In The News

#NoFilter: Media Coverage of the Epstein Case

In the #NoFilter series, private sector engagement interns Ashley Solle and Nicole Phocas discuss youth, social media, and society in the context of the recent Jeffrey Epstein indictment.

There are literally millions of images and videos depicting child sexual abuse on the internet right now, and findings of child sexual abuse material (CSAM) are growing exponentially. Between 2015-2018, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children's (NCMEC) CyberTipline noted a 4 fold increase in CSAM reports, from 4.4 million to 18.2 million. In the last few years, we have heard countless stories about wealthy, well-connected men abusing their power to exploit children. These men include household names like R Kelly, Bill Cosby, Jerry Sandusky, Kevin Spacey, Jared Fogle, Harvey Weinstein, Jimmy Savile, Woody Allen, Larry Nassar, and countless religious leaders. The recent MeToo Movement has exposed the systemic sexual harassment and abuse of women and children which has been going on for centuries. In past blog posts, we have gone into depth on the sexualization of youth in our culture. And then we have Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire businessman who sexually exploited, trafficked, and raped children for decades without consequences. He has been given a pass by the media, who have portrayed a diluted version of the events that played out. Even now, after his apparent suicide, the media are focusing more on promoting conspiracy theories than on getting justice for the children he abused. 

Mainstream media outlets such as Rolling Stone, Boston Globe, and Forbes, to name a few, use a variation of the phrase “nude photos of underage girls” in reference to child sexual abuse material found in Epstein’s Manhattan mansion. The words “nude photos” and “children” should not exist in the same sentence. Nude photos of children are not art and they are not okay. They should be portrayed as what they are: illegal child abuse imagery. One article from the New York Post, which we honestly thought came from the Onion when we first opened it, even used the phrase “kiddie porn.” Need we say more?

Beyond more extreme phrases like “kiddie porn”, even the most reputable news sources still have a long way to go in terms of highlighting the severity of the sexual exploitation of children. A commonly used term is child pornography; however, we prefer the term child sexual abuse material (CSAM) because it both demonstrates the severity of the problem and ensures that child abuse is not equated with the legal pornography industry. Refer to our terminology guidelines for more information on phrasing. 

From the New York Times to New York Magazine, the media regularly use the term “sex with underage women” in reference to the Epstein case and many cases like his. These are not underage women, they are children, and for someone Epstein’s age, this is not sex. It is either rape or trafficking. On that same note, why is it that we call adult women “girls” when we are trying to silence them, but call young girls “women” when it is convenient to the patriarchal narrative surrounding sex? These are children. This is abuse. 

The media has a duty to bring light to injustices. By not emphasizing what happened to the child, but rather diminishing it to a neutral, problematic, or clinical phrase, they are silencing the victim’s story and diminishing the severity of the abuse. The media is expected to sensationalize and dramatize events and crimes, but when they have the opportunity to talk about a case that is already dramatic, dark, and horrifying without any exaggeration, they don’t. Call it like it is: rape, children, exploitation, international child sex trafficking ring, child sexual abuse material. This story does not end here. Do your job and tell it right. 


USDOT Bans Commercial Drivers Who Have Been Convicted Of Trafficking

Under new regulations from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, drivers who have been convicted on human trafficking charges will no longer be able to obtain a commercial driver’s license.

The transportation infrastructure in the U.S. is frequently taken advantage of by traffickers to move victims around the country. These new regulations are an important step to keeping our roads safer for all children. 

“The commercial motor vehicle industry is uniquely positioned to help detect and report human trafficking, and thankfully professional drivers’ efforts often bring an end to these tragic situations. Sadly, however, some human trafficking activities are facilitated by the use of commercial trucks or buses,” said FMCSA Administrator Raymond P. Martinez.

Last October, Michelle Guelbart, Director Private Sector Engagement at ECPAT-USA, was selected to serve on the Advisory Committee Against Human Trafficking of the U.S. Department of Transportation. As a member, she provided information, advice, and recommendations to the DOT on matters relating to human trafficking. 

