Statement

Don't Let Epstein's Enablers & Associates Escape, ECPAT-USA Says

Jeffrey Epstein, who was arrested on charges of sex trafficking in July, was found dead by suspected suicide Saturday morning. The indictment in his case alleged that from 2002-2005, Epstein sexually exploited minors, some as young as 14 in Manhattan and Palm Springs.

“Jeffrey Epstein’s death should not be the end of the story. We must also bring to justice his enablers and those who joined him in abusing young girls,” said Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, the country’s leader in fighting child sex trafficking. “By all accounts, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of young girls involved and also other men involved in sexually exploiting them. There were many people who aided or enabled Epstein, including in the criminal justice system. There can be no justice and no end to the Epstein case until everyone involved is held to account. There were also many people who saw what was going on and were suspicious, but said nothing. This case makes it clear why it’s essential to speak out to save children.”

Statement from ECPAT-USA on Secretary Alex Acosta

It is an affront to young victims of sex trafficking everywhere for Secretary of Labor Alex Acosta to remain in his position, especially in the aftermath of his press conference in which he defended his behavior overseeing the criminal prosecution case of serial child sex predator, Jeffrey Epstein.  

Portraying himself as a hero, Mr. Acosta deflected all the blame toward the State of Florida and the Palm Beach state prosecutor’s office.  Mr. Acosta remained unapologetic to the victims.   

Since the press conference took place, the former state's attorney in Palm Beach County, Florida issued a statement saying that Acosta’s office had drafted a 53-page indictment against Epstein that it never filed.   

ECPAT-USA has worked for 29 years to ensure that children are protected from sexual exploitation. The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act became law in 2000 and is the premier tool available to federal prosecutors to indict people who sexually prey upon children. This law and other federal anti-trafficking legislation drew bipartisan support because there is broad national agreement that children should be protected from sex trafficking.  But bipartisan and broad agreement means nothing if prosecutors are not willing to use these laws against those who abuse children.   

Acosta’s press conference left open a number of unanswered questions and anomalies in the case that other federal prosecutors have raised since he spoke.  We call on the Trump administration to live up to its stated commitment to fight human trafficking by asking Mr. Acosta for his resignation.  

ECPAT-USA, the nation’s leader in eradicating child exploitation and trafficking, remains determined to keep this issue in the public eye and to ensure that Mr. Acosta is held responsible for his irresponsible actions as U.S. Attorney.

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

The Ordinary Complicity That Puts All Children At Risk

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.    

A Tribute to Joan Levy

ECPAT-USA sadly acknowledges the passing of Joan Levy, a long-time friend, board member and Representative to the UN Department of Public Information.  Joan was an active member of the ECPAT-USA board for more than twelve years. She was a regular presence at ECPAT-USA events, very often pitching in to support our work with good humor and a willingness to do whatever needed to get done.  She was an ideal representative at the UN for ECPAT-USA. Thanks to her commitment to protecting exploited children, her knowledge about UN systems and the respect she gained from staff at the UN Department of Information she always had the answers that a small NGO needed to navigate the organization.  Joan brought good humor, a positive attitude, strengthen and grace to the work she did for ECPAT-USA. She had a powerful concern for human rights and for protecting children from sexual exploitation. She will be very much missed.

Joan’s family has requested that the above post include a link to make a donation to ECPAT-USA in honor of her legacy of advocacy and generosity. You can give to our programs here.


Stop the Torture of Children at the United States Border

Today ECPAT-USA's Executive Director, Carol Smolenski, released this statement calling for an immediate end to the torture of children at the United States border:

"Children are vulnerable to human trafficking—they are easy to manipulate, trick, and control.  We teach them that adults will take care of them. When a child is separated from their family for any reason whether poverty, natural disasters, wars, or through government policies they become more vulnerable to human trafficking.  

Being separated from one’s family can be extremely traumatizing. This trauma increases a child’s vulnerability to mental health problems that make them easy prey for people who want to take advantage of them such as traffickers and abusers. Growing up within an intact family provides a protective environment and supports a healthy prosperous future for every child. I cannot imagine a worse place to grow up in than an internment camp.  

A two-year-old Honduran asylum seeker cries as her mother is searched and detained near the U.S.-Mexico border (John Moore/Getty Images)

The photos and videos we’ve all seen through the media are horrifying. I thought I lived in a country that at least made pronouncements that children are important, that we hold them in high regard, that children everywhere are precious and entitled to protection and care.  

The entire world has reached a consensus that children are people who have human rights, and that they even have special rights to protection because of their vulnerabilities. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has been universally ratified, with one exception. The U.S. is the only country that has not ratified this treaty. The current display of officially sanctioned child abuse and neglect epitomizes just how far outside the mainstream of global child-protection principles the current U.S. administration is.  

What is happening at the U.S. border with children from Latin America is a perversion of law enforcement and migration policy. It is the antithesis of everything the U.S. stands for (remember “give me your tired, your poor”?) As Americans, we believe in a United States that offers a shining beacon of hope to people from around the world. We thought we were better than this. We thought that inflicting suffering on babies and children in order to coerce their parents to act differently was something that bad countries did. It turns out that many of our fellow citizens don’t think this way at all. They think that any kind of emotional torture, even on the youngest children, is acceptable if you think it might keep people from coming to the U.S.

There are no words to describe how despicable this is. Every child needs their parents. Every government policy should protect the parent-child bond. The current policy of separating children from their parents, for whatever reason, is simply evil. It has to be stopped in the name of protecting children and of protecting our country. I urge the Administration to change policies that allow for the separation of children from their families at the borders and the release of all children back into the safety of their families."

Cover Photo: John Moore/Getty Images

ECPAT-USA Responds to DOJ's Seizure of Backpage

Today ECPAT-USA issued the following statement in response to the U.S. Department of Justice's shut down of online marketplace Backpage.com. The seizure of Backpage.com and it's affiliated websites comes just two weeks after the passage of FOSTA-SESTA. Carol Smolenski, Executive Director of ECPAT-USA, said:

"One of ECPAT-USA's main goals in supporting FOSTA-SESTA was to shut down Backpage because it's the primary online marketplace for buying and selling of children's bodies. Kids who are abused in the commercial sex trade are affected by the trauma they endure for the rest of their lives. It is long overdue for this website to be shut."