Back in May, I wrote about a bill that could be considered “the bit of good news” to come out of an all-around dismal legislative session. Well, three months later, we have the final good news – Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the Illinois Safe Children Act, taking a major step towards protecting juveniles who get caught up in the cycle of prostitution and sex trafficking.
On Friday, August 20th, advocates stood with the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Will Burns and Sen. Jacqueline Collins, Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez, and the Governor to celebrate this victory and remind everyone just how important this new law is.
The Safe Children Act makes Illinois the first state in the nation to make all children under the age of 18 immune from prosecution for prostitution. Exploited children will be taken into protective custody through the Department of Children and Family Services. In addition, the act increases penalties for those who traffic and solicit juveniles, and it removes references to “juvenile prostitution” from the criminal code, recognizing that juveniles are victims and not offenders. It is a significant step towards acknowledging that those affected by prostitution are being exploited and deserve services, treatment, and care.
The power of this act becomes all the more real when I hear survivors of prostitution talk about how much this law would have helped them. I met Genesis – a young woman who was coerced into the sex trade at the young age of 15 – in Springfield, when she came to share her story and ask legislators to support the bill. Genesis was dating a 24 year old man and became pregnant, which caused her to run away from home. Her boyfriend convinced her she needed to start “turning tricks” as a way to earn money for their baby. She was young, had no job experience, and believed that was the only way to earn an income. After three years as a prostitute, Genesis thankfully got in touch with the Dreamcatcher Foundation – an organization that provides services, education, and empowerment to young girls who have left the sex-trade industry. She is no longer a prostitute and works as peer advisor to new girls who come to the organization. Genesis explained that while the new law won’t affect her, it certainly will help the survivors she works with on a daily basis, and it would have helped her had it existed when she was being prostituted.
It is this personal story from Genesis that makes us realize how important this work is. PCG will continue to push for programs and services to help the victims of prostitution, enforcement of penalties against those who buy and sell sex, and for an increased understanding that prostitution is often a last resort, a choice made under duress. It is not, as popular wisdom would have it, a luxury that women choose over other options.
There’s much more work to be done, but, for the time being, let’s celebrate this wonderful success and take comfort in knowing that when a young girl finds herself in a situation similar to Genesis’, we now have a law on the books that will provide her with much needed services and protection, instead of a criminal record.