Opinion: Don't Charge Victims of Abuse with Crimes

Walter Rhein

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It will be revealing to read the arguments from the people who routinely disagree with my articles on this topic.

Imagine a child who is taken from a family and forced into a life of exploitation. Any reasonable and decent human being should be able to perceive that child is a victim. These are human beings that need our help and support. Their lives matter.

But, in some cases, instead of protecting the child, many of these children will face criminal charges. It’s unbelievable that this happens because the federal age of consent is 18. By definition, children who are forced into trafficking should be seen as victims. Yet, that’s not always the case.

This represents a flaw in our whole legal process. A child with no legal authority to consent should never be seen as a criminal. Understanding this is critical to creating a society that protects the well-being of children.

The media often uses misleading language on the subject of human trafficking. For example, terms like “underage woman” are often used instead of “child” or “minor.” This creates sanitized headlines.

The general public reads, “An underage woman was charged with a crime.” They don’t react.

If the same media outlet uses the headline, “A child was charged with a crime,” there is a public outcry. This outcry is greater depending on the nature of the crime.

Considering that the purpose of any form of a news story is to generate attention, it’s odd to observe that some headlines seem designed to deflect attention away. Ask yourself why that might be.

The concept of “grooming” has generated a lot of attention in the last few election cycles. Grooming can be one of the main elements of human trafficking.

Oddly, the current media discussion of “grooming” is often confined to areas where it’s not applicable. Why do we talk about grooming in places where it’s not relevant, and ignore the areas where children are exploited?

In 2019, the Republican governor of Texas vetoed a bill that would have prevented children from getting arrested for behavior they were forced into against their will. Unfortunately, we live in a political climate in which politicians can win re-election despite such actions.

Again, children who are forced into human trafficking are victims. Charging them with a crime does not put them on the path to healing.

It’s shameful that so much of our public discussion revolves around pronouns or gender identity. Yet, inconsistent laws that serve to prosecute children who need our help are routinely ignored.

There are some very clear problems with our legal system. It’s not right that an innocent child might be taken from her family and forced into human trafficking. It’s not right that, should this girl become pregnant from this abuse, she’s denied access to reproductive healthcare. It’s not right that if she has an ectopic pregnancy, she’ll likely die.

If you’ve never heard of an ectopic pregnancy, please ask a doctor about it. It’s a very serious condition that people should know about before they make up their minds about reproductive healthcare.

On top of everything listed above, in some states, the child trafficking victim will also face a criminal charge.

Our nation needs to be unified on this topic. Children who are victims of crimes shouldn’t be charged with a crime themselves. This shouldn’t be controversial. Why isn’t this in the news? Why isn’t the public outraged about this?

Too often our public discussion descends into a form of outrage politics that has only a tenuous link to reality. This is irresponsible. Arrest statistics are one place we can look to form a fact-based opinion on the areas that should be of true concern to our society.

We should help children that are victims of human trafficking. We shouldn’t arrest them.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI

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