their interviews and in their survey responses:

  • Empower judges to extend case time limits to ensure continuity of care or judicial oversight of youth during sex trafficking cases.
  • Appoint a guardian ad litem or Friend of the Court for youth victims.
  • Specialize court processes and protocols for suspected sex trafficking victims and offer targeted training of court personnel.
  • Provide incentives for innovative service delivery to sex-trafficked youth.
  • Address the problem at the source through prompt investigations of youth sex traffickers and buyers.

The researchers hope that results from their study will aid in the implementation of evidence-informed strategies and tools to improve community and judicial system responses to cases of sex-trafficked youth. 

Date Published: March 8, 2021