Iowa could be poised to join 27 other states that have so-called “Safe Harbor” laws for victims of human trafficking.

Karl Schilling of the Iowa Organization for Victim Assistance said while he’s worked with victims for more than 30 years, he’s still stunned by the depravity and brutality of human traffickers.

“Anything we can do to help these young women and some young men get out of the life and start a new chapter is a worthy cause,” he said during a Senate subcommittee hearing.

Advocates say the bill will help turn victims into survivors and give them immunity to testify against human traffickers. Senator Brad Zaun of Urbandale said the bill is a priority, but the bill won’t pass the Senate in its current form.

“Certainly these scumwads that are doing this are getting more creative in how they’re doing their human trafficking and abusing these young people,” Zaun said, “and many times they’re females.”

Bill backers say it’s important to erase prostitution convictions on a victim’s criminal record so they can qualify for loans, get jobs and turn their lives around. Iowa Department of Public Safety commissioner Stephan Bayens said he’s not opposed to the concept, but the bill as written actually provides blanket immunity to victims of human trafficking.

“If a victim of human trafficking was abusing a child, they could be immune from prosecution,” Bayens said. “…Even if they had committed attempted murder, they could be immune from prosecution, so I think there are some significant issues there.”

Senator Janet Petersen of Des Moines said she’s concerned about another provision in the bill. It calls for placing minors in foster care rather than criminal detention after they’ve been arrested for prostitution.

“I just am not sure that I think that’s safe for Iowans who are kind enough to open their homes as foster care parents,” Petersen said during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, adding that pimps might try to harass and threatened foster parents and the minors involved.

Senator Dan Dawson of Council Bluffs said arresting a minor accused of prostitution and holding them in jail or detention may be better than placing them in a foster care home. “Once in a while, as bad as it might be, holding a juvenile might be in their best interest and keep them from going back out on the street,” Dawson said.

Dawson said teens picked up for prostitution often return to a human trafficker because that person has been their only source of food and shelter.

The bill is eligible for debate in the Iowa Senate. It passed the House on a 95-1 vote earlier this month.