An Interview with Sandy Skelaney, Open Doors Statewide Director


What drew you to serving sex trafficked children and young adults? 

I have always known that I am comfortable in spaces where others are not, but I did not understand what a gift that was until I began working in the anti-trafficking field and saw first-hand how emotionally difficult it was for other people to even discuss the issue.

My own adverse childhood experiences may have pointed me here initially, but it was my ability to swim in these deep waters without drowning that made me feel a sense of purpose, like I could be helpful. Working side by side with survivors and seeing their spirit of resiliency and heart, despite being most unjustly treated by the world, inspired and convinced me that I was on the right path.


What is the one achievement you’re most proud of? 

I am filled with immense gratitude reflecting on all that I have achieved. Professionally,however, I am most proud of having spearheaded Florida’s first multi-disciplinary response specifically for child sex trafficking and exploitation by launching Project GOLD at Kristi House in Miami in 2007.

Every achievement was a major milestone in the early days, and I had the honor of participating in building Florida’s initial framework for responding to child trafficking by helping create the first DCF child trafficking maltreatment codes and introducing and advocating for the passage of the Florida Safe Harbor Act in 2012. This landmark legislation shields children from criminalization for prostitution offenses and instead provides them services through DCF as victims.


What changes (good, bad or ugly) have you witnessed since you first got involved with the anti-trafficking movement?

Having a front row seat to the evolution of anti-trafficking movement for the last 20 years has been incredibly inspiring. When I helped GEMS organize the First National Summit of Commercially Sexually Exploited Youth in 2002, there were only a dozen organizations across the country that were providing direct services specifically to child victims of sex trafficking and a handful of survivor leaders like Norma Hotaling, Rachel Lloyd, and Vednita Carter pioneering this new path for us. Katherine Chon and Derek Ellerman were launching Polaris Project that eventually became host to our National Human Trafficking Hotline, and Shared Hope International had yet to coin the phrase “domestic minor sex trafficking”.

We were fresh off the enactment of the United Nations Palermo Protocol and the US Trafficking Victim’s Protection Act, pivotal documents formalizing, for the first time, the definition of human trafficking at the international and national levels and making trafficking a federal crime. Att hat time, the focus ofa nti-trafficking efforts was largely on foreign-born victims of labor trafficking, and awareness of child sex trafficking and domestic victims were just starting to get people’s attention.

Back then, children as young as 12 were regularly getting arrested and charged with the crime of prostitution across the United States. Let that sink in… Now every state legally recognizes that children in the sex industry are victims of exploitation.

So, despite the messiness and bureaucracy we may now experience, the frustration of working together on multi-disciplinary teams, the saturation of community members offering help that may not always be helpful, and despite feeling like little has changed to move the needle in the last five years, I can tell you with certainty that we have moved mountains in a relatively short amount of time politically-speaking.

I am most proud of the hundreds of survivor leaders who have emerged with an incredible force to steer this ship. They are relentlessly advocating even when (unfortunately) challenged from within the movement, and we would all be better off stilling ur own egos and agendas and centering their voices and expertise in our work.

While I celebrate the big picture progress, I am not without disappointment over some misguided work. We often view human trafficking as a black and white issue (good vs. evil), when it is much more nuanced. Trafficking is a symptom of complex social problems rooted in social inequity, adverse childhood experiences, and system failures, and yet we sometimes treat it as the only issue that we should address, at times neglecting to help vulnerable people on the periphery.

Our media, while rarely using terms like “child hooker” anymore, is still primarily feeding victim imagery of young, white, helpless girls to the public, reinforcing unrealistic ideas of what a victim of trafficking should look like. The word “rescue” is used prolifically without understanding that “rescuing” is an action done by the rescuer upon an object (victim) and does not center the survivor who acts courageously by escaping or accepting assistance. Words matter.

In our best attempt to “rescue” victims, we sometimes set up paternalistic systems of care that (I am told) can resemble the promises of rescue that traffickers used during recruitment. We are doing good, but I think we can do better.

I wish people would take a look at our collective and individual work; celebrate the achievements and the lives we have impacted, and also think critically about the things that need revision at the core, so we can be our very best for people who need it most. The root of our anti-trafficking work should be grounded in mindfulness and compassion for ourselves, for our community, and most of all for the survivors that we serve.


Do you have any hidden talents/fun facts you’d like to share? 

I’ve been a bass player in a few bands over the years.


What would you like to share that hasn’t been asked?

Two decades of watching how advancements in technology have impacted survivors, how we have responded with policy such as the Fighting Online Sex Trafficking Act, and how we have used artificial intelligence and other tech tools to combat trafficking piqued my interested in tech policy. I’m currently getting my PhD in Public Affairs at Florida International University researching blockchain technology.