Our nation’s greatness can be measured in many ways, but perhaps none is more important than how we protect our children, particularly the most vulnerable among them.
Unfortunately, the sexual exploitation and trafficking of America’s young people remains one of our most challenging problems.
According to law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice, nearly 300,000 American children are at risk of becoming victims of sex traffickers. In fact, four in 10 cases of sex trafficking involve the exploitation of children.
How can this happen here, in the United States? Simply put, there are major flaws in the system designed to protect children from this kind of abuse.
Like the worst kind of predator, sex traffickers tend to go after children who are at risk. Most trafficked youth in the United States have been in and out of the child welfare system.
Last July, the FBI conducted a sting against a nationwide child sex trafficking ring. More than 100 sexually exploited children were recovered; 70 percent of them had prior involvement with the child welfare system or foster care.
Many of these children are runaways. They are the missing. They have no one to stand up for them and no one to fight for them.
That is why it is imperative that we give child welfare agencies and the law enforcement community the tools they need to combat child sex trafficking.
I have sponsored the Bringing Missing Children Home Act in an effort to improve law enforcement reporting and response procedures in cases of missing children. By refining and streamlining how cases of missing children are handled, we can begin to reduce the number of children who are at risk of trafficking and give them an opportunity to live happy, normal lives.
The first step is to change the way we look at these cases, and that begins by acknowledging that these children are not criminals. They are victims. My legislation amends the Missing Children’s Assistance Act to replace the term “child prostitution” with “child sex trafficking.” This simple change better reflects reality and puts the emphasis on saving these children from abuse.
We also know that the more information law enforcement authorities have and the sooner they has it, the more likely they are to find missing children. My legislation requires law enforcement authorities within 30 days after the initial report to update records of missing children with additional information learned through the investigation — including medical records, dental records, and a photograph when available.
People in law enforcement tell us that without this information, missing children too often fall through the cracks.
Unfortunately, current regulations actually hamper the investigative process. There is a breakdown between the creation of the initial record when a child is reported missing and the information gathered during the investigation conducted by state-level law enforcement.
Today, only the Originating Agency Identifier and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children can modify a record in the National Crime Information Center.
The practical effect of this regulation is that missing-persons units and state attorneys general cannot modify the National Crime Information Center record to include new information unless they have been granted permission by the Originating Agency Identifier. Our legislation removes this roadblock by taking the common-sense step of allowing state law enforcement to update records as new information is uncovered.
Finally, we want to ensure that the organizations responsible for finding missing children are able to work together efficiently and effectively on accomplishing their joint mission. Our legislation requires law enforcement authorities to coordinate directly with state and local child welfare systems when a child is reported missing to expand the information available about the missing child.
I believe that this common-sense legislation will receive bipartisan support in the Senate. But passing the bill will be the easy part. The hard work of ending child sex trafficking, done by law enforcement and child welfare agencies around the country, will continue.
Providing the tools that these men and women need is an important step in fighting against this deplorable crime and making our country a place where every child is safe and protected.
Republican Rob Portman is Ohio’s junior U.S. senator.