Anti-Prostitution Laws are Hurting Juveniles

The movement to decriminalize sex work has been pushed by sex workers for decades and has gained national popularity in criminal justice discussions. Decriminalizing sex work would halt arrests and charges for prostitution. While this may not seem like a juvenile justice issue, there is a small but significant group who have been impacted by anti sex work laws: juveniles arrested for prostitution.

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines sex trafficking as recruiting, patronizing, or otherwise causing a person under 18 years old to participate in a commercial sex act.[1] Most states have statutory rape laws which state a person under a certain age cannot consent to sex with an adult. In Texas, for example, an adult cannot engage in sexual contact with a person under 17 years old.[2] These laws indicate a general consensus that minors cannot consent to sex work or sex with adults. If that is the case, the 290 children aged 0-17 who were arrested in 2019 for prostitution should have been treated as victims instead of criminals.[3]

The interception of child trafficking victims and criminal prostitution laws can be seen in the 2010 Texas case In re B.W. This case involved a 13 year old girl who was arrested for prostitution in Texas.[4] The offense was filed in adult criminal court, where it was discovered the arrestee was a child. [5] The prostitution charge was then dismissed, but B.W.’s involvement with the justice system was not over. The charges were transferred to juvenile court, where B.W. pleaded true to the allegation, which is the equivalent of pleading guilty in adult court, and was sentenced to 18 months probation.[6]

On appeal, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that because the legislature has determined children under 14 do not have the mental capacity to consent to sex with anyone, they are exempt from prostitution charges. [7] This was a win for B.W. and child sex trafficking victims all over Texas, but the impact of criminalization was already felt. B.W. had already been subjected to arrest and booking in adult court. In re B.W. protects juveniles who are 14 or younger, but leaves other teenagers in Texas age 15-16 vulnerable to prostitution charges and arrests. There is not clear data on how many 15 and 16 year olds have been arrested for prostitution in Texas since In re B.W., but Texas makes up part of the 290 total arrests, indicating there have been some. Not all arrests lead to charges, but all arrests traumatize the children who are subject to them.

The effects of arrest on juveniles cannot be taken lightly. Youth who have been arrested are much less likely than their peers to graduate high school or enroll in college.[8] A child who is arrested and is then confined at a juvenile detention facility is virtually guaranteed to not finish their high school education.[9] Young people without a high school degree will face more difficulties finding stability and employment.[10] High school dropouts may face an increased risk of grooming by sex traffickers because they are not around teachers who recognize the signs and can refer the student to school counseling or other services.

Criminalization of sex work is causing lifelong effects in vulnerable juveniles. While full decriminalization of sex work may not be popular in every state, laws preventing minors from being charged with prostitution would go a long way in protecting the country’s youth.


[1] 18 U.S.C. § 1591
[2] Tex. Penal Code §21.11
[3] Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/crime/ucr.asp?table_in=1
[4] In re B.W., 313 S.W.3d 818
[5]Id.
[6] ​​Id.
[7] Id.
[8] David S. Kirk & Robert J. Sampson, Juvenile Arrest and Collateral Education Damage in the Transition to Adulthood, 36, 47 (American Psychological Association 2013).
[9] Id at 55
[10] Id.

New Research Analyzes the Effects of Foster Care on Children’s Well-Being

New research, published in April analyzes the effectiveness of the foster care system in Michigan.[1] In what is perhaps a surprising result, children who enter the foster care system are better off than their peers who remain with their parents.

A recent study showed that 6% of all American children spend some amount of time in the foster care system. That number is much higher for children of color: 10% of Black children enter the foster care system at some point in their childhood, and 15% of Native American children enter the system at some point.[2]

Economists have been studying foster care outcomes since 2007. Previous research studied foster care outcomes from Illinois and found that foster care hurt children more than leaving children in the home.[3] That study looked at children on the margin – those who were on the boundary between being removed from the home and staying with parents – to show that those who were removed from the home were convicted of crimes at higher rates, and had lower long-term incomes.

This study uses the same research design in Michigan, and suggests the opposite result: these authors found that foster care reduced the likelihood that children were alleged to be victims of abuse by 52%, increased daily school attendance by 6%, and a small decrease in findings of juvenile delinquency.

So why is Michigan so different from Illinois? These authors suggest that Illinois’ foster care system was especially harmful, so rather than foster care in general harming children, Illinois’ implementation of foster care was to blame. As evidence, they show that Illinois children spent the longest amount of time in the system in the country, while Michigan is closer to average.

