Big Island’s Rep. Jeanné Kapela introduces sex trafficking bill to protect keiki
January 26, 2023, 4:00 AM HST
* Updated January 27, 6:48 AM
HONOLULU — Sex trafficking is happening throughout Hawai‘i and Big Island state legislator Jeanné Kapela says students know they are the targets.
“We have the highest number of sex trafficking victims per capita in the entire nation and that ends by educating our children and preparing their educators to help the individuals who protect those kids in those classrooms,” said Kapela, who represents House District 5 (Nāʻālehu, Ocean View, Captain Cook, Kealakekua and Kailua-Kona).
To tackle the problem, Kapela introduced House Bill 550. The measure, which passed its first reading Monday, would require the Hawai‘i Department of Education to offer training for teachers, educational officers and school-based behavioral health specialists on sex trafficking prevention and response.
The bill also would allow the state Education Department to contract with victim service providers to train educators who request it. The bill specifies that the training should consider the impact of sex trafficking on different genders, explain strategies for preventing sexual exploitation in school communities, and ensure the issue of consent is a central component of anti-trafficking education.
“Educators are often the professionals who are closest to our keiki,” Kapela said. “They see children every day in their classrooms and in their schools. Accordingly, empowering educators with the skills needed to respond to cases of exploitation in an effective and compassionate manner will significantly strengthen our state’s ability to identify child trafficking victims and deliver the services they need to heal.”
The bill is one of five legislative priorities during the 2023 session of the state Legislature for the Keiki Caucus.
In Hawai’i and throughout the nation, commercial sexual exploitation of children is a growing problem.
According to Ho’ōla Nā Pua, an organization dedicated to the prevention of sex trafficking and caring for keiki who have been exploited, the average age of child victims in Hawai‘i when they were first sex trafficked is 11 years old. Eleven.
Three out of 4 sex trafficking victims knew their trafficker; and 1 out of 3 report technology was used as part of their sex trafficking experience. The organization also reports that in 2019 there were more than 48,000 ads posted for commercial sex in Hawai‘i.
The majority, or 43%, of sex trafficking cases in Hawai‘i are Native Hawaiian girls trafficked in Waikīkī on O‘ahu, according to a recent report commissioned by the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women.
Kapela said HB 550 is extremely important, citing a 2018 report published by Arizona State University and the Hawai‘i State Commission on the Status of Women that found 1 out of every 7 adult males living in Hawai‘i is a sex buyer.
During the pandemic, Imua Alliance, an anti-trafficking service provider, reported seeing a 300% increase in demand for victim services.
“These numbers are shocking,” she said, “and highlight the need to do all we can to strengthen our state’s response to sexual exploitation, which is happening every day throughout our islands.”
She also said Hawai‘i Island is dramatically under-resourced when it comes to social services of all kinds and is also home to communities impacted by high levels of poverty, one of the primary drivers of sexual exploitation.
“Providing teachers and educational staff with the knowledge necessary to prevent sex trafficking is essential for Hawai‘i Island schools, which are spaces for coordinating care in communities that lack the robust health and mental wellness infrastructure of more urban and affluent areas,” Kapela said.
The measure to train educators and others who deal directly with children was first proposed several years ago by service providers but did not gain enough support.
Kapela said it should have passed by now: “While Hawai‘i has beefed up its continuum of care for survivors of sexual servitude, we have a long way to go to catch up with other states.”
State Rep. Amy Perruso, a co-convener of the Keiki Caucus, said Kapela’s sex trafficking bill was also a priority of youth who attended the 29th annual Hawai‘i Children and Youth Summit in October 2022.
“It’s really important to elevate their voices, to listen to our young people, and this was one of their top priorities,” Perruso said. “I’m really grateful to Rep. Kapela for introducing this bill.”
Kapela said the state is regularly ranked near the bottom throughout the nation when it comes to evaluations of its response to sexual exploitation, including in policy rankings released each year by Shared Hope International. That needs to change, and HB 550 is a step in the right direction.
“This bill,” she said, “is just one of many steps that we must take to reaffirm our commitment to ending the pervasive problem of sex trafficking on our shores.”