Editor’s note: This article first published in the June 2023 Special Edition of Beyond the Meeting Room, ALHI’s printed magazine, a luxury lifestyle publication focused on sharing compelling, inspirational and educational stories from beyond the four walls of a meeting room. World Day Against Trafficking in Persons will be observed on July 30, 2023. The day is set aside for the sensitization of global citizens to the human trafficking pandemic. Find more resources on human trafficking here.
When ECPAT-USA founder Carol Smolenski decided to retire in November 2019 after three decades of fighting to end child sexual exploitation and trafficking, she didn't hesitate in handing the reins over to Lori Cohen. Cohen stepped in seamlessly and continues Smolenski's visionary work today. Just this June, the organization changed its name to PACT (Protect All Children from Trafficking).
Beyond the Meeting Room spoke with Cohen about how that work looks in 2023.
BTMR: Lori, what brought you to the organization?
Cohen: I'm a triple A: an accidental anti-trafficking advocate. I am an attorney; I worked for a number of years in the Midwest with an immigration clinic run by the Catholic church. When I moved back home to New York for family reasons, I started volunteering with a program for immigrant women who are victims of gender-based violence.
Many were identified by the police as victims of domestic violence; but when interviewed, shared stories of boyfriends and husbands forcing them to have sex with other men to make money. Typical quotas were 15, 20 men a day. If they didn't comply, they were beaten.
What brought home the violence of the situation was meeting a woman who became pregnant with her boyfriend's baby. He beat her to try to induce a miscarriage, and so she ran away to protect her baby. I realized: This is beyond domestic violence; this is domestic violence on steroids.
ECPAT-USA was a source I turned to for my clients, many of whom were forced into the commercial sex trade when they were extremely young. The more I worked with them, the more I learned about the brutality and cruelty of this criminal enterprise.
BTMR: What changes are you seeing in child sex trafficking?
Cohen: Social media has accelerated the time it takes to groom a child. A study from Wales found that it can take as little as 20 minutes for an adult to win their trust and get the child to send a sexually explicit photo. Once the child sends that first image, the groomer has blackmail material. They demand that the child start engaging in sex acts. In person, this process could take a year or more. An online child is very responsive to this stimulus.
Increasingly, boys are being preyed on, with catastrophic results. He sends a photo; turns out he is communicating with a middle-aged man, not the young girl he thought he was talking to. The man demands more photos, threatens to kill his family, release the photos to the community. I know a recent situation where the boy was so ashamed, he killed himself. It's not such a unique story anymore.
“What's good for business is also the right thing to do, making sure trafficking is not happening on your premises.”
Lori Cohen, CEO, ECPAT-USA
BTMR: How has the organization teamed with the hotel industry to fight child sex trafficking?
Cohen: We work closely with the American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) and Associated Luxury Hotels International (ALHI). They are working assiduously among members to spread awareness, train employees and disrupt this business. ALHI has been extraordinary about making our trainings available for all hotel staff. CEO Michael Dominguez has been a leader in the industry in this work. He's sincere, passionate and committed, and as a result, it's impactful.
In conjunction with AHLA and Marriott International, ECPAT has a free online training on our website; it's seen as the industry standard. In a number of states, it's now a required training. Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey has proposed a bill that would allow the federal government to give preferred status to hotels that have completed the training. This would offer a significant reward for hotels that train their staff.
BTMR: What initiatives are you excited about?
Cohen: ECPAT operates in 103 countries. Our South Korean partners are doing innovative and creative work. ECPAT Colombia has established a robust shelter and direct service model. Mexico is doing amazing work in travel and tourism, focusing on how to protect children from sex tourists—most, unfortunately, from the U.S.
I focus on what our partners are doing, what we are doing in prevention, rather than be stopped by how terrifying it is.
We are all looking at the emotional impact of the trafficking relationship. Does a child have low self-esteem? Do they feel unloved? Do they not have a trusted adult to talk to about stresses? That need is being met by traffickers in online formats. We are trying to raise awareness. If a child is not receiving love at home, they will seek it elsewhere.
BTMR: What are your hopes for the future?
Cohen: Carol took up the mantle of this work when no other U.S. nonprofit wanted to talk about it. ECPAT-USA has been raising awareness ever since. It can't just be the nonprofit world, though. We need law enforcement, young people partnerships; the private sector is a critical partner in this.
I'm a very optimistic person. What's good for business is also the right thing to do, making sure trafficking is not happening on your premises. We continue to raise awareness so there are more and more partners looking for the signs of trafficking. Once you see, it's hard not to look.
If you suspect human trafficking, contact the police or the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1-888-373-7888 or email@example.com.
Find more resources on human trafficking here.