Selling children into sex trafficking may seem like a remote issue, something that happens in far-off places where kids live in extreme poverty and their rights aren’t valued.
But it’s happening right here, all over the United States.
And a new campaign wants people to take note that more than 100,000 children are victims of sex trafficking in America every year.
ECPTAT-USA, a nonprofit that works to stop the sexual exploitation of children, recently released an eye-opening PSA that demonstrates how little most Americans know about the rampant child sex trade.
While interviewing New Yorkers on the topic, many pointed to Amsterdam, South America and Thailand, among other foreign regions, where they believed children to be at risk for exploitation.
The short spot goes on to reveal that thousands of children are victimized here, and that boys may be victimized just as much as girls are.
To shed further light on these horrific crimes, Carol Smolenski, ECPAT-USA executive director, recently sat down with HuffPost Live to explain who is most at risk and what needs to be done to protect these children.
Smolenski noted that vulnerable children, particularly those who have already been subjected to abuse, are prime targets.
"These kids have been raped so many times that it’s my job to convince them that they may as well get paid for it," a pimp told the organization in a recent report, Smolenski said.
Runaways, homeless kids and children in the foster care system also serve as a steady resource of victims.
"In most of my 14 different placements in foster care homes, I was raped and attached to a check," a survivor told Malika Saada Saar, director of Human Rights Project for Girls, according to The Washington Post. "I understood very early that I could be raped, cared for and connected to money. It was therefore easy to go from that to a pimp, and at least the pimp told me that he loved me."
So many victims fall through the cracks because children are often exploited after they’ve gone through puberty, but are integrated into the overall sex industry and are no longer seen as "innocent victims," Smolenski said.
But according to federal law, anyone younger than 18 who engages in prostitution is considered a sex trafficking victim.
The other issue is that traffickers often set up their headquarters at hotels where staff members either aren’t able to detect the signs or are too fearful to report the suspicious "guests."
ECPAT has helped develop a training program so that the hospitality industry is more equipped to respond to such crimes. And it recently recognized 13 companies, including Hilton Worldwide and Caribe Royal, that are working to protect children from being exploited.
"Once you realize how prevalent this issue is, that it’s right in front of us, potentially even in our meetings and events -- it’s impossible to sit back and do nothing," Lesley Young Cutler, owner of Envision Meetings & Incentives, Inc., said in a statement.