While quarantining at home helps prevent the spread of coronavirus, this period of isolation also means that children across the United States are at heightened risk of abuse, exploitation and sex trafficking.
Four Port Washington residents have teamed up to create a series of multimedia public service announcements to educate children, teens and parents about the signs of sex trafficking. The PSAs, called “Once Upon a Crime” and launched through the Selah Way Foundation, are the collaborative effort of Andrea Martone, director of communications for the Selah Way Foundation, an arm of the anti-sex trafficking organization Selah Freedom; Dr. Susan Small-Weil, psychologist and co-founder of Seiden Advertisement; Laura Leigh Carroll, an actor who did the voice over for the PSA radio spots; and David Gelb, a producer at Brooklyn-based Dreambear Productions.
Martone, Carroll and Gelb grew up in Port Washington and attended the local schools.
The series launched last week across television, radio, print and billboards. Lamar Outdoor Advertising even offered to post the print ad series on its billboards for free, Martone said.
The PSAs are retellings of classic fairy tales and reveal how “Romeos” manipulate girls by preying on their desires and insecurities, Martone said.
“Once Upon a Crime” talks about how these kids are lured, and they’re promised… anything, and then they get addicted to drugs, and you know what the rest is,” she said.
She pointed out that sex trafficking victims are often people who were abused as children.
“People in our society think that if you are recruited into the sex trafficking industry, that it’s because [you] want to,” said Martone. “But the fact is that it’s absolutely the opposite: these girls are groomed, they’ve been sexually abused since [they were] kids.”
“So it’s likely that they’re going to meet some guy, and he’s going to promise her the world, and he’s going to give her drugs, and he’s going to have a relationship with her,” she said. “But inevitably it turns into her being beholden to him, and him seeing her as a commodity.”
Girls in small towns across Long Island and around the country often get sucked into trafficking through drug addiction, particularly to oxycontin, Martone said.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, children and teens are spending more time online.
“These kids [sex trafficking victims] are being recruited through the internet,” Martone said.
The recruiters are not whom one would expect.
“Some of the recruiters can even be as young as 16, 17 and being paid to recruit girls on behalf of traffickers,” she said, explaining that they invite their victims to parties and make promises in order to lure them in.
Children in abusive households are also particularly at risk right now, Martone said. While they are in school, they can talk to teachers or counselors. Now they have nowhere to turn.
Beyond educating themselves via the “Once Upon a Crime” PSAs, parents and teens can sign up for the Selah Freedom’s online program called Sex, Lies, and Media. Prior to the coronavirus crisis, trained prevention coordinators traveled to school districts and presented the program in person. Now that schools are shut down, Selah Way has made Sex, Lies, and Media available online.
So far 350 parents and children have participated in the virtual program, Martone said.
Selah Freedom and the Selah Way Foundation recently successfully lobbied for a law requiring Florida public schools to educate students about recognizing the signs of child abuse and sex trafficking recruitment. California currently is the only other state with such a law.
Martone said Selah Freedom and the Selah Way Foundation lobbied to get a bill in front of Congress that would extend this requirement to every state in the nation. The bill was supposed to pass Jan. 1, she said, but the coronavirus pandemic has pushed it back.
“When things settle down we expect this to pass, and if it does, it will mandate every school in America to have this curriculum, just like California and Florida,” she said.
Selah Way also recently entered into a partnership with Global Strategic Operatives. It is providing thousands to train healthcare workers on how to spot the signs of sex trafficking, Martone said.
“Eighty-eight percent of sex trafficking victims seek medical care, but healthcare workers often do not realize what’s going on because of a lack of training to recognize the signs and symptoms,” she said.
The initiative, which includes trainings led by trafficking survivors and expert clinicians, just launched at Northwell Health in Manhasset.
“It’s up to the hospital workers to spot these signs [such as bruises or STDs] and then they can call us or the police and get the girls out of the hospital,” Martone said.
“We cannot do this alone,” she said. “We have to have help from teachers and from parents and from healthcare workers. Everybody has to work in tandem.”
Martone added, “This is not an epidemic that’s going to go away anytime soon. The greatest thing we can do right now is raise significant awareness.”