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Bill would make sex trafficking of minors a first-degree felony

When people don't like to think about something, it can be hard to know that it's a problem, and that makes doing something about it even more difficult.

But children are being sold for sex in Pennsylvania, said Diane Moyer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, and proposed legislation sponsored by Rep. Brian Ellis, R-Lyndora, is a "good first start" to dealing with the problem.

"You don't think of Pennsylvania as a hub for trafficking," Moyer said. "Actually, we find it in the rural areas in Pennsylvania, with immigrant victims, with runaway youths. It really can be a huge problem."

The Polaris Project, a U.S. organization combating all forms of human trafficking and modern-day slavery, established a human trafficking hot line in December 2007, said spokeswoman Megan Fowler.

Since then, the hot line has taken 45,000 calls from around the country; of those, 500 came from Pennsylvania, Fowler said.

Further confounding the issue is that the youths involved often don't "look" like victims. Moyer said they appear as transients, homeless and runaways, possibly covered in tattoos and addicted to alcohol and drugs.

Because of that, all too often they are seen as the criminal instead of whoever is controlling them, often under a threat of death to themselves or their family, Moyer said.

"They don't look like the typical teen," she said. "They may have all kinds of issues associated with being sexually exploited. They're the victims, although they may not look that way to a judge or law enforcement.

"These kids deserve to be rescued."

Ellis' bill

Ellis' legislation, House Bill 2016, would make the sex trafficking of minors in Pennsylvania a first-degree felony. It's now only a third-degree felony to exploit a child to sex trafficking in the state.

It also states that a parent who subjects a minor to commercial sex purposes wold be charged with a first-degree felony.

The legislation was unanimously passed in the House Judiciary Committee, of which Ellis is a member, and has been sent to the House for full consideration. Ellis said he is hopeful it will come up for a vote this month.

"We think it's a very comprehensive approach," Ellis said. "We're hoping we'll be able to get this done in an expeditious manner and get some help to these people trapped in a horrible situation."

Maria Finn, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Police, said the agency now doesn't keep any statistics on incidents of the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

"However, if the bill gets passed there should be a tracking mechanism," she said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 children each year are caught up in the commercial sex industry.

According to University of Pennsylvania research, nearly 300,000 American youth are at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation.

Ellis said a woman in his district brought the issue to his attention a couple of years ago.

"I was really unaware of it at that time," he said. "I didn't even realize it was hitting back home. You think of this as a problem in the urban areas. It's also a major problem in the rural areas."

The bill allows for civil remedies against those who exploit minors for commercial sex.

"There's some really good stuff in that," Moyer said. "It's very well thought out."

Ellis said he hopes the legislation "would deter predators in the Commonwealth from putting innocent children in harm's way."

"No child deserves to be exposed to heinous acts, such as sex trafficking," he said. "The children being exposed to this behavior can't protect themselves, and that's why we must provide laws that better protect them."

Additional Information:

Read the bill

To read the full text of Rep. Brian Ellis' commercial sex trafficking legislation, go to www.house.state.pa.us . In the 'find legislation' box, click on the 'bill #' dial, type in 'HB 2016' and click 'go.'

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