She laughed at me... I mean people have done that before. They do that. And to her credit she wasn't wholly dismissive. It was really just a chuckle - a little knowing bemusement. She couldn't help herself.
"What? What'd I say?"
I caught it, and I wanted to know. I was serious about this shit (still am, obv.) and I wanted
to explore it. She was the expert. That's exactly what I was looking for. To learn the issues - the ropes. I craved some access. Still do.
"Oh It's just everyone starts out like that..."
Carol Smolenski is in her third decade as director of ECPAT USA, and has been a relentless
lead on the fight against modern slavery. At the helm of this amazing group, she has sought to make the issue known in the US. Make it felt. Truth to light. She has pulled back the curtain and forced us to take a committed and unflinching look. No bullshit. Carol has been demanding it for 20 plus years.
Change. I had been researching this issue for a while by this point. On my own. Google at the ready. I was definitely and actively searching for the New. My life had recently presented me with second chances, and ignited new curiosities and drives. Passions and the road ahead. There was so much out there - so much need. The self-involved/self-satisfied/self-aggrandized paradigm had grown so damn stale. I'm just not that interesting.
But fuck it. There was true work to be done. True efforts made. Truth told period. Where the hell had I been?!.. Never mind. I was here now. In this office; pen at the ready. Carol was taking that time with me, and, despite my cliched and naive enthusiasms, she spoke to me and she patiently brought me in.
And I'm still here. Still championing Carol, ECPAT, and the fucks they give. I'm thankful for their wisdom, and I'm proud to call Carol Smolenski my mentor and friend.
How did you first become involved with the Trafficking issue?
I was a PHD student in urban planning finishing course work at Columbia in 1989. A friend of mine ran an organization now called Childfund and he needed someone to start a New York office. Before then nobody had really heard of [the trafficking issue] and there were no programs in place to help. It was really bleak.
When I started the New York office... I learned all the terrible things that happened to children and after that I could not look away. I couldn't do anything else.
How did ECPAT International start out?
Originally, ECPAT International’s agenda was sex tourism which is people travelling to asia to have sex with kids and there were these very vivid descriptions of children being offered for sale right out in the open ..very blatant. Very young kids. It was open season on sexually abusing and exploiting for profit. [And] Americans are a part of the problem. How can we not do something about this?
And how did ECPAT USA begin?
It actually came under the umbrella of the faith based community... Mainly Protestant churches took it up in a big way and a few children’s rights organizations like Defense for Children International, Childfund, and International Catholic Child Bureau. That was the time when the Convention on the Rights of the Child was passed by the UN  and went into force which really gave our movement more impetus.
Was this first surge of momentum mostly on the international front?
Yes, [and even] after the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed , all of the advocacy, services, and training were around international victims of trafficking only.
Why do you think this was the sole focus initially?
The problem is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act defines anybody under 18 years old induced into commercial sex [activity] as a victim of human trafficking. [Instead, in this country], everybody under 18 years who were in prostitution were being treated as kids who were breaking laws and had to be punished..
There is more movement happening now, as is demonstrated by the Safe Harbor Laws which [though they still] have a long way to go, means there really is a paradigm shift afoot in law enforcement in particular...of recognizing these kids as victims, not [simply] as bad kids.
What is ECPAT USA working on currently?
Our work is a lot of policy and legislation. So I deal with a staff member in Washington who works with the ATEST Coalition for child protection from sexual exploitation. We’re hoping that when we publish this new Safe Harbor Report, we will have more funding to make better state laws as well.
How does that break down? What does state do that federal can’t do?
The federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, defining people under 18 as victims of human trafficking, has no role at all in the State Criminal Justice System… That’s why we need all 50 states to pass the laws... But prosecutors are still resistant and that’s the main push back against Safe Harbor. Law enforcement want to keep some leverage over these kids... and treat them as criminals.
Do you see any movement on that?
