Musician R. Kelly has been the subject of investigations, indictments, and lawsuits for decades. Most recently, the singer was indicted in Chicago in a lawsuit that accuses Kelly of sexually abusing four victims - three of whom were between the ages of 13 and 16 at the time - over a span of a dozen years. Through it all, the musician has maintained his innocence and has presented statements from other underage victims who reiterate that they remain in consenting relationships with Kelly.
This idea that girls would willingly subject themselves to a relationship in which their attire, food and even their bathroom use are all direct by someone else can be confusing to an outsider’s perspective. But the method used to teach an individual to accept an abusive relationship, known as “grooming,” is a process that has long been used by traffickers to continue their own cycle of trauma and abuse.
“Grooming is the slow, methodical, and intentional process of manipulating a person to a point where they can be victimized,” Eric Marlowe Garrison, a sex counselor and author, said in an interview with Allure. “After [the perpetrators] find their targets, they then gain trust and move in from there.”
Grooming commonly starts with friendship. Specifically in Kelly’s case, grooming typically started with a promise to help a young singer with her music career. An abuser or trafficker approaches a victim with the promise of care and companionship, security and support, but then they will slowly convince their victim that they are the only one who cares about them. Teens who feel isolated and alone, or have run away from home, are especially vulnerable to traffickers. Kyra Wooden, Director of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Youth Program, explains that “youths are more likely to fall victim to the trafficker’s ploys because of emotional wounds and voids that the trafficker promises to heal.”
Like sex traffickers, Kelly systematically selected his victims, looking for individuals who felt as though they didn’t belong. His victims were girls who had big dreams and needed his help in order to make them come true. As the Lifetime documentary Surviving R Kelly points out, almost all of Kelly’s victims are girls of color - girls who have been taught by society that their lives are worth less than white children. This often leaves Black girls more vulnerable to all forms of exploitation.
After establishing a foundation of trust and care, abusers and traffickers will then start to make requests of the victim to judge how far his or her boundaries can be pushed. What might begin as a request to wear certain clothes or use certain names will slowly escalate to the point where an individual is no longer allowed to leave a room without gaining permission.
Throughout this process, the victim is isolated, which leads him or her to believe that there are no other options. To accelerate this, traffickers will confiscate a victim’s identification documents and money, which makes a victim even more reliant on his or her trafficker. The more an abuser is able to keep an individual from his or her support networks, the easier it is for the abuser to remain in control. As Dawn Michael, PhD, a sexuality counselor explained to Allure, the resulting behavior on the part of the victim can look to an outsider as though he or she has been “brainwashed.”
“The more they can cut off other people [who] are close [with the victim], the more power they have over that person, because they’re not going to have as much outside influence,” Michael said.
In Surviving R. Kelly, several interviewees described the two different sides of the singer: the one who was loving and confided in them about his own sexual abuse as a child and then the one who would withhold food from them for days when he was angry. This cycle of explosions and reconciliation manipulates victims psychologically, and as one psychologist puts in Surviving R. Kelly, creates “chains and handcuffs that are all mental.”
For many victims of abuse, the first step to breaking the cycle is the realization that their relationships aren’t healthy. The beginning of that realization can be as simple as receiving information for the first time about what a healthy relationship looks like. A core focus of ECPAT-USA’s Y-ACT Program is helping participants understand the differences between healthy and unhealthy relationships and how traffickers manipulate those relationships - a process that had led some participants to self-identify as victims of trafficking or question the nature of their relationships.
“Child sexual exploitation, grooming, and avoiding toxic relationships are all very complex in nature,” Wooden, said. “Students need to learn preventative and protective behaviors because the tactics for luring and grooming are more intricate and conniving than young people are familiar with. Overall, teaching youth to understand their right to have relationships without hurt and pain can ultimately save a student’s life.”
If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, help is available at the National Trafficking Hotline (888-373-7888) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Cover image via Instagram
For many, many years child exploitation and abuse perpetrated by people in positions of authority have been ignored or downplayed. Too many of those whose role in society it is to defend the vulnerable, enforce laws that protect children, or call for justice for them have been shown to be using their positions of authority to exploit and abuse, or at the least, to be complicit in letting it go forward. Some of them are finally being brought to justice, but that’s probably the tip of the iceberg.
