WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert arrived in Congress in 2005 intimately familiar with sexual violence and exploitation. The Auburn Republican had spent the bulk of his 33-year career with the King County Sheriff’s Office hunting for Gary Ridgway, the Green River serial killer.
Reichert had helped collect some of the bodies of Ridgway’s 49 confirmed victims, many of them runaways, prostitutes and other women and girls from shattered lives.
It took longer, however, for many of Reichert’s fellow lawmakers to awaken to the reality of sex trafficking in their communities.
On Tuesday, the House of Representatives passed five bills as part of a coordinated effort to combat sex trafficking, in which girls, and boys, younger than 18 are forced into performing sex for money.
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Among them was Reichert’s bill to make state foster-care agencies responsible for screening, identifying and tracking children in their care who may fall prey to commercial sex bondage. It also prohibits foster care as a long-term goal for children under 16, requiring states instead to move them to permanent homes by seeking to reunite them with their parents or to place them with adoptive families, relatives or legal guardians.
The legislative campaign against sex trafficking was directed by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., who by his own admission was among those who have “only begun to learn about the horrific, horrific crime of human trafficking going on in this country.”
But it reflected the work by Reichert and several key House members to help victims whose presence on the streets often goes unnoticed.
According to the FBI, nearly 300,000 girls and boys in the United States — some as young as 11 or 12 — are at risk of being exploited for prostitution. Often they are children who have been abused or abandoned.
Reichert’s foster-care bill was forged from professional knowledge and personal experience. At 17, he ran away from home to flee a father who drank and who beat his mother. Reichert draws a direct link between foster kids who lack stability and acceptance by peers and their vulnerability to those who might exploit them for profit.
“We need to help these kids, and that’s what my bill does,” Reichert said before the votes, speaking outside the Capitol, where he and 10 other House members, including Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, told journalists they aim to “end trafficking for good.”
Reichert said too many people who are responsible for foster kids fail them. Child welfare workers, for instance, don’t always report missing kids. His bill requires such reports within 24 hours to law enforcement if the child is believed to be a victim of sex trafficking.
Foster parents are sometimes barred from allowing foster kids to go on field trips or overnight activities. Reichert’s bill loosens some of those restrictions as long as the caregivers follow “prudent parent standards.”
“We are trying to create a world where kids can be kids,” Reichert said.
Other bills passed Tuesday include one sponsored by Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Minn., to encourage states to enact “safe harbor” laws to stop prosecuting minors for prostitution and to treat them as victims. Washington is among at least 17 states that have passed such laws.
Washington and New Jersey are the only states to earn perfect report cards from the nonprofit Polaris Project on building a legal framework to combat sex and labor trafficking.
Another bill, introduced by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, would give the Justice Department $25 million over five years to help child victims and to go after their buyers. The remaining two bills target international sex tourism and online sex advertising for children and other trafficking victims.
Three of the measures, including Reichert’s, passed by voice vote; roll-call votes were taken for the other two, and both passed overwhelmingly. The bills will go to the Senate, which has several similar measures of its own.
Ron Smith, director of legislative affairs for the American Public Human Services Association, which represents state social-service agencies, among others, said sex trafficking only recently became a top priority for Congress. He gave most of the credit for that change to Reichert, Paulsen, Poe and Democratic Rep. Karen Bass, of California.
Kyung Song: 202-383-6108 or email@example.com. Twitter: @KyungMSong