February 1, 2015, marks the 150th anniversary of the signing of the 13th Amendment into law by President Abraham Lincoln. The 13th Amendment formally abolished the slavery that had forced millions of people of African descent to provide free labor in homes and plantations across the South. When considering such a dark period in American history, we would like to believe that, collectively, we are far removed from the beliefs and ideologies that could fuel such a horrific practice. And for the most part, we are. But people don’t realize that there is still a large portion of the population that is extremely vulnerable to exploitation.
According to Global Slavery Index 2014 findings, there are around 35.8 million people enslaved today—more than at any time in history. And while developing countries face the biggest challenges, the problem still exists in the United States, and among those enslaved, or trafficked, many are children.
“The sale of children has always existed; it is not a new phenomenon,” says Carol Smolenski, the Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, the U.S. branch of an international campaign to protect children from commercial sexual exploitation. “It is just that now we are acknowledging it and doing something about it. The sex industry is huge and needs new flesh all the time. Adolescent children are fed into the adult sex market where they are in great demand because they are young, healthy-looking, fit and meet many of the physical requirements of buyers.”
Much of Smolenski’s work involves talking to children directly in New York schools, with an aim to teach them how to protect themselves from adults who prey on at-risk children. And though a blanket term like “at-risk” will certainly include runaway kids or those who have abused in some way at home or have been in foster care or the child welfare system, it is equally applicable to children who come from loving homes but are simply more responsive to advances.
“Pimps are seeking young people who are vulnerable to their persuasions,” says Smolenski. “They pick up the girl or boy and buy them lunch, say nice things and convince them that they love them.
“Parents and their children need to know that there is active recruitment going on right here in the United States. They need to know that the guy with the expensive car and nice clothes, who finds you in the shopping mall and starts talking about how beautiful you are and how you are too smart to go to school, might very well be a pimp.”
Joe Schmidt, the founder of ENDcrowd.com, has seen cases just like this in his work with child trafficking victims. “We’re currently working with a survivor who was tricked into a sex slavery ring by a man she met at the mall when she was just 14,” he says. “We’ve even heard of children being forced into human trafficking as young as 5 years old. The majority of these predators aren’t wearing masks or hiding in alleys. They are in plain sight.”
Schmidt launched ENDcrowd.com as a way to involve the public in the fight against human trafficking on all levels. It is a nonprofit crowdfunding program that partners with established human trafficking charities to help provide funding for various campaigns. Visitors to the site can see all current projects and choose the specific one that they want to donate to.
“We currently have a campaign project by ECPAT-USA that’s raising money to develop an e-learning toolkit that will change the way children in the U.S. learn about human trafficking in school,” Schmidt explains. “ECPAT-USA needs help in furthering in-school awareness efforts, and the e-learning toolkit will be shared with schools across the U.S. The idea is that children using the e-learning toolkit will become leaders of the next generation to end human trafficking.”
Part of that education involves explaining trafficking in all its forms—which doesn’t always include sex. “According to the United States Government, ‘human trafficking’ refers to the act of recruiting, harboring, transporting, providing or obtaining a person for compelled labor or commercial sex acts through the use of force, fraud or coercion,” Schmidt says. “In other words, it is the process of controlling a person with the intent to exploit them. While the term ‘trafficking’ might imply some kind of movement, victims of human trafficking can be born into slavery or otherwise enslaved without having been transported anywhere.”
Elizabeth Ricci, a Tallahassee-based attorney and immigration law expert says that many hotel and restaurant workers, particularly those in resort locales or popular tourist destinations, are victims of trafficking. In these cases, hard labor—as opposed to sex—serves as the method of exploitation.
“Those most at risk do not speak English fluently, are separated from family—like the unaccompanied minors who came en masse to the U.S. this summer—distrust law enforcement and hold different cultural beliefs than those held by most Americans,” says Ricci. “Parents should talk to their children about the dangers of being lured by promises of work and good pay and should report suspected trafficking to law enforcement.”
In 2000, the government passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which effectively considers that individuals younger than 18 years old who have been coerced to join the sex trade are victims rather than criminals, as they had previously been considered. This reclassification shifts the focus from arresting and reforming children to providing victim care and preventing the crime in the first place.
Ultimately, though, when it comes to stemming the tide of child trafficking in the United States, children and their parents are the most powerful force. “Yes, it is very, very disturbing to have to talk to kids about these awful things, but it is the best way to keep them safe,” says Smolenski. “And parents need to keep an open dialogue with their children about the things going on in their lives, who they are talking to and what they are doing. No doubt it can be difficult, but the open dialogue is really important.
“Kids everywhere are at risk. It does not have to do with geographic location; it has to do with vulnerability.”
Find more information and seek help at the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.