By Linda Smith, President/Founder, Shared Hope International; Congressman Ted Poe (Texas)

As National Human Trafficking Awareness Month draws to a close, and with the Super Bowl around the corner, it is important to keep in mind that while these opportunities to bring awareness to the scourge of sex trafficking are significant, American children are being bought and sold for sex every day all over the country.  They make up some of the tens of millions of victims of human trafficking all over the world.   Trafficking victims walk among us, often unnoticed. This should embolden our commitment each day to change our country’s response and provide justice for victims of trafficking. That commitment must be made on the federal, state and local levels.

On the federal level last year, we celebrated the enactment of the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, landmark legislation that shifted the focus of criminal responses from the victims to the perpetrators of this horrific crime including the buyers of sex with children. While going after the demand, the bill also provides support for domestic child sex trafficking victims to ensure that they are treated with the trauma-informed, individualized care and support they deserve.

However, there is still more work to be done. While recent shifts in federal and some state policies has led to a now widely accepted fact that commercially sexually exploited children are victims of human trafficking, 36 states still have laws criminalizing child victims under adult prostitution laws or other trafficking-related crimes. This is unfortunate and unjust. No other victim of child abuse would be classified this way or would face drastic measures like jail time as human trafficking victims face today.

Opponents of non-criminalization laws assert that their concern is rooted in safety, that without other resources in place, they have no other option than juvenile detention to protect youth from exploitation. However, knowing that arresting and charging trafficked children with crimes related to their abuse not only has the potential to further victimize them, it also may undermine efforts to restore these children while reinforcing negative stereotypes used by exploiters to control victims. Under our justice system, a minor simply cannot consent to sell their bodies for sex. The laws should be amended to reflect this.

Governments should look to a new, important resource, the Non-Criminalization ofJuvenile Sex Trafficking Victims policy paper and field guidance by Shared Hope International’s Juvenile Sex Trafficking (JuST) Response Council, a group comprised of survivors and other leaders in the anti-trafficking movement.  The JuST Council’s report provides solutions to the complex challenges associated with keeping our youth safe and empowering them to live a life free of exploitation while also recognizing that non-criminalization of juvenile sex trafficking victims must be a component of a comprehensive protective response.

We hear stories of young girls over and over again who have been arrested while their pimps and buyers are overlooked.  If we do not protect, shelter, and restore these children, we are just as much a part of the problem as their abusive family, their trafficker who told them they were worthless, or their buyer who put a price tag on their body. In order to stop this crime, we must empower victims and put away the real bad guys—traffickers and buyers because they are both as much part of this modern day slave trade as the other.

As we approach the Super Bowl and learn even more about the trafficking of humans in the greatest nation on earth, let’s take those lessons and put them into practice throughout the year so that we can prove ourselves to be the best by caring for our most vulnerable.  We will be judged by how we treat the defenseless among us.  Let us do the right thing - save our children - and be judged well.

Congresswoman Linda Smith (ret.) is the President and Founder of Shared Hope International, which provides leadership in awareness and training, prevention strategies, restorative care, research, and policy initiatives to mobilize a national network of protection for victims. For more information about Shared Hope and the JuST Response Project visit www.sharedhope.org/justresponse.

Congressman Poe is Founder and Co-Chairman of the Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus and a Senior Member of the House Judiciary Committee. Before Coming to Congress, he served as a Prosecutor and a Judge in Texas for 30 years.