Editor’s Note: This column was written by Tiffany Greco, who is the education director of the Advocacy Center. The center provides domestic and sexual violence services and education in Tompkins County, according to its website.

The column was originally published in August 2014, but is being republished in September 2015 as part of a multi-part series by the Ithaca Voice, “Sex in the Shadows: An inside look at prostitution in Ithaca..”

Ithaca, N.Y. — Eric Oliver was sentenced in late July to 6 to 12 years in prison for running a sex trafficking ring that exploited girls as young as 15 in Ithaca.

The news of such heinous acts of child abuse may shock members of our small community, yet it sadly comes as no surprise to our victim advocates who work with local child victims of sex trafficking every day. What is more surprising in our work as advocates is waking up to the news of a pimp facing accountability for his actions. We applaud Justice John Brunetti, the Organized Crime Task Force, the State Police, and local law enforcement for holding Mr. Oliver accountable for his role in the sex trafficking of children in this community.

Tiffany Greco of the Advocacy Center

The news of Mr. Oliver’s sentencing provides a catalyst for conversation on the sex trafficking of children in the Ithaca community. What is sex trafficking? Who is most at risk of being trafficked? What can we do as community to prevent and respond to this hidden, misunderstood, and unaddressed form of child abuse? Exploring such questions will be the purpose of this column throughout the next few weeks.

To begin the conversation it is important to acknowledge that the sex trafficking of minors does, in fact, occur every day in the United States. Admittedly, most people’s only point of contact with this issue involves a red-faced Liam Neeson heroically rescuing his teen daughter from the hands of malicious Albanian traffickers in the 2008 blockbuster Taken. Sex trafficking does occur internationally, and it also occurs daily in our country, our state, and as we have now established, our town.

Second, the language of sex trafficking can be confusing and warrants clarification. The act of “human trafficking” is often confused with the act of “smuggling”; and distinct types of human trafficking, sex and labor, are used interchangeably and incorrectly. The key differences are as follows: smuggling is a crime against a border and transportation is always involved; human trafficking is a crime against a person and transportation is sometimes, but not always, involved.

Human trafficking is the general umbrella term under which falls the very specific forms of trafficking: labor and sex. Labor trafficking may include the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, and/or obtaining of a person for the purpose of labor. Sex trafficking can include the same components as labor trafficking, but for the purpose of commercial sex acts.

Finally, it is critical to understand basic federal and state law on the sex trafficking of minors. Under federal law, the “force, fraud, or coercion” of victims is necessary to prosecute sex trafficking cases involving adults; however, the federal law protects persons not yet 18 years of age from the “force, fraud, coercion,” requirement. Persons under 18 are considered children. Children cannot legally consent to sex whether or not force, fraud, or coercion are involved.

While federal law correctly understands sex trafficked children as victims of crime and abuse, the majority of states can still arrest, detain, and incarcerate minors for prostitution. In most states, children and teens who have been sex trafficked will be given permanent records as offenders. Fortunately, in 2008, New York was the first state to formally recognize sex trafficking as a form of child abuse with the passing of the Safe Harbor Act.

New York’s Safe Harbor Act set a remarkable precedent for our country. The Safe Harbor Act accomplishes the goals of preventing sex trafficked children from being prosecuted as criminals or juvenile delinquents and recognizes them as victims of a brutal form of child abuse in need of special services. California soon followed New York’s lead and as of today, 12 other states have enacted similar laws that prevent child victims from experiencing further harm.

Laws that protect child victims of sex trafficking should be the standard in all 50 states. Efforts towards legislation reform should remain focused on holding accountable abusers and purchasers of children for sex acts. We are fortunate to live in a state where our laws reflect the value we place on our children; yet there is still much work to be done.

Sound federal and state laws are pieces of a holistic and healing societal response. Another piece of the puzzle is to raise awareness among community members on the risk factors that make children and teens in our community vulnerable to being commercially sexually exploited by individuals such as Mr. Oliver. Such discussion will be the focus of next week’s column.

To learn more about sex trafficking and what you can do to advocate for laws that protect child victims visit www.thepolarisproject.org. The Advocacy Center is available 24 hours a day 7 days a week at 607-277-5000 to offer free and anonymous support if you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, or any other form of sexual or domestic violence.

Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.