There has been a constant drumbeat in the news in the last few weeks about long-festering cases of child exploitation that are now coming into the public eye:
Jeffrey Epstein given a very meagre sentence by the then-Miami U.S. Attorney Alex Acosta (now Secretary of Labor).
R. Kelly arrested for sexually exploiting 4 young women, 3 of whom were under 18 years old.
The documentary by HBO about Michael Jackson’s “relationship” with young boys.
The Catholic Church just completed a summit meeting at the Vatican about systemic child abuse for decades.
The Southern Baptist Convention having to now deal with child abuse that was reported for years but never addressed.
Patriots owner Robert Kraft has been accused of soliciting sex in Florida after a large-scale investigation into sex trafficking in the state.
The natural question is how to respond, what can and should be done to fight this? For over 25 years, ECPAT-USA has been working to end the sexual exploitation of children through:
Working with the private sector to train key people in how to identify trafficking and how to report it. We do this in the travel industry, where most of the large hotels chains have signed our Code of Conduct and implemented training for staff. Marriott hotels trained 500,000 associates in the last year to identify and report trafficking. And that is just one company. And there have already been cases where an employee saved a young person.
Empowering youth in New York City through educating middle and high school students to recognize the signs of when they are being groomed by a predator.
Raising awareness of the issue and championing legislation that supports trafficking survivors.
While the recent news stories about trafficking can be overwhelming, reporting on the issue is also important. It lets victims know that this is not something they have to accept and that they can come forward. And it lets someone being approached know that they don’t have to succumb.
And the increased reporting is forcing institutions that have ignored the problem for years to finally deal with it.
The new U.S. anti-trafficking law, passed in Congress on Dec. 17th, says when federal employees travel they should choose travel and hospitality companies that follow the six points of the ECPAT Code of Conduct, ECPAT-USA announced today. While H.R. 2200 the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017 could not specifically identify ECPAT, the six criteria are clearly patterned after the Code of Conduct.
“ECPAT and its many travel and hospitality partners are grateful that the strong code we have developed to help company staff identify and stop trafficking has now been held up as a standard by the U.S. government,” said Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA. “The new law provides a focus on prevention, which we consider the next frontier in our effort to bring an end to child sexual exploitation.”
In addition to the instructions to federal employees on travel, the new law:
Provides training and education efforts so that employees of the travel and hospitality industries can better recognize children and adults who may be trafficked.
Provides for reintegration programs for the victims of trafficking.
Creates a new grant program to help bring anti-trafficking educational outreach to America’s schools.
This legislation is the product of a bipartisan effort by the members of both houses of Congress and serves as a model for how successful that approach can be. ECPAT is also grateful to Congressman Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA), who championed this effort in the House, and Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), John Cornyn (R-TX), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Bob Corker (R-TN) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) who crafted the companion bill in the Senate.
“The Trafficking Victims Protection Act Reauthorization has been a top legislative priority for anti-trafficking organizations throughout the country. This new law ensures that the United States will remain the global leader in this fight to end modern human slavery. We are very proud to have worked with the members of Congress to achieve this excellent result,” said Smolenski.
For more than twenty years, ECPAT-USA has fought for and won passage of strong anti-trafficking legislation. The Trafficking Victims Protection Act which was initially passed in 2000. It must be reauthorized every three years.
“We are so very pleased to see the evolution and improvement of those initial efforts in the passage of that latest version of the law,” Smolenski said.
ECPAT-USA is the oldest U.S. advocacy organization dedicated to ending the sexual exploitation of children. It is part of a global network of such organizations operating in over 90 countries worldwide.
In 1961, Hannah Arendt coined a phrase that seems so very poignant to today’s headlines. While covering Adolph Eichman’s war crimes tribunal in Jerusalem for The New Yorker, she subtitled her subsequent book, The Banality of Evil. The work is a meditation on how ordinary people, doing very ordinary things, can participate in monstrously evil acts.
