By Stella Dawson
WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A rising number of U.S. states have strengthened laws to combat human trafficking in the past year but programs to help victims of forced prostitution and labor are lagging behind, according to a report by an anti-slavery group on Wednesday.
Thirty-nine of the 50 U.S. states scored well in the 2014 ranking by the non-government organization Polaris Project that measures sex and labor trafficking measures across the United States. This was an increase of seven states from 2013.
Delaware joined New Jersey and Washington with perfect scores based on the 10 measures that Polaris views as critical to a basic legal framework to combat trafficking, punish traffickers and support survivors.
South Dakota and North Dakota were ranked last for taking only nominal steps to pass laws against forced labor and the involuntary sale of sex - although this was an improvement for South Dakota which made no efforts according to 2013 rankings.
“Even in just the last four years, there has been remarkable progress. Most of the states are in the top tier and for the first time none are in the bottom tier," Brittany Vanderhoof, policy counsel at Polaris, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
No one knows how many people are enslaved in the United States, but the Global Slavery Index published by Australian anti-slavery group, the Walk Free Foundation, estimated there were between 57,000 to 63,000 in 2013.
These people work throughout the economy, on farms, in brothels, on construction sites, in elderly care and domestic services. Most victims come from the United States, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, India or central America, according to the U.S. State Department’s annual trafficking report.
Programs to help victims escape from what is called modern-day slavery and recover from the trauma, however, lag behind legislation to criminalize trafficking. Vanderhoof said.
She said many states cite cost as a significant reason to why they are dragging their feet on services for victims.
Polaris Project's rankings showed only 12 states have adopted at least four of its five recommended programs, such as protecting minors from criminal prosecution if they are arrested for prostitution, and opening a trafficking hotline.
Another 17 states had made progress on victim services, while 21 states, plus the District of Columbia, had made no or only nominal efforts, it said.
"To truly address human trafficking, we must also ensure that the victims of this crime and abuse receive the assistance they need to rebuild their lives," Polaris said in a statement.
The ratings are based on laws enacted by July 31, 2014.
(Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
(Editing by Alisa Tang)