Have we made progress in protecting children from sexual exploitation in the United States?
There is no reliable data about the number of sexually exploited children in the U.S., although there are some small, local studies that indicate the scale of the problem.
Even without hard numbers, it is clear that things have changed enormously since ECPAT-USA started working to end the exploitation of children 25 years ago. When you work on the issue for a long time, you see the change, but it doesn’t happen overnight.
This is the first of a series of posts about the progress we have made in preventing child sexual exploitation and protecting these children over the years, one step at a time.
I spent a day driving around North Carolina to learn how it is protecting children from sexual exploitation. This is just a snapshot of some of the efforts taking place. But it is fair to say that the state is mobilized!
North Carolina’s Safe Harbor law passed in 2013. The law increases punishment for both traffickers and buyers of sexual services. It mandates that anyone under 18 years old who is sexually exploited be treated as a victim, not a criminal. For more about the law, read our report Steps to Safety.
Much of the work to protect children takes place under the umbrella of combatting human trafficking. So the Safe Harbor law also created a Human Trafficking Commission. State-wide leadership also comes together under the state’s Coalition Against Human Trafficking.
I met with the team working at the University of North Carolina’s Project No Rest, that works protect people up to 25 years old. The idea behind the Project is to increase awareness, especially of those involved in the child welfare system, to reduce the number of trafficked youth, and to improve outcomes for those who are trafficked. Last year it published the “Statewide Plan for Addressing Trafficking of Child-Welfare involved Children and Youth in North Carolina”. Project No Rest will soon launch 5 pilot sites around the state to help them organize and implement anti-trafficking efforts in their communities.
Out in Greenville, I met with the leaders who created RestoreOne, which is developing the first shelter designed specifically for sexually exploited boys anywhere in the country.
Eastern North Carolina Stop Human Trafficking has been around for about 5 years. With limited funding it trains hotel staff, schools and the community about the fact that child trafficking happens even in North Carolina, and these children need protection.
In Rocky Mount I met Kenny Sumner of S.A.F.E., a ministry working to train and raise awareness about trafficking, provide education, resources and support for those who want to know how to identify victims and how to report it.
The latest news is that this year the state’s legislature passed a bill requiring schools to adopt curriculum about sex trafficking prevention.
There are so many more individuals and organizations I heard about but did not have a chance to meet. The key fact is that none of this existed 25 years ago. There was no awareness, no training for law enforcement, no services and shelters for exploited children, no prevention. The people of North Carolina learned there was a problem in their state and are working every day to solve it.
Written by Carol Smolenski, Executive Director, ECPAT-USA