“As a member of the United State Department of Transportation’s Advisory Committee Against Human Trafficking, I applaud these new regulations to prevent trafficking in the commercial transportation industry,” Guelbart said. “This issue touches industries in all areas and only through working together can we create a world where children can grow up free from the fear of exploitation. 


We All Have a Role to Play to Protect Children, But First Acosta Must Be Removed and Investigated

If you looked solely at international reviews, you would see that United States always gets high marks of its legal infrastructure to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation.  It has all the bases covered: criminalizing and prescribing high penalties for child sex trafficking, child sexual abuse material (child pornography), and child abuse.  

However, the excellence of our laws means nothing of course, if they are consistently undermined by a criminal justice system that refuses to hold the rich and powerful to account.  Of course this is a reference to the financier Jeffrey Epstein who has been indicted by the U.S. Attorney in New York for sex trafficking of children.  Soon, no doubt, charges of creation and possession of child abuse imagery will be added to the indictment.  

The Epstein case has all the elements that are the hallmark of a child sex trafficking case:  identifying vulnerable children and youth, preying upon their vulnerabilities, gradually wearing away any resistance to sexual exploitation and abuse, paying them for sex, asking them to recruit other young girls for sex, and offering them to other men. 

ECPAT-USA has spent many years working to make changes to a system that has allowed these forms of abuse in the United States to continue.  Through our long-time advocacy in cooperation with numerous other organizations around the country, we have built a movement that did two things.  First, it began with building community knowledge about the horrific crime of child sex trafficking in the United States, and what we need to do to stop it. Second, it moved on to advocating for our elected officials to make changes to laws and systems to protect vulnerable children. We continue to be successful in building a strong network of federal and state laws, but clearly, as shown by the Epstein case, we failed to ensure that the criminal justice system firmly enforces those laws.

The fact that the former U.S. Attorney for the Miami district, Alex Acosta, the current Secretary of the U.S. Department of Labor, signed off on a sweetheart deal for Jeffrey Epstein in 2008 shows the depth of the corruption of the system.  It was a secret deal that failed to follow the law by informing the victims that a plea bargain was being negotiated and accepted. The punishment he received was the gentlest slap on the wrist.  It is clear now there were many, many more victims in more than one city, and the criminal justice system let those victims down.    

Powerful men have long been protected for their abhorrent behavior, even for actions as universally scorned as child sex abuse and child sex trafficking. ECPAT-USA will soon publish a report about child sexual abuse material in the United States with recommendations for how all sectors of society have a role to play.  Importantly, we must not continue to let powerful national leaders evade responsibility.  ECPAT-USA calls for the removal of Mr. Acosta from his position as the head of a federal agency and further calls for an investigation into his role in the favoritism revealed in the sweetheart, hush-hush deal that he gave Mr. Epstein.

Thanks to the critical work of journalists at the Miami Herald this story was unearthed and received renewed attention. Today, we sent a letter to the White House calling for Mr. Acosta’s resignation and a full investigation because we believe our criminal justice system should place itself in a position to offer protection and hope to victims, especially children. Raise your voice to help protect children across the country by writing your own letter or supporting our programs working toward a world where no child is bought, sold or used for sex.

We cannot - and will not - let this case slip under the radar again.

Cover image via U.S. Department of Labor

Child Abuse As Government Policy - A Response To The 2019 TIP Report

Click through to see the full report

Click through to see the full report

There is a lot to be applauded in the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report launched on June 20 by the U.S. State Dept., but all of it is overshadowed by the abomination of the treatment of children currently taking place on the U.S.-Mexico border.  What an absurd policy clash: the TIP report rolled out the same week that the horrors on the border are exposed.  

To start, let’s review the good things in the report about U.S. government efforts to protect children from exploitation within the U.S.:

• It recognizes that U.S. children in the foster care system are vulnerable to traffickers and mentions a pilot program to identify children missing from foster care. Policy makers are beginning to understand and mitigate the conditions that make children vulnerable to trafficking, for example, living in an unstable family situation.  

• Appropriations for services for victims of human trafficking and child welfare systems have increased, which shows that there is an increased awareness that children need health care, education, and housing. 

