Bill would protect child victims of human trafficking who commit crimes

  • Darlene Pawlik testifies before the N.H. House Department of Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.  LEAH WILLINGHAM / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 1/15/2019 5:26:59 PM

Darlene Pawlik stole cars when she was a teenager. She sold drugs. She broke into liquor stores.

“As a 14- and 15-year-old little girl, I was pretty inconspicuous,” Pawlik said, testifying to the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Tuesday.

Pawlik, now 52, said committing crimes was something she did to deal with the trauma of being a victim of sex trafficking. At the age of 13, she was groomed by an adult male, who sold her into prostitution on her 14th birthday.

She said the offenses she committed were an expression of pain – not of her wish to hurt others or break the law.

“The need to boost those neurochemicals and escape from my reality was a big part of that,” she said of her crimes.

Pawlik was testifying in favor of House Bill 189, which would exempt children who are forced to perform labor or sexual acts from being charged with misdemeanor or non-violent class B felonies that were committed as a result of being trafficked. The law already states that individuals under 18 can’t be charged with prostitution; New Hampshire is one of 25 states that have passed that law.

Pawlik, a former nurse, who is now an author and public speaker, said it’s taken her years to overcome the abuse she endured in her early teenage years. Being charged as a criminal just added to that burden, Pawlik said.

“It was an extremely brutal time,” she said. “It’s not having sex – it’s often being raped, beaten up, dropped on the side of the road, drugged, gagged, choked out – it’s a very traumatic experience.”

Pawlik said she was arrested on multiple charges, including theft. She said she doesn’t believe any of that would have happened if she had not been abused.

“A normal 15-year-old doesn’t say, ‘I think I’ll go steal a car.’ A normal 15-year-old says, ‘That could get me in a lot of trouble, that’s going to affect my future,’ ” she said. “A kid with a traumatized brain doesn’t ... know how to comprehend repercussions for their actions.”

HB 189 is being brought forward by Rep. Linda Massimilla, who is also sponsoring a bill that would increase the penalty for those who pay, agree to pay or offer to pay for sexual contact with a person under 18 from a class B felony to a class A felony.

Class B felonies in New Hampshire are punishable by 3½ to 7 years in prison, while the maximum sentence for class A felonies is 7½ to 15 years.

As for HB 189, Massimilla said a criminal record can affect the careers, educational and housing opportunities of trafficking victims.

“There is a tremendous need to expand education, awareness, legislation dealing with child sex trafficking so that victims of trafficking aren’t viewed and charged as criminal offenders who engage in commercial sexual acts and criminal activity, but who are identified as the true victims of child sex exploitation that they are,” she said.

Seven states have already passed similar legislation, Massimilla said. New Hampshire was one of the first states to criminalize human trafficking in 2009, said Jessica Eskeland, public policy specialist with the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic & Sexual Violence.

It’s still an issue here, Eskeland said.

“A lot of folks think that trafficking is much more of an urban problem and that maybe it isn’t here in New Hampshire, which is, unfortunately, very much untrue,” Eskeland said. “By virtue of being on the I-95 corridor, connecting Maine all the way down to Miami, we are very much at risk for this activity.”

Eskeland said it can be hard to get sex trafficking data – partly because many victims are afraid to come forward and risk being charged with other crimes.

Sara Hennessey, a state police sergeant with the Department of Safety, which endorsed the bill, said she had investigated trafficking cases, and that the victims are often looking out for their own survival when they commit crimes.

“They’re children – they’re being controlled by their traffickers,” she said. “This isn’t a normal situation, it’s about a power control situation. The children who are in these circumstances are doing things to survive, maybe it’s something as simple as getting food to eat, or basic needs met.”

Pawlik said she was able to escape her trafficker after she became pregnant and he threatened to kill her if she didn’t have an abortion. She ran away and lived at a home for unwed mothers, she said. But even after finding a safe environment, the scars from her past took a long time to heal.

“It was a very hard life,” she said. “You’re a victim and you’re treated like a criminal.”

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