Palmacci ’19 Leads Panel on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children

March 30, 2021
By: Worcester State University News


Sophia Palmacci ’19 is the latest in a line of alumni who have landed fellowships in the Education Department at Merrimack College. On Friday, March 26, Palmacci moderated a panel of experts on the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC). This panel represented Palmacci’s thesis for her Master’s in Education in Community Engagement.

Palmacci’s community placement in the Merrimack program was at the Allston Brighton Community Development Corporation, where her investigation and research took place. Her panel included statewide experts, including Jonathan Tiru ’15, a Department of Children and Families  social worker; Kayla Smith, CSEC coordinator at Children’s Advocacy Center (Hampton County); and Stephanie Bandoo- Cazeau, project director for the Lowell Ending Trafficking of Youth (LET Youth) program at the Center for Hope & Healing.

Palmacci explained three different theories as to why children become drawn into toxic and exploitive relationships. She also led the group in a discussion of the warning signs for when a child might be exploited, while at the same time being unable to express that or ask for help.

All three panelists noted that, while the pandemic may yet have some silver linings, the commercial exploitation of children has increased, and, in some ways, become more difficult to contain.

Tiru, who came through the WSU-RFK Fellows Program before moving on to Department of Children and Families, related how he had a case where he did not see the warning signs. When the truth was revealed to him in subsequent meetings, “I cried,” he said.

All three panelists noted that Americans will often not address this issue, or be in denial of the complexities of the processes at work. “We often think it happens in the third world,” Bandoo-Cazeau related. In fact, this trade is happening all around us and often involves family members of people that children know and have learned to trust.

Social media also provides cover for these activities.

“Tik tok makes it seem normal,” Smith related. “Tik Tok makes it seem like these types of relationship are normal or cool.” She went on to talk about how the resulting trauma is anything but normal. And what makes it difficult is that many centers are understaffed and, even when properly staffed, social workers, police, and others are not trained in trauma-informed care. Smith related how her office distributes a card that looks like it is from a pizza shop, but has a number youth can call if they need help.

The central messages of the evening included the need for raising awareness about CSEC as well as the need to build a network to support children who need help. Bandoo-Cazeau noted, “This is a very real problem and is happening around us with increasing frequency.”

For more information on how you can help, contact Sophia Palmacci,


Written by Mark Wagner, Ph.D.

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