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Pledge to help girls

Muhammida El Muhajir
Muhammida El Muhajir campaign supporter


As of April 1, The New York Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act goes into effect making New York the first state in the nation to pass such a law recognizing children under the age of 18 in the commercial sex industry as victims of commercial sexual exploitation and providing sexually exploited children under the age of 16 with comprehensive services in lieu of prosecution and incarceration. This landmark legislation, signed into law by New York Governor David Patterson in 2008, mandates services such as safe houses, crisis intervention and community-based programs for survivors and authorizes training to law enforcement officers on identifying and assisting sexually exploited youth.

“New York Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act finally recognizes exploited American children as victims of trafficking just as their foreign counterparts. The bill is the first of its kind in the nation and sends a strong message to the rest of the nation that New York State views the commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking of children as a heinous crime against children, not one that is committed by them,” says Rachel Lloyd, founder and executive director of GEMS: Girls Educational & Mentoring Services, the nation’s largest organizations servicing exploited and trafficked young women and girls age 12-21.

Lloyd and the young women and girl survivors of GEMS advocated for several years, encouraging lawmakers to enact this law with trips to Albany to speak with legislators and present at the nation’s first youth-led legislative briefings on the issue. Additionally, GEMS survivors testified at City Council hearings and participated in three Annual End Commercial Sexual Exploitation Day events to build community awareness for the issue.

“I must thank and honor the young women and girls from GEMS for advocating for their peers. They have used their voices and power to work to change the status quo for all survivors in New York State and potentially across the country,” adds Lloyd. Leadership and advocacy training are core to GEMS’ work transforming and empowering survivors to develop to their full potential.

Katherine (Cait) Mullen, a staff attorney in the Brooklyn Office of the Juvenile Rights Practice, was a central figure in the advocacy of the Safe Harbor Act. Mullen’s 2004 appellate brief on behalf of a 12-year-old Bronx girl charged with prostitution, articulated the new legal standard that became the Safe Harbor Act. Other key champions for the Safe Harbor Act were Assemblyman William Scarborough, Senator Dale Volker, and Margaret Loftus and Mishi Faruqee of the Juvenile Justice Coalition at the Correctional Association of New York, and organizations including: Equality Now, Sanctuary for Families, NOW NYC, and The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

There is still a long way to go with implementation of the Safe Harbor Act as there is no allocated funding for support services and the law only mandates the creation of one safe house for the entire state. GEMS continues to be at the forefront of support for survivors as the only provider for residential services in New York State with 13 beds at two locations (the nine-bed Transitional Living Program (TIL) and four-bed cluster, The Imani House).

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