The Miami Herald’s blockbuster report about the Jeffrey Epstein case reminds us of how profoundly true Arendt’s observations were. Implicated in the Miami Herald’s reporting is former U.S. Attorney, and current Secretary of Labor Alexander Acosta. But Epstein’s crimes, like so many human tragedies, go far beyond Acosta’s malfeasance and cowardice in the face of a wealthy child predator. For this outrageous pattern of child sexual abuse to work, many, many people had to be involved. Drivers, schedulers, cleaning staff. All of them did their jobs. All of them turned a blind eye to what they knew was happening in front of them. “Not my problem” is the human reflex that turns many people into accomplices to tragedy.
Nor is today’s headline the only one. The outrages keep piling on. The Catholic Church’s hierarchy has covered up thousands of cases of abuse by its clergy of both boys and girls across the globe. In so many cases, this was done with a wink and a nod from prosecutors and law enforcement who were informed of what was going on, but were not interested in rocking the boat. The USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar abused children under his care for many years, and while the rumors were everywhere, coaches failed to act. In 2011, Penn State administrators were discovered to have covered up abuse by assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky. The failing in all of these cases is that it is easier for society to point at the monster than to reflect on how our culture enables these monsters to grow and succeed.
Beyond child trafficking, an even more bleak picture emerges from recent research showing the number of children whose rape and torture is captured in images (often called child pornography) and then shared in large numbers on the internet. How many people are involved in the creation and distribution of this material who say absolutely nothing?
We find again and again, in institutions we rely upon to protect and nurture children, a banality of evil. An institution is in fact, a collection of individuals. And each of those individuals, whether at a Federal prosecutor’s office, or in a Catholic Bishop’s Diocese, or a child welfare agency, has to make that same decision to ignore the harm being done to children -- keep their heads in the sand, and pretend like nothing is wrong.
Society’s disinterest in child welfare runs deeper still. Who do we turn to, to provide witness and protection, to bring child molesters and child traffickers to justice? More often than not, we place that responsibility on the victims themselves. For example, without the bravery of child trafficking survivors telling their stories while pursuing cases against enablers like Backpage.com, we would not be anywhere in Congress and the courts. Supporting survivors and giving them a platform must surely be one of the ways that our society can begin to undermine the silence that allows these systemic abuses to remain in place.
But it cannot be the only step we take.
Our nation is embarking on some soul-searching about sexual violence thanks to the #MeToo movement. But we also need to have much more stocktaking and a concrete acknowledgment that it is not a child’s role to protect themselves from predators. It is society’s job.
Our country is defined by our freedom and liberty, our Bill of Rights, our Constitution. But in 1789, the rights of children were not under deliberation. Children belonged to parents, and little further consideration was given to their rights or legal status. It was a very English, and property-driven view of childhood. That same 18th century view of children still echoes into our law today. And it is this view that makes it easier to live in a society where children are exploited, but for all of us to say “not my problem.”
Ultimately, for our country to seriously tackle child sexual exploitation, we need a concrete acknowledgement that children have rights. And our society has a responsibility to protect those rights. That responsibility is not just a parent’s job. It is not a child’s lawyer’s job nor is it just the teacher’s or school counselor’s. It falls on all of us, every day. If we see a child being exploited, we have to find the fortitude to speak up. What a better world it would be if good, rather than evil, was the banal expectation for the lives of our children.
At this year’s annual convention, our partner Global Business Travel Association (GBTA) put the issue of child sex trafficking front and center. In addition to a convention-wide presentation about the exploitation of children, GBTA and American Airlines sponsored an Awareness 5k Run and Walk that helped raise $20,000 in support of ECPAT-USA’s work. Recently, Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT-USA’s Director of Private Sector Engagement, sat down with GBTA to discuss the impact of their efforts and how the travel industry as a whole can help put an end to child sex trafficking on their podcast The Business of Travel.
“The spotlight shone on the issue is something that you can’t even measure,” said Guelbart. “I had people sending me messages on LinkedIn and on email saying that we’ll never travel and look at the world the same way after seeing the presentation on the main stage. That’s incredible.”
The interview also touched on ECPAT-USA’s campaign in support of the reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which GBTA joined previously by adding their name to a corporate sign-on letter urging Congress to pass the bill.