• It is commendable that the report mentions the special needs of LGBTQ individuals - though there is a long way to go to set up systems that universally serve these youth.  

• 34 states have “safe harbor” laws that keep children from being arrested for the crime of prostitution. This is good but, keeping in mind that the movement to protect children from arrest for prostitution began in 2007 when the first of such a state law was passed, there appears to be a slowing of momentum in this movement. At this point in time, every state should provide a minimal level of protection to children who are sex trafficking victims.  

• Other good things: 1) there is increased funding for local human trafficking task forces  2) Backpage.com - which was highly targeted by traffickers - was taken down 3) The Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was reauthorized and strengthened again

However, alongside all these advancements, we cannot forget that on the border, children, including toddlers, are being held in detention without their parents - unfed, unwashed, overcrowded, and uncared for.  The emerging reports from these facilities describe conditions that would cause child welfare workers to call the police, remove the children and have the responsible parties arrested.  

This in-progress criminal behavior by U.S. government representatives lays the foundation for making these children vulnerable to trafficking in the future. Traffickers seek to recruit vulnerable, isolated children; children who do not have a safe and secure family setting to protect them; children who have been abused; poor children. The very TIP report itself demonstrates that U.S. government policymakers recognize this.  And yet it is also U.S. policies that are forcing children to live in inhumane conditions that will have long-term harmful impact on the healthy development and well-being of thousands of children and make them targets for traffickers. These two things exist side by side: good child protection policies moving forward as described in the TIP report and a hideous portrait of child abuse carried out by the same government. 

In response, ECPAT-USA has one more “Prioritized Recommendation” to add to the TIP Report: Don’t carry out mass detention of children under abusive conditions.   


Should Prostitution Be Decriminalized?

By Karen Wigle Weiss

Karen Wigle Weiss is an attorney with over 28 years experience as a prosecutor in the Greater New York City area. She has represented victims of human trafficking in their efforts to expunge prostitution-related convictions and has authored a report on Safe Harbor Laws, which are focused on treating victims of human trafficking as victims rather than criminals.


Many people, including legislators, have a knee-jerk positive response to the question of whether prostitution should be decriminalized because they wrongly believe that it is a “victimless crime.” But, as survivors of sex trafficking report, nothing could be further from the truth. My contact with survivors of sex trafficking, as well as the experiences of others who work in the field of anti-trafficking, overwhelmingly establishes that prostitution is neither sex, nor work and it far from harmless. Rather, it is a brutal form of slavery, often inflicted on children, and resulting in ruined lives.

The question of whether prostitution should be decriminalized must be approached from the perspective of how to best protect vulnerable children.  A nuanced analysis of the question requires consideration of the impact of decriminalization on vulnerable people, including children.

Arguments in favor of decriminalization of all prostitution-related activity are grounded on the false assumption that people engage in the activity voluntarily as an exercise of their own free will.  For the vast majority of prostituted people this assumption is groundless. Often the age of entry into prostitution in the United States is between 13 and 14 years of age. Children subjected to serial rape for extended periods of time are extremely traumatized and completely lack the support necessary to escape.  Thus, it is highly unrealistic to conclude that upon reaching their 18th birthday they are able to make a reasoned, independent decision to pursue prostitution as a profession.  They have suffered, often for years, under the control of manipulative, brutal pimps who have drained them of any sense of self worth and frequently induce them to become dependent on drugs or alcohol. True free choice is well beyond their reach.

Recently, several New York legislators have proposed an extraordinarily broad decriminalization of prostitution and all prostitution-related activities, including pimping, brothel running, and sex buying.  This misguided proposal clearly arises out of a failure to engage in the necessary analysis of all aspects of the problem. The legislators appear to have allowed themselves to be influenced without taking into account several important factors.

First, the group advocating for complete decriminalization has a financial interest in the profitable industry that would result from the suggested legislation.  Second, the people purportedly represented by adults who voluntarily engage in or wish to engage in prostitution as a profession, is an extremely small, unrepresentative cross-section of people subjected to prostitution.  Public policy should be based on an evaluation of the greater good for the largest portion of the population, not the greater good of a small handful of people.

