By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice, American Military University
Human trafficking, specifically underage sex trafficking, is a looming crisis facing the United States. Sex trafficking has been reported in all 50 states. And while there is a misconception that victims are somehow smuggled into the United States, actually over 80% of sex trafficking victims are U.S. citizens, according to the Guardian Group, whose goal is to prevent and disrupt sex trafficking. In fact, “It is estimated that the number of children who are at risk or have already been pulled into the sex trade would fill 1,300 school buses.”
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Imagine a scenario in which your 14-year-old daughter doesn’t make it home from school one day. Regardless of whether it is a kidnapping or a runaway, you do everything possible to find her such as working with the police, Amber alerts, and so forth.
Florida Has the Third Highest Rate of Human Trafficking after Nevada and Mississippi
Six months later, you receive a phone call from a detective in Miami who tells you that the police have found your daughter and she is alive. Florida has the third highest per capita rate of human trafficking, behind Nevada and Mississippi. However, he tells you that she has suffered extensive emotional trauma and physical abuse because for the past six months she has been a victim of sex trafficking. The detective then says she may be called as a witness to testify in court against her traffickers.
Florida is one of the states that permits defense attorneys to depose underage victims of sex trafficking prior to trial. The pretrial deposition will cause the teen to relive all of her horrible, degrading experiences. At the same time, the defense attorney will try to poke holes in her recollection to convince her that she is mistaken or lying. The attorney will try all of the other deposition games that she would not get away with judicial oversight in open court.
No Judge Is Present to Oversee or Navigate the Tone of Questioning the Victim
The problem for underage victims of sex trafficking is there is no judge present to oversee or navigate the tone of the questioning or the approach and behavior of the defense attorney, who can be aggressive toward the victim.
The president of the Broward Human Trafficking Coalition and human trafficking coordinator at the Florida Office of the State Attorney, told me that “requiring a minor survivor to appear for depositions where they will be humiliated, intimidated, shamed, accused of lying and then have to testify at trial is cruel and inhumane.”
It’s been my experience in over 20 years of law enforcement and participating in many depositions and trials that depositions are worse than testifying at trial. This is especially true for underage victims of sex trafficking.
Depositions Can Leave Underage Survivors Traumatized by an Attorney’s Questioning
Depositions can leave underage survivors feeling further traumatized by the defense attorney’s questioning. Questions are often asked in a derogatory tone to convince the survivor that she is lying or that her recollection of events is faulty. Underage survivors of sex trafficking can be so traumatized by a deposition that having to testify later in open court is more than they can bear. As a result, they refuse to testify. Prosecutors are often forced to offer a plea, mitigate the charges or, even worse, drop all charges against the predators.
Everyone accused of a crime has a constitutional right to face his or her accuser in court. However, why must a child who has been sold, victimized, abused, and harmed in unspeakable ways be further traumatized by being obligated to undergo a deposition with a defense attorney behind closed doors and then a trial? The federal system does not permit this and nor should Florida law. Instead, children should be required to testify in court only when the state attorney is present to object to badgering, and a judge is present to monitor the treatment of the child sex trafficking survivor.
In Florida, in addition to labor trafficking, minor sex trafficking constitutes one of the two most prevalent, most under-reported and under-prosecuted human trafficking offenses. Subjecting children to invasive broad questioning allowed in depositions creates fear, pain and psychological disturbances.
New legislation is needed to prohibit underage victims of sex trafficking from being subjected to a deposition. Chapter 92 of the Florida State Statutes allows judges to enter an order to provide certain protections for underage victims; however, the statute does not prohibit them from being deposed.
“Although the federal law has long been clear that child sex trafficking should be viewed as a severe form of trafficking in persons, victims of child sex trafficking are still denied the full scope of protections afforded to other victims of violence, and specifically child abuse,” say the Rights4Girls and Thomson Reuters Foundation. These protections should include preventing the re-traumatizing children who cooperate as victim witnesses in criminal prosecutions.
Victims services and criminal justice experts encourage the use of courtroom protections that include alternative methods of testimony.
I encourage everyone to examine their state’s laws to determine if there is adequate protection for underage victims of sex trafficking by prohibiting their being deposed. If not, human trafficking organizations and others should reach out to their state legislators today to work toward providing our children with these important protections. With the legalization of such protections, offenders could be full prosecuted and sentenced and thus stem the increasing rates of human trafficking.
About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski is an associate professor at American Military University and has over two decades in the field of homeland security. He has engaged in speaking engagements in the United States, Central America, and Europe on the topics of human trafficking, narcotics trafficking, police responses to domestic terrorism, and various topics in policing. Most recently, he presented at the 2020 International Human Trafficking Conference. His expertise includes infrastructure security, maritime security, homeland security contraband interdiction and intelligence gathering.
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