Another possible explanation is that foster care has simply improved over time. The authors cite to a child trends study which shows that children are now spending less time in the system, and are being placed with family members more often.[4]

What does this mean for those interested in child policy? It’s not quite clear. Hopefully, research like this will prompt other states to look at their own foster care programs to see if they are more like Illinois or Michigan. We know that removing a child from the home is a drastic measure that should only be taken when absolutely necessary. Nothing here suggests that more children should enter foster care, only that in this particular jurisdiction, it is effective for the child on the bubble between removal and remaining in the home.

My takeaway is this: good foster care that helps children is possible. It might look like shorter stays in the system and more placements with family members. It definitely looks like states should be analyzing their foster care systems with the most advanced tools possible, like the ones these economists employed.


[1] Max Gross & E. Jason Baron, Temporary Stays and Persistent Gains: The Causal Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Journal: Applied Economics 14(2): 170–199 (2022).

[2] Emanuel Wildeman, Cumulative Risks of Foster Care Placement by Age 18 for U.S. Children, 2000–2011, PLoS ONE 9(3): e92785 (2014).

[3] Joseph J. Doyle, Jr., Child Protection and Child Outcomes: Measuring the Effects of Foster Care, American Economic Review 97 (5): 1583-1610 (2007) (“the results suggest that children on the margin of placement tend to have better outcomes when they remain at home, especially older children.”).

[4] Child Trends, Child Trends Databank, https://www.childtrends.org/indicators/foster-care.

Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ Law: Damaging to LGBTQ+ Students, Parents, and Teachers

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Parental Rights in Education” bill into law on Monday. The bill, dubbed the ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, prohibits instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through 3rd grade. The bill’s language states: “Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”[1] Parents can sue school districts over violations.

The legislation also requires schools to notify parents of any health or support services provided to their kids in school and gives them an opportunity to deny the services on behalf of their children.

The new law further marginalizes LBGTQ+ communities and puts youth who identify as members of that community at risk. A CDC study, the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance, shows that many LBGTQ+ young people are susceptible to higher health and suicide risks than their classmates.[2] The Trevor Project reports that “when those kids are given access to spaces that affirm their gender identity, they report lower rates of suicide attempts.”[3] Taking away a potentially safe space at school could lead to devastating results.

On Thursday, a group of LBGTQ+ advocates sued Florida and the DeSantis administration in federal court over the bill.[4] Lawyers representing the group argue that the bill violates the First and 14th Amendments to the United States Constitution, as well as federal Title IX rules. The complaint attacks “vagueness” in the law and states “[t]he law not only stigmatizes and silences those vulnerable students, exacerbating risks to their welfare, but also threatens school officials who foster a safe and inclusive environment for them.”[5]

Teachers especially fear the effect this law will have on the way they teach and what their students share. In an article shared by NPR, one Florida teacher says, “[i]t makes wonder, when I talk about families in my classroom, am I going to be violating this law because the children were having discussions about what their family looks like… I’m very fearful that this law is going to just open it up for a lot of more things to start being discriminated against.”[6]


[1] Jaclyn Diaz, Florida’s governor signs controversial law opponents dubbed ‘Don’t Say Gay”, NPR (March 28, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/03/28/1089221657/dont-say-gay-florida-desantis.

[2] Madeleine Roberts, New CDC Data Shows LGBTQ Youth are More Likely to be Bullied Than Straight Cisgender Youth, Human Rights Campaign (August 26, 2020), https://www.hrc.org/news/new-cdc-data-shows-lgbtq-youth-are-more-likely-to-be-bullied-than-straight-cisgender-youth

[3] Jaclyn Diaz, Florida’s governor signs controversial law opponents dubbed ‘Don’t Say Gay”, NPR (March 28, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/03/28/1089221657/dont-say-gay-florida-desantis.

[4] Andrew Atterbury, LGBTQ advocates sue over Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, Politico (March 31, 2022), https://www.politico.com/news/2022/03/31/lgbtq-advocates-sue-florida-00022001.

[5] Id.

[6] Melissa Block, Teachers fear the chilling effect of Florida’s so called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ law, NPR (March 30, 2022), https://www.npr.org/2022/03/30/1089462508/teachers-fear-the-chilling-effect-of-floridas-so-called-dont-say-gay-law.