I do see movement, I have seen many more people including criminal justice systems acknowledging that [these kids] need to be treated as victims.
How does the NYPD rank?
Well, New York was the first to pass the law, and they do have the Criminal Human Trafficking Unit… [which is] fantastic at recognizing human trafficking in both adults and children. The problem is that there are 35,000 NYPD cops, and not all of them will recognize a human trafficking victim. They’ll [still] see a prostitute. I’ll never forget when we first did training back in 2003, a woman cop from the special victims unit came up to me and said “We found a brothel in Queens last year, and now I realize after this training, that they were trafficking victims.”
Has men’s involvement in these issues increased?
Yes. Years ago I would do presentations with mixed audiences, men and women, explaining how girls become victims of human trafficking. How someone took advantage of [an abused girl] and forced her into prostitution [because she had] nothing and nobody. The women would all be nodding their heads like they get how it could happen, whereas the men are still thinking “But she’s a prostitute…”
I feel like you don’t really get that anymore. I’ve seen many more outspoken men joining the movement, such as yourself.
Obviously the corporate involvement is key.
So along with the federal and state policies, we work with the private sector and the hospitality industry and we have gotten a lot of momentum there. The Code of Conduct is now very well known in the hotel industry although we still have the issue of them signing up for it.
What do you think is the reluctance is there?
They probably are thinking they are already doing all of these things and training and they don’t feel that they have to sign anything. Now that we have done a few risk management conferences we are sending the message that in fact signing it is a way to protect yourself from a lawsuit that might be coming down the pike.
A recent project we have is a youth outreach program in New York City. We have been going into schools and giving presentations. We are seeking to expand the Youth Leadership Project and get kids to be more activist in the fight against the sexual exploitation of children.
That’s something that I’m very excited about because I think getting kids involved is the best way to protect kids. Research shows that when younger kids are faced with a challenging or dangerous situation that they don’t understand, they will turn to a parent or caregiver. But after they turn 13 years old they [instead] turn to each other for advice. So we need every kid to know what this is when a guy starts talking to them online in a way that a parent would find alarming.
We also need to deal with the online sale of kids and the escort ads. because there are adolescent children mixed in with adults in the prostitution ads on Backpage. Also online luring [where] kids are being approached and guys are saying all kinds of things.
[Finally] we need services and care for kids who have been sexually exploited. That’s something that we need to spend money on, and no one wants to talk about spending money.
MEANS contributor Sara Bagwell, has noted that the foster care system has been an unfortunate channel for trafficking disadvantaged youth.
Just last year a federal law was passed that called on state welfare systems to take several steps to identify and protect at risk kids in their systems. So that’s a good step... But still, many states still will only take a child into their system if that child was abused or neglected by a family member. But if that child was abused at the hands of a pimp, then they are not defined as an abused child. We really need to change that.
The apprehension I think is because child protective agencies... just don’t have enough people to take on more cases. I can’t say I point the finger and say it’s their fault. But it just has to be. We need to get to where we aren’t just forgetting these kids because we don’t have room for them.
What makes you angry? What still frustrates you? What pisses you off?
Still after all these years the fact that this is still happening here. I grew up in this conservative suburban neighborhood with the belief that bad things only happen to bad people and you get what you deserve and that whole philosophy. But it’s happening right here. How can that be? Kids are still bought and sold in prostitution right here. I’m gratified to say that we have made progress - that things have changed. But not enough.
What makes you hopeful?
Well as I said we’ve made so much progress and, when you’ve done it as long as I have, you can really see it. And getting the private sector involved has been hugely gratifying.
What have you been able to bring to the fight?
Well, I’ve kept at it all these years even when nobody was interested, nobody was acknowledging it or listening. I just kept going to work and turned that around. Now lots of people know about it and are doing something. I just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
For the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, we honor
Carol and her team at ECPAT-USA
Images produced for MEANS by Photographer Bethany Bandera