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'If there are buyers, there will be sellers': Jeffery Epstein case exposes horrific truth behind America's child trafficking problem

Gone are the days that buying and selling children as modern-day slaves only came with the whole white van, men in ski masks and the whole shebang
UPDATED JUL 18, 2019

Child trafficking is not just something that only happens to those who end up in the big bad city or to those in far off countries where there are not enough morsels to feed every mouth — it is a reality in all 50 states of the United States of America. Gone are the days that buying and selling children as modern-day slaves only came with the white van, men in ski masks and the whole shebang.

They aren't always tied to a pole. Sometimes, it is fear that keeps them tethered to their trafficker by "invisible" chains. They are lured in with empty promises, false job offers, and coercion. Today, the ones who engage in this commercial enterprise could be wolves in sheep's clothing — your neighbor, your pastor, your diplomat, your philanthropist.

Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell at de Grisogono Sponsors The 2005 Wall Street Concert Series Benefiting Wall Street Rising, with a Performance by Rod Stewart at Cipriani Wall Street on March 15, 2005, in New York City. (Photo by Joe Schildhorn/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

 But, those who fight it could also be your neighbor, your pastor, your diplomat, your philanthropist. And this doesn't just include girl children. The point is, child trafficking doesn't have a stereotype and more often than not, people get away with their crimes because of just how vulnerable their victims are. 

Financier Jeffrey Epstein is one of the raging cases of conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. A multi-millionaire who, even though brought to court and authorities identifying over 34 of his victims, was given such a cushy plea deal that it was nothing less than being let off the hook. In his renewed case, however, he is being charged with sex trafficking and conspiracy to traffic minors for sex. Court documents allege that at least 40 underage girls were brought into Epstein's mansion for sexual encounters. The girls were often recruited by people they knew, who would then get a finder's fee. 

So why is it so hard to curb child trafficking despite global efforts and the knowledge that it very much exists in modern society?  What are the efforts being made?

As long as there are buyers, there will be sellers 

"It is a commercial enterprise, so unfortunately as long as there are people who are willing to buy children for sex, traffickers will continue to capitalize on this fact," Patti Smith, spokesperson for National Center for Missing and Exploited Children explains.

Another very important reason why the number of children affected is so much — there are just that many. According to the International Labor Organization, at any given moment in 2016 (the last year for which it has data), 4.8 million people were being forcibly exploited sexually worldwide. In 2012, the International Labor Organization estimated that 20.9 million people were enslaved, but these are estimates — not facts, said a spokesperson for Love 146. Love146 programs in the United States include Survivor Care, and Prevention Education through our child trafficking and exploitation prevention curriculum, Not a #Number.

"Trafficking is an illegal underground issue; it is incredibly complex and underreported. For these reasons, it is difficult to measure, and more research is desperately needed," they said. 

Everyone has a role to play in eradicating child trafficking 

There are many non-profits, law enforcement, prosecutors, legislators and service providers working towards eradicating the problem, but that is not nearly enough. A complex crime that requires a multidisciplinary response, it is communities across the country that have to come together, Smith says.  "They have built task forces, that include multidisciplinary teams, established specifically to provide coordinated responses to the issue," she said of the efforts being made.

"To properly serve the needs of child sex trafficking survivors and increase the likelihood of successfully holding those responsible for their victimization accountable, everyone has a role to play," she added. The organizations work closely with families, law enforcement, survivors, child-serving professionals, and communities every day to raise awareness of the issue, increase the ability to recognize the indicators and provide the mechanism to make a report, she says. You can report an incident as such here.  

Awareness is another key factor that helps to recognize child trafficking and only when it is recognized can it be combatted. "Professional education is a key element in the fight against human trafficking and exploitation of children," said the spokesperson for Love146. "Deficits in awareness and understanding among professionals who work with children contribute to low identification of those who are at high risk, as well as those who are actively being trafficked and exploited in the commercial sex industry," they added. 

Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) are the US Senate and House bills that as the FOSTA-SESTA package became law on April 11, 2018. They clarify the country's sex trafficking law to make it illegal to knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking, and hold online services and users liable for their actions.

"For years we saw legal case after case brought by child sex trafficking victims fail because courts were broadly interpreting legal immunity to protect even websites that participated in trafficking children online. Today, because of the legal clarifications provided by the passage of FOSTA, these children are no longer deprived of their day in court against online entities that knowingly supported their trafficking," Smith said.

Online safety

Smith says that traffickers are using social networking for recruitment. Parents and teens should talk about what information teens are sharing online, who can see it and who they are talking to online, she advises. "It is important to challenge the glorification of pimp culture and replace it with the reality of what a pimp is. If teens are the target, we need to equip them with the information they need to protect themselves and avoid recruitment tactics," she adds.

(Ludovic Toinel/Unsplash)

Prevention and spotting all the signs is one of the practical measures of solving the problem.  

The sentencing of a known online platform that was involved, delayed  

FOSTA's passage shut down in April 2018, an online space that had gone on to become the largest place to buy and sell sex and included minors. Its CEO Carl Ferrer has pleaded guilty to human trafficking last year but his sentencing has yet again been delayed. Sentencing has been postponed until July 2020 for two managers convicted in cases that accuse the site of ignoring warnings to stop running prostitution ads. 

Children as young as 14 years of age were bought and sold on the site. According to an unsealed federal indictment, there were 17 alleged victims trafficked on the site, including both adults and minors, Reuters reported in 2018. While one teen was stabbed to death, another was murdered in 2015 by a customer who then tried to burn her body. In one case, a teen was made to do sex acts at gunpoint, gang-raped and choked until she had seizures, the agency reported. 

No such thing as a child prostitute 

Child sex trafficking occurs when a child under 18 years of age is involved in a commercial sex act where sex is traded for money, food, shelter, drugs or anything else of value.  "It’s important to remember that even if the child believes it was his or her choice, they are a victim, and an adult or perpetrator is exploiting their vulnerabilities. A child cannot consent to sex with an adult," Smith notes. She also adds that the phrase "child prostitute" should never be used while referring to victims of trafficking because there really is no such thing. 
The average age of a child sex trafficking victim reported missing to NCMEC is 15 and of more than 23,500 endangered runaways reported to NCMEC in 2018, one in seven were likely victims of child sex trafficking. "'See something, say something' empowers the public," she says. 

If you think you have observed indicators of child sex trafficking or a child that could be a runaway, make a report or contact the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children 24-hours a day, 7 days a week at 1-800-843-5678 (THE-LOST).   

If you ever suspect any suspicious activity pertinent to trafficking the National Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888.