With the start of the new year, the commonwealth is working to roll out a law aimed at protecting sexually exploited children.
Act 130, known as the Safe Harbor law, ensures child victims of human trafficking won’t be prosecuted for prostitution or other crimes.
Among other things, it sets up a fund for those victims to get back on their feet.
Shea Rhodes, who directs the Institute to Address Commercial Sexual Exploitation at Villanova University, said the money would come directly from the state prosecuting traffickers.
“There are convictions, and the fines from those convictions will then feed that fund. And it’s not just the convictions of the traffickers—it’s also those who purchase sex,” she said.
She added, the law will be used to “make sure that survivors get everything they need in order to recover and restore, including toothbrushes and safe places to stay.”
Rhodes said since Pennsylvania passed a comprehensive human trafficking law in 2014, it has been used to convict 26 people, with another 20 or so convictions pending.
Though the Safe Harbor law is still in its infancy, other human trafficking efforts in the commonwealth are now well-established.
For a few years, the state Department of Transportation has been making a concerted effort to educate key employees on how to identify potential traffickers and victims. Staff at state welcome centers and driver licensing centers all receive training, and it is available to other department employees too.
According to the state, PennDOT was one of the first agencies in the nation to undertake this sort of concerted education effort.
To mark January as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, officials from PennDOT, the Department of Human Services, Pennsylvania State Police, and Governor Tom Wolf’s administration held a press conference to highlight PennDOT’s work.
One of the speakers was Tammy McDonnell, a survivor of human trafficking who now works at homeless youth center Covenant House providing outreach to other trafficking victims.
In her remarks, she noted it makes sense for Pennsylvania to concentrate its trafficking detection efforts on state transit systems and highways.
“Pennsylvania in particular is uniquely situated and prime for exploitation, in part because of our interstate roadways and highway system … we are a pass-through state,” she said. “It can be easy to bring victims into an area and get out undetected.”
Just last year, 127 human trafficking cases were reported in Pennsylvania through the National Human Trafficking hotline.