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The Senate Health and Human Services Committee unanimously endorsed and sent to the full Senate a bill to decriminalize children who are victims of human trafficking.

Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, sponsored the bill, would change the law to treat children involved with prostitution as abused victims rather than delinquents.

"Those who have become experts at rescuing children from the commercial sex trade have learned that labeling children enslaved by sex traffickers as delinquents is counterproductive both at getting the children to leave their traffickers and to help these severely-traumatized children to heal," said David Carlson, director of the child protection division at the Utah attorney general's office.

Because prostitution has largely gone underground with the development of the Internet, Carlson said, it's been a problem that is easy to ignore. Children who are homeless or have a history of being abused are the most at-risk groups for sex trafficking.

"The kids who end up under the control of sex traffickers are the most damaged children in our community," he said, noting that their acceptance of abuse from adults and lack of family support often prevents them from seeing themselves as victims. "They have become programed to accept as their normal a lifestyle that to us is a nightmare. ... As damaged as these children are, they're worth trying to save."

Putting the label of delinquents on them further convinces them that they haven't been exploited, Carlson said.

Sarah Ratzlaff, a student representing Backyard Broadcast, spoke in favor of the bill during public comment, stating that this victim-centered approach is the best way to break the cycle of control and violence.

"Victims who can tell their story without being afraid of being tried as a prostitute are essential in accomplishing our law enforcement mission. The vast majority of youth being bought and sold deserve a better life," she said.