Safe Harbor


The federal government of the United States first began combating the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in 2000, with the passing of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.  In 2013, an IOL/NRC report called for a shift in the perspective toward victims and survivors of child sex trafficking, recognizing that the sexual exploitation of minors is a form of child abuse.


Since then, many states have worked to establish safe harbor laws, which ensure that minor survivors do not face criminal charges and are cared for after victimization. The primary goals of safe harbor legislation include the following:

  • Eliminating the criminalization of children for prostitution and other offenses related to victimization.
  • Providing a pathway to services that are tailored and responsive to the child’s needs and identity.
  • Investing in communities, families, and children to support sustainable healing and prevention efforts.

While these efforts may seem like a natural response to a survivor of child sex trafficking, most states still do not have adequate protection in place for these children.  

In reality:

  • 23 states still have laws allowing a child to be prosecuted for prostitution.
  • Only 27 states and the District of Columbia have enacted some sort of non-criminalization response for minor survivors of sex trafficking, and 13 of these states have restrictions on the protections.
  • 19 states with non-criminalization laws did not allocate any funding to services for survivors in the 2022 legislative session.
  • 16 states with non-criminalization laws do not provide any path to community services for survivors of child sex trafficking.

This distinct lack of protection and support in the United States for minor survivors leads to children being re-traumatized in far too many cases.  Many of the current state laws rely on approaches to survivors that, while not directly punishing a survivor for their participation in the trafficking, can still seem like punishment.  In some states that do not recognize child prostitutes as victims of sex trafficking, children can be fully excluded from protection from criminal charges and from restorative care services.


Unprotected survivors of child sex trafficking can be arrested, detained, charged, and prosecuted for crimes related to trafficking, without regard for their own trauma and experiences. By adopting safe harbor laws, states can ensure that these courageous survivors are treated with dignity, shielded from criminal charges, and provided with the support and care they deserve to pursue healing and restoration.


For more information about safe harbor laws, visit these resources:

Shared Hope International Institute for Justice & Advocacy - Safe Harbor Laws

Minnesota Department of Health - Safe Harbor Laws

IOL/NRC National Report of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Minors

To see your state’s response to safe harbor laws, visit Shared Hope International's Report Cards on Child & Youth Sex Trafficking.