Forty percent of human trafficking cases in the U.S. involve the sexual exploitation of a child according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Children as young as 12 years old are trafficked for sexual exploitation. In many states, these children can be arrested for prostitution, even though they are below the age of consent.

Carol Smolenski, executive director of ECPAT-USA, knows these grim statistics all too well. For 25 years, she has fought relentlessly to stop the commercial sexual exploitation of children.

At a coffee shop near the United Nations in New York, Smolenski talked to Salon about the persistent misconceptions surrounding human trafficking, the problem with charging exploited children with prostitution instead of treating them as victims, the role of the travel industry and the types of children who are most vulnerable to fall prey to traffickers. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

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