Her life became a prison: Chained to a bed in a warehouse, she endured regular beatings, rapes and once was even set on fire by her captors as she was forced to serve 5 to 30 men every day. The experience was enough for her to wish she was dead.
And this all took place in Texas -- right here, in our own country.
Melissa miraculously escaped her captors but, as is the case with so many other victims, she struggled for years to distance herself from her past, even finding herself in jail on multiple occasions. And while institutionalized slavery has long been cast from America's history books, thousands of children still suffer from the bonds of sex trafficking. Indeed, with the average age of a victim only 13 years old, these horrific crimes are stealing the innocent childhoods of kids across America.
And the problem isn't confined to one part of the country. In, Minnesota, for example, a 12-year-old girl received a text message that she thought was from a friend. It invited her to go to a party and asked her to go to a fast food restaurant nearby. But she didn't get to a party. Instead, she was taken to a hotel and raped by a 34-year-old pimp, forced to take explicit photos of herself that were then posted on Craigslist, before being forced to have sex with two more men who saw the post.
These heartbreaking stories demonstrate what is broken about our current system, and why we both feel committed to fixing it.
Instead of treating people like these young girls as the victims they are, they are often thrown into the criminal justice system, labeled prostitutes and left with few options but to return to a nightmare that shockingly still exists in the United States. Meanwhile, instead of treating their perpetrators as child rapists and traffickers, they are often simply treated as "Johns" who, if caught, often pay a fine and go on their way.
This is outrageous, and should not be tolerated any longer. That is why we've joined forces with more than 200 advocacy groups to fight this modern-day slave trade and provide hope and opportunity for its victims. Two bills we have introduced to combat this horrific crime recently passed the Senate Judiciary Committee with strong support and will have the opportunity for consideration by the Senate.
The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) would support victims by taking fines and criminal assets from convicted human traffickers and directing them toward services and treatment to help victims restore their lives.
The JVTA doesn't only help victims, it also arms law enforcement with more tools to go after human traffickers. It ensures these criminals, including "Johns," are brought to justice under our laws, because a financial transaction should not mask assault on a child.
The second bill is modeled after Minnesota's "Safe Harbor" law, which helps make sure minors sold for sex aren't prosecuted as defendants, but are instead treated as victims. The Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETT) would give incentives for all states to have a safe harbor provision. When a state passes a safe harbor law, it means that kids sold for sex are steered towards child protection services, rather than being arrested, charged, or convicted under a state's criminal statutes.
All across the country, from Texas to Minnesota, young people are being robbed of their innocence and subjected to unthinkable horrors and abuse. We must do everything we can to free them from the shackles of sex trafficking. We must join together and take action to combat this modern-day slavery once and for all.