Monday, March 9, 2015

By Grier Weeks

A national movement has arisen over the past decade in America, dedicated to fighting human trafficking and slavery. With one foot in the religious community and the other in the nonprofit world, anti-trafficking activists are bearing witness that treating humans as property is an evil we must face and fight. 

But too often these activists, like the public at large, have focused on the easy villain: kidnappers, slave traders, smugglers and pimps. Few have had the courage to shine light on the one place where the vast majority of child victims suffer: the home.

Now an Arkansas politician has been exposed for giving two adopted children to a sexual predator who was later convicted of raping one, a six-year-old girl. State Representative Justin Harris and his wife were participating in a flourishing underground network that practices what is called “re-homing.”  

Participants in re-homing advertise unwanted children—typically from what they call “disrupted adoptions”–and transfer custody of them without any legal oversight whatsoever.

It’s a term borrowed from the animal adoption world, where unwanted dogs are placed with new owners. 

A 2013 investigation by Reuters news service (“The Child Exchange”) called the practice an “underground market for adopted children,” and found an appalling world where children are advertised through online bulletin boards and then handed over to other adults.

It would be difficult to imagine a practice more clearly human trafficking than this one. In a society that still largely regards children as property, Justin Harris simply transferred title to “his” children––without any accountability––to sexual predator Eric Cameron Francis. Imagine how many more predatory pedophiles are seeking children of their own right now.

If the girls had been motor vehicles or vacant property, there would have at least been some governmental oversight of the transaction. But they were only children. 

It is time for federal legislation to make “re-homing” of children illegal and to incentivize states to aggressively investigate and prosecute the crime. No child should be freed for adoption without a thorough investigation by child protective services. And the law should establish a presumption that something of value has been exchanged by the parties in all such criminal transactions. 

Such basic human rights legislation will be opposed by some political extremists and religious fundamentalists. As a “conservative” lawmaker and the owner of a religious preschool (where Francis was reportedly “head teacher"), Harris himself likely would have defended his parental “right” to turn over those children without government interference. 

For this reason, the voices of churches and faith-based anti-trafficking activists are especially important. These advocates are all-too-aware of society’s blind spots when it comes to child exploitation and trafficking, and they understand why it might not be easy to wage a campaign characterized by some as an attack on the “family unit.”

But press the moral and legal case boldly with smart legislation and few politicians will dare defend "re-homing" and black market adoptions. This is a ground zero fight against human trafficking, right here at home.

Children are not property. They cannot be sold, traded or given away. Protecting them is our first and most sacred obligation.

Grier Weeks is Executive Director of the National Association to Protect Children