AUGUSTA, Maine — Maine deserves a near-failing rating for its laws dealing with sex trafficking of juveniles, according to a national advocacy group.
Shared Hope International, a Vancouver, Washington-based organization, on Thursday released its sixth annual Protected Innocence Challenge Report Card grading all 50 states and the District of Columbia on preventing sex trafficking of children through local legislation and gave Maine a D grade, the same rating as last year.
Even with recent Maine law changes that provide victims of human trafficking with an affirmative defense in the face of prostitution, “juvenile sex trafficking victims face criminalization for commercial sex acts committed as a result of their victimization,” the report states.
Maine is one of 31 states where children involved in prostitution can be prosecuted as criminals, Shared Hope founder Linda Smith said in a news release.
“Law has not kept up with reality,” Smith said. “The reality is that these children are victims of sex trafficking and cannot be criminals at the same time for the same thing.”
Maine was one of 26 states that received an F rating in 2011 and is one of seven that received Ds this year, a year when no Fs were issued. Seven states got As, 23 received Bs and 14 earned Cs.
Maine sits at the bottom with California, New Mexico, New York, Rhode Island, South Dakota and West Virginia. Louisiana, Florida, Minnesota, Montana, Tennessee, Texas and Washington top the Hope Shared list with A ratings.
Maine’s neighbor, New Hampshire, improved from a C to a B.
Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, who sponsored the sex trafficking bill that was signed into law in March 2014 and provides victims of sex trafficking with protections in the face of prostitution charges, said she met with representatives of Shared Hope, the state’s attorney general’s office and other Maine stakeholders on Monday.
“The result of the meeting is that I intend to submit legislation to prohibit this practice, although it is important to stress that Maine prosecutors do not charge minors with prostitution even if our law technically does allow it,” Volk said in a Thursday email.
Volk’s bill put in place stiffer penalties for traffickers and their clients and allows victims access to aid through the state’s Victims Compensation fund.
The Shared Hope report has nearly two dozen recommendations for Maine that address protections for child victims, as well as adding rules and penalties for sex tourism and for the use of the internet to lure, entice, recruit or purchase commercial sex acts with a minor. The report also points out there is no mandatory law enforcement training in Maine, where there are an estimated 200 to 300 cases of sex trafficking every year, according to a Maine human trafficking needs assessment conducted by South Portland-based Hornby Zeller Associates.
The national advocacy group suggests amending the state’s aggravated sex trafficking and engaging in prostitution laws “to ensure that all commercially sexually exploited children are identifiable as victims and eligible for protections pursuant to their victim status” and “to ensure that all minors are protected from criminalization for prostitution offenses.”
Maine should raise the age of protected minors to 18 for possession and dissemination of sexually explicit materials and solicitation of a child, the report recommends, and should increase the penalties of the crimes to reflect the seriousness of the offense.
The group suggests that legislators allow child welfare protection services for juvenile sex trafficking victims and that a mandatory protective response for juvenile sex trafficking victims is enacted that provides an avenue to specialized services.
They also suggest allowing “a juvenile sex trafficking victim to not only seal, but to expunge juvenile records related to their trafficking victimization upon turning 18 or earlier.”
Founded in 1998 by Smith, a Washington state representative at the time, Shared Hope International grades states based on criminalization of child sex trafficking, criminal provisions addressing demand, traffickers and facilitators, criminal justice funding and prosecution and protections for child victims.
The first Shared Hope International report was done in 2011, when “only 23 states had a sex trafficking law specifically protecting [domestic minor sex trafficking] victims; today, all 50 states and the District of Columbia do,” the group’s website states.
In 2011, only five states had eliminated criminal liability for prostitution for domestic minor sex trafficking victims, while today 19 states and the District of Columbia have enacted or amended laws to do so, the website states.
While state leaders have taken steps forward, “ Maine lags far behind states such as Louisiana who have changed their legislation to protect victims,” Shared Hope International spokeswoman Liz Fuller said in an email.
In addition to enacting the sex trafficking law in 2014, midway through that year the Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a network of southern Maine service providers, started operations thanks to a couple of U.S. Department of Justice grants.
By September, Preble Street had helped 111 sex and labor trafficking victims in Cumberland and York counties.
Nurses all over Maine are also being trained to be certified Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners, including one at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor. Those certified nurses are trained to identify sexual assault and sex trafficking victims, record the victim’s history and collect evidence to help in the prosecution of their abusers.
There are 30 to 35 SAFE-certified nurses in the state and about 30 others are going through training, according to Michelle Markie, an emergency department nurse at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor.
Hope Rising, a home that provides 24-7 care to sex trafficking victims free of charge at an undisclosed location in Penobscot County, also opened in 2015 to help woman, escape “ The Life.” The long-term program is the first of its kind in Maine, according to its director, and provides victims access to nurses, social workers, counseling, addiction treatment, career advice and a number of other services intended to help them move past deeply rooted traumas and reach for a future of their choosing.
In addition to serving a total of 12 survivors at the home, Hope Rising has helped more than 70 additional trafficking victims throughout the state over the past year, providing them with essentials such as food and clothes, and connecting them to housing.
Volk, the Senate District 30 representative who represents Gorham, part of Buxton and part of Scarborough, said she and other Maine legislators have work ahead of them when it comes to protecting child sex trafficking victims.
“I look forward to continuing to shed light on sex trafficking in Maine in the next session of the legislature,” Volk said.
If you or someone you know might be a victim of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine.
BDN writer Danielle McLean contributed to this report.