When the Texas Supreme Court ruled that children under 14 years old could not be charged with prostitution, juvenile rights advocates hailed the decision as a victory for victims of sexual violence.
But the 2010 decision produced an unintended consequence that has frustrated many law enforcement officials: It became more difficult to separate minors forced into the sex trade from their traffickers.
Being able to arrest the children on a criminal charge allowed police to quickly get them away from traffickers and into the juvenile justice system. Now, officers must go to court and obtain orders to place them in the state’s foster care system — creating a time gap that traffickers use to quickly move their victims, sometimes out of state.
On top of those obstacles, the state agency that oversees foster care placements, Child Protective Services, was also often reluctant to take children who were already within the juvenile justice system, said Harris District Court Judge Michael Schneider.
“If CPS knew that a kid was in juvenile, they would refuse to have anything to do with them,” said Schneider. “They would shrug their shoulders and say, 'Hey, the kid’s already in a safe place. You don’t need us.'”
After Sept. 1, when Wu’s House Bill 418 takes effect, there will be specific guidelines for law enforcement and CPS officials to follow when dealing with children suspected to be victims of sex trafficking. Under the new law, state officials will be able to take children immediately into protective custody, then approach a judge to get an order placing them in the foster care system.
“They have a clear option that has nothing to do with punishment,” said Schneider.
A CPS spokesman said the agency did not have an estimate of how many more children might enter the system under the new law, but that it is not expected to result in a high volume of new cases.
Schneider said he did not expect the law to apply to a large number of cases in Harris County, but that its impact would be significant for the children it did help.
“These kids are going to be placed where other kids in the foster system are placed as opposed to next door to someone who has just committed a murder,” he said.
Typically, CPS looks for the least restrictive placement for children who enter the foster care system — one that feels the most like a “normal” home, said Katherine Barillas, the director of child welfare policy at One Voice Texas, a Houston-based network of public, private and nonprofit organizations that focuses on health and human services advocacy.
But victims of sex trafficking are a different population, she said.
“There’s often some very powerful and dangerous people who feel that they’ve lost a source of income, and are going to try and go after that child,” Barrillas said. “They also often condition these children to believe they are the safe place, they are the people who care about that child, so there may be an even higher probability that the child may run away from their placement.”