WASHINGTON, D.C., JULY 7, 2004 (Zenit.org).- A representative of the U.S. 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 today before the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights.
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 people annually are being trafficked worldwide, with about 17,000 in the United States. One-third of the victims in the United States are children.
“While efforts to find and assist victims of trafficking have been pursued with commendable commitment over the last several years,” Sister Dougherty 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.
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. Gaps in the system have major consequences for child trafficking victims.
For example, Sister Dougherty said, “when children are not identified as trafficking victims, they may be mistakenly identified as adults, detained and deported through the Department of Homeland Security detention system, placed in overburdened local child welfare systems with little security and planning, or released back to traffickers or their associates.”
When not properly referred, “they can be placed in short-term shelters where they experience frequent moves, receive no orderly system of assessment and treatment, and have no long-term safety and security,” the woman religious said.
To avoid negative 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 traffickinglike 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.