“There’s so much to be said about raising awareness of this issue,” Guelbart said. “I haven’t had a point yet where I’ve walked into a room or done an event where there wasn’t one person who said they’ve never heard about this before. You might believe that you’re talking about it enough because you talk about it once a year, but that really isn’t enough.”
Listen to the full episode below, and learn more about our partnerships with travel and tourism industry here.
ECPAT-USA is pleased to announce that Michelle Guelbart, our Director of Private Sector Engagement, has been appointed to the Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Guelbart is one of 15 individuals to serve on the committee.
As a member, Guelbart will provide information, advice, and recommendations to the DOT on matters relating to human trafficking. The ACHT will also develop recommended best practices to combat human trafficking for states and stakeholders in the transportation industry.
“I am honored to be selected to the Advisory Committee on Human Trafficking, and I look forward to working closely with other members and the Department of Transportation on initiatives to end child trafficking in the U.S.,” said Guelbart. “It is encouraging to see awareness of this issue being elevated to a national level, and I feel privileged to have the opportunity to represent the voice of ECPAT-USA in this conversation.”
Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT-USA’s Director of Private Sector Engagement has been named to BizBash’s list of the Top 500 People in Events in the Sustainability and Social Responsibility category. According to the publication, the list is meant to recognize the best of the meeting and event industry across North America and includes people who lead the largest trade and consumer shows, orchestrate global brand campaigns, and plan high-visibility cultural events that have everyone talking on social media.
“I am surprised and honored to be mentioned in a list with so many amazing leaders in the events industry,” said Guelbart. “It is a privilege spreading ECPAT-USA’s message to the private sector and help build upon the global movement to end child trafficking.”
For over 14 years, ECPAT-USA has worked with the hotel and tourism industry to combat the sexual exploitation of children. As the Director of Private Sector Engagement, Guelbart has been instrumental to increasing the industry’s awareness of the issue and advising companies in the implementation of policies to identify and prevent child sex trafficking. Under her guidance and leadership, real steps have been taken to better protect children around the world.
ECPAT-USA congratulates Michelle on this recognition!
The Trafficking Victims Protection Act, originally passed in the year 2000, is the United States' groundbreaking legislation to end human trafficking and provides much-needed assistance to human trafficking victims.
The proposed reauthorization, the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act of 2017, and complimentary Senate bills, emphasize a victim-focused approach to combating human trafficking, while also strengthening restitution to survivors. Critically, a number of new provisions concerning endangered children were also added to the legislation.
Virtually every law enforcement initiative, effort to assist victims or policy to combat child trafficking around the globe stems from this lynchpin of federal policy.
“The reauthorization of this law is vital for our national effort to end human trafficking at home and around the world. We are very proud of the partnerships we’ve built with the business community, and are very grateful to them for lending their voices in support of this bipartisan legislative initiative,” said Jason Matthews, Director of Public Policy and Government Relations, ECPAT-USA.
American industries continue to make notable progress in the fight against human trafficking by adopting corporate policies, instituting training, and providing own insights into the best practices to exploitation. Many companies have partnered with ECPAT-USA to develop policies and programs designed to prevent the sexual exploitation and trafficking of children.
“No single group can combat human trafficking on its own, which is why ECPAT-USA partners with both the private sector and governments to comprehensively address the issue,” said Michelle Guelbart, ECPAT-USA’s Director of Private Sector Engagement. “We proudly stand together with our corporate partners and urge Speaker Ryan to pass this bill.”
The 22 companies and associations that signed on to the letter are as follows:
Adventure Travel Trade Association (ATTA)
Association of Corporate Travel Executive (ACTE)
Carlson Wagonlit Travel
CorpTrav Management Group
EmpireCLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services
Global Business Travel Association (GBTA)
HRS Global Hotel Solutions
International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (IGLTA)
International Tour Management Institute (ITMI)
Lannan Legal PLLC
Maritz Travel Company
Preferred Hotels & Resorts
Real Hospitality Group
Society for Incentive Travel Excellence (SITE)
Uber Technologies Inc.
Vision Hospitality Group
For a copy of the letter, which was sent to Speaker Paul Ryan click here.
