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Arresting children involved in prostitution does not rescue them. That is the clear message of What I’ve Been Through Is Not Who I Am, a documentary released by ECPAT-USA and WITNESS that tells the story of Katrina, a former sexually exploited teen who was arrested multiple times. Katrina was only able to escape prostitution after she accepted an offer of help from a safe haven. The 21-minute documentary brings the voices of exploited and forgotten children, adult survivors, law enforcement officers and prosecutors from across the country to the attention of our state and federal legislators.
“Most state laws allow children to be arrested for prostitution. Instead of a jail cell we need to give them a safe place to heal. They are not ‘bad’ children, they are abused children,” says Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, a nonprofit organization that advocates for policies to protect sexually exploited children.
“We believe this film will bring much needed visibility to this issue,” says Kelly Matheson, WITNESS Program Manager. “When decision makers hear Katrina’s personal story and understand that we are jailing children who are bought and sold for sex, it would be devastating if they did not change the system.”
The film was launched on National Human Trafficking Awareness Day, January 11, 2012. It exposes the breadth of the commercial sexual exploitation of children in the US by showing how the current system has repeatedly failed these children.
More importantly, the film highlights the need for more “safe harbor” laws, a critical part of the solution needed to break this cycle and give our children hope. Ultimately, this campaign will force us to come to terms with this reality and the legal and moral imperatives each of us has to protect these children.
In the documentary, Katrina, tells the story of being lured into the sex industry while still a teen, and the abuse she suffered from a trafficker who kept her in that life. Her compelling and emotional story takes us from Atlanta to New York City to Atlanta again, from desperation to recovery and success. Her story illustrates the failure of the criminal justice system to help these youth.
The documentary brings together a diverse set of experts from juvenile justice, law enforcement, child rights, and service providers to speak about the traumatic effects of commercial sexual exploitation of children. They make the case that arresting children is not the right approach for ensuring their recovery from the trauma of prostitution.
The video was created to educate public policy makers, especially state legislators, about the best way to help children involved in the sex trade and ask them to make changes on behalf of these youth. Legislative reform measures and new approaches, recommended in the film, can shift our collective responsive from a punitive one to a restorative one.