The young woman walks into the courtroom. She is familiar with the procedure and feels a sense of relief to be back. She faces charges of prostitution and possession of narcotics. In the public’s eye, she has committed a crime. Most are unaware she is being forced by her “employer” to use these drugs and to sell her body for cash — cash she will never see. In the eyes of the court, this woman is a criminal. The true criminal, however, is her employer.

The culture of tolerance is ignorant to the fact that she may be uneducated on what is happening to her and may not have a safe form of escape. Instead of offering these victims a safe place to go to keep them away from their offenders and the ability to receive the necessary treatment, the courts often charge them as felons, a charge that will follow them for the rest of their lives.

Human sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery, in which primarily women, children (including boys) and a recent increase in victims who identify as transgender are subject to conditions that deprive them of basic human rights, often without their knowledge, through physical abuse, substance abuse, emotional abuse, financial abuse, sexual abuse and threats to their overall well-being. Many are unaware this is an issue occurring right here in Maine and are naive to believe that they, their friends and their family members are not at risk of becoming a victim of such a horrific crime.

Human trafficking is largely unreported in the United States. Women often fear that seeking help could mean the end of their lives or causing pain for whomever becomes their “replacement.” It is estimated that here in the United States more than 100,000 children are victims of human sex trafficking each year.

These individuals feel trapped, as though no one cares enough to offer an escape that wouldn’t mean an end to their lives. Because of the lack of safe housing options, these victims more often than not are referred to as criminals and placed within detention facilities, which in some cases can be more dangerous and stigmatizing than other alternatives. When offered housing outside of these facilities, these individuals feel trapped and alone.

Victims of sex trafficking become normalized to the behaviors they are taught by their offenders and often struggle to survive outside that relationship.

During the current legislative session, Sen. Amy Volk sponsored, the Legislature passed and Gov. Paul LePage signed LD 1531, An Act to Protect Victims of Human Trafficking. This is a bill that provides victims of sex trafficking the ability to file for protection from abuse orders and protection from harassment orders in an attempt to increase their safety.

This bill has no political drive. Its purpose is to begin shining light on an issue that unknowingly has affected our country for so long. The bill is one step in offering these victims an escape. It is one step in allowing these victims the opportunity to regain control of their lives and seek the protection they so desperately deserve.

According to the Maine Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Network, there are 200 to 300 cases of human sex trafficking in Maine annually. But many in law enforcement, health care and society in general know little about the issue; most have no idea that human trafficking even occurs in Maine. “Fewer than half of all law enforcement officers in Maine believe that their departments are prepared to address [human trafficking] cases involving minors,” the Sex Trafficking and Exploitation Network reports.

The individuals to whom these victims should be able to go for support are unaware of what to do in such a case.

Most law enforcement officers report being unfamiliar with organizations in Maine that address human trafficking and could offer supports to these victims. It is no question that the state of Maine needs legislation to provide needed education on human trafficking to emergency professionals and society while creating services that eliminate an individual’s chances of becoming a victim to such a horrific crime.

Human trafficking victims shouldn’t continue to face injustice and be labeled as criminals. They deserve the same attention that any victim of any other crime would be given.

Aleeshia Carroll is a Masters of Social Work student at the University of Maine.