I saw a story on Facebook this week from the Irish Times, one of Ireland’s major papers, entitled We Owe Sinead O’Connor an Apology. And I thought, what? I had not heard that name in years. But I remember very distinctly what she did in 1992 on a live broadcast of Saturday Night Live. She tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II. And I was watching. Like any other good Catholic boy, I was outraged. This was John Paul, the Polish Pope, the anti-communist Pope, the man people rank with Ronald Reagan for ending the Cold War. He was beloved by Catholics and millions outside the faith for his strength and courage. He restored prestige to a Papacy that had been tarnished by its mixed record during the Second World War. The last thing I wanted to see on Saturday Night Live was some counter-cultural nonsense that our Pope was the enemy. I tuned out whatever message she was sending with her music, and happily joined the popular outrage at her actions.
But many decades later, it turns out the message I refused to hear when it was given was that children were being abused by the Catholic Church. I built an immediate mental barrier to this new information. And sadly, that is the normal human response. Some psychologists refer to it as the “invisible wall” effect that has us running into the same facts again and again, but never willing to accept them. It is the wall we build between reality, and what we want reality to be. And unfortunately, this invisible wall is particularly high and pernicious in the context of child sexual exploitation.
In modern times, the sexual exploitation of children is perhaps the only crime for which society has no tolerance. The mere mention of it frequently brings out a medieval mindset in people who will exclaim “castrate them all” or “kill them all” even in polite company. And yet it happens, and by some measures, is happening more frequently now than before. And so, the invisible wall goes up. Rather than accept that piece of unnerving information, we filter it away and pretend it does not really exist. Why? Because accepting the information would require us to take action and make fundamental change. Since humanity prefers not to do that, we turn a blind eye instead. Would prostitution really be an institution if men did not build an invisible wall filtering out evidence that it is frequently child rape? Would police departments still arrest child victims of trafficking, instead of perpetrators and pimps, if there was not an invisible wall concerning child sexual trafficking? Would parents ignore signs of sexual abuse from people they trust, if not for the invisible barrier that keeps them from recognizing a horrible truth?
The Catholic Church is not the “true enemy” as Sinead O’Connor declared. ECPAT was founded with the help of Catholic orders that today do amazing work in the field of human trafficking and on a host of other issues affecting children. But the Church does have a very high invisible wall in dealing with clergy that have committed horrible crimes. As nearly everyone is now aware, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court released a report identifying over 1,000 children who had been abused in the State of Pennsylvania by over 300 clergy over a period of 70 years. The report notes the efforts of Bishops to cover up the cases in a familiar pattern of transferring priests to other parishes and pressuring families to say nothing. Tragically it is a tale we have been forced to read again and again, in Boston, Ireland, Canada, Australia and Chile. And equally tragically, you can watch the invisible walls to this information being built. The President of the Catholic League Bill Donohue, remarked “Most of the alleged victims were not raped: they were groped or otherwise abused, but not penetrated, which is what the word ‘rape’ means.” Meanwhile, in a deposition, Syracuse, New York Bishop Robert Cunningham suggested that since the “Age of Reason” — meaning the ability to tell right from wrong — in Catholic doctrine is age 7, boys who experienced sexual abuse may have some culpability for it. The responses are as predictable as they are disappointing.
Fortunately, today, Pope Francis issued a letter to Catholics around the world, that struck a different tone. He said:
"With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them."
It is an important first step in bringing down the invisible wall that has kept the Catholic Church from making the sort of fundamental change necessary to move past this era once and for all. As has occurred in other jurisdictions, we believe that the statute of limitations should be waived for these cases in Pennsylvania. We also think that the Catholic Church, like other institutions that have adults working in close contact with children, must adopt more rigorous screening standards for clergy and seminarians.
However, an important lesson for all of us is to attend to the invisible walls that we throw up that make it easier to ignore difficult realities. When Sinead O’Connor criticized my Pope, I did not want to hear it. But way back in 1992, she was right. Children were being abused under Catholic care. She was correct to call attention to it. She was correct to protest. And so, I have to accept that like all people I have my blind spots. But that does not excuse us from identifying them and removing them. None of us should turn a blind eye when the lives of children hang in the balance.