In order to craft decriminalization legislation that reflects reality and supports justice for victims legislators should consult with non-profit organizations that have spent decades studying prostitution-related issues and are familiar with the experiences of children who have been subjected to prostitution.  Criminal legislation should reflect condemnation of what society considers unacceptable behavior to discourage people from engaging in that behavior. It should also reflect protection of innocent people, who are victimized by the bad actors. In short, laws should be designed to protect and promote the welfare of those who are sex trafficked, while holding accountable those who would harm them.

In the context of prostitution, these ideals can be implemented by decriminalizing the actions of prostituted people.  Specifically, repealing statutes that result in the arrest of prostituted people, such as prostitution and loitering for the purpose of prostitution.  And, at the same time enacting or enforcing laws that will result in the arrest and prosecution of people who sell and buy, or facilitate the sale and purchase, of other human beings.  This type of legislation has been labeled the Nordic or Equality Model.

Legalizing pimping, brothels and sex buying harms vulnerable people -- especially children.  Children are regularly targeted by sex traffickers and sold on internet sites. Sex traffickers prey upon children who have often been abused at home, are homeless or in foster care, both online and in the streets.  Legalizing pimping will only encourage pimps to target more and more vulnerable children. Moreover, normalizing the prostitution industry by legalizing pimping, brothels and sex buying risks creating a false perception that it is a victimless activity and leading naïve, immature teens into believing that it is a good way to make money.  Thus, more young people will find themselves caught up in a destructive activity that has a devastating impact on their brain development and their futures.

It is the responsibility of legislators to draft laws that give high priority to the safety and welfare of children.  The broad decriminalization legislation now proposed by a few New York legislators fails to do so. They would do well to re-direct their efforts to improving the social safety nets for survivors of sex trafficking and vulnerable youth, such as shelters, education and prevention services to help youth learn how to avoid falling victim to pimps.

Is Grooming Teenagers for Prostitution “On-brand” for Teen Vogue?

At ECPAT-USA we teach youth through our in-school programming about how to avoid being groomed by traffickers who are always seeking new individuals to feed into the sex trade. Traffickers and pimps tell enticing stories to young people - many of whom are vulnerable because of their life histories of abuse and neglect. These stories involve the love and care the trafficker says he will bestow, and the great riches and success in store for young people if they just follow his lead. It is, of course, all lies and all manipulation that takes advantage of the youth and naïveté of young people who aren’t able to recognize a “recruitment conversation” when they hear one.  And now we have Teen Vogue helping the pimps.

The child exploitation grooming process is pretty well documented by now, and increasingly, the systems that need to know how to protect children from sexual exploitation are all on board.  Social workers, foster parents, criminal justice agents, health care workers and others have learned how traffickers use exploitative processes to lure their victims and passing on that information to those who are the most vulnerable to such tactics.

Not the editors of Teen Vogue. In a recent op-ed, space was given in their magazine to help out the pimps and traffickers by amplifying the message that these exploiters use to recruit teenagers.  The piece included language such as “purchasing intimacy and paying for the services can be affirming for many people,” which will only help lay the groundwork for pimps and traffickers trolling the internet, shopping malls or the streets to find homeless, sexually abused, LGBTQ or foster care youth.

As many survivors have attested, they were not empowered and they were not strengthened by being in the sex trade. Many were recruited well before they were 18 years old and their bodies were controlled by pimps and buyers. They suffered physical and mental abuse that affects them for years afterward.    

The retrograde and irresponsible message in the piece - from a magazine aimed at a teen audience - is that selling your body as a commodity to the highest bidder is something to be glorified and supported.  This message has already been communicated by the fashion industry - so maybe it is completely on-brand for Teen Vogue.  


Grooming: Is R. Kelly Using The Same Tactics As Human Traffickers To Control His Victims?

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.

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.”

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

As Child Sex Abuse Cases Fill the News, Don’t Be A Bystander

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.

NEW FEDERAL ANTI-TRAFFICKING LAW POINTS TO PRINCIPLES OF ECPAT CODE OF CONDUCT AS MODEL FOR TRAVEL INDUSTRY

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.