How to advocate for trafficking prevention in your local school districts

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Gavel

WASHINGTON, DC, 30 May 2012 – Ever since Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed into legislation the SB 259/HB1188 bill, I have received emails from advocates around the country asking how they might bring similar change to their own states.  This bill, which was sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegate Vivian E. Watts, will require the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to collaborate and provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies to prevent trafficking of children.  As a survivor advocate for this bill, I’m proud that others want to join the movement.

On January 16th, 2012, I testified in Richmond, Virginia before the General Assembly Education Committee regarding SB259.  As a survivor of child trafficking, I cared about this bill very much.

Initially, I was unnerved by the political setting.  A panel of busy lawmakers pushed each impassioned, and sometimes angry, speaker past the crowd of observers anxiously awaiting their own turns to speak for or against some other bill.  I nervously scratched and scribbled at my speech until I was finally called upon to speak.  Although I was uneasy, I was also adamant about explaining why a law like this is imperative in the fight to protect our children from predatory child traffickers.

Each legislator voted favorably, one after another; it passed unanimously.

My goal is to ensure that advocates across the country are given the same opportunity to speak and to experience a similar sense of honor and victory when their bills pass.  In order to make this possible, I consulted with James Dold for advice.  James is the Policy Counsel with Polaris Project, an organization which was instrumental in the passing of this law, and he suggested the following steps:

1. Build a case – Quote general nationwide statistics from organizations like Polaris Project, Shared Hope International, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and others.

Quote local statistics by consulting with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC).  The NHTRC can provide details for calls made to their hotline from your state.  For example, the NHTRC can provide details for the number of calls made, the number of calls regarding minors, the number of calls from teachers, and the number of potential minor victims, along with other useful information.

Cite news articles which report areas of the state considered to be “hotspots” for the trafficking of children, recent arrests, and recent activity by the Attorneys General and the Governor’s offices.

2. Be realistic – Don’t overload the proposed legislation with details; keep it simple. Don’t specify proposals for the actual school curricula as this will create conflict; instead, propose only a general statement like “awareness and prevention strategies will be provided.”  Take it one step at a time as amendments can be added later.  Also, restrict requests for mandatory training as this will require extra costs; perhaps this can be proposed at a later, more economically-friendly time.

3. Advocate – Pick a well-respected sponsor for the bill.  The Chair of the Education Committee would be a great choice, or someone who is in a leadership position in the House or Senate, like Majority Leader or Majority Whip.  Mobilize efforts across the state by writing Op-Ed pieces, writing letters to the editor, lobbying for the bill, collaborating with empowered survivors, and organizing press conferences and other events.

“It [is] important to get bi-partisan support and really drive home the point that educators are one of the first lines of defense,” James said, “We did this initially in the sub-committee hearing by providing statistics from the NHTRC hotline about how many teachers had called the hotline with concerns about their students. We also provided vignettes about actual cases we had heard…from teachers and the outcome[s] of those calls…

“We made a very strong effort to work with and gain the endorsements of the Catholic Church and the Family Foundation, as well as several anti-human trafficking organizations working in Virginia.  These organizations are widely-respected in diverse political circles, so having them express support and ultimately showing that this was a bi-partisan issue was very important…It is paramount for advocates to be acutely aware of the political dynamics in [their] state, while at the same time…building a bi-partisan coalition of diverse organizations…

“We always keep things non-partisan and work with both democrats and republicans,” James continued, “as well as liberal or conservative-leaning organizations…With that being said, strategically, it’s important to keep your audience in mind and who they are most likely going to respond to…Legislative advocacy is all about coalition-building and strategic planning; being thoughtful every step of the way is critical.”

I’d like to personally thank James and Polaris Project for their support and passion in the movement to build laws which will protect men, women, and children from all forms of human trafficking in America.  For more information, please contact James at jdold@polarisproject.org.

Neet’s Sweets: Human trafficking survivor and Entrepreneur bakes to make a difference

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Neet

WASHINGTON, DC, May 23, 2012 – Meet Antonia “Neet” Childs, Founder and Executive Director of Neet’s Sweets Incorporated in Charlotte, North Carolina.  Neet, a survivor of human trafficking, discusses the difficulties and rewards to being a young entrepreneur:

“[I thank] God for this day, as well as every day, that I can continue to keep fighting and pushing [for] my dream. As I embrace 27, I think about what it has [taken] for me to get to this point…I am not even supposed to be here.  Just being a young black woman starting a business is tough, so I am forever grateful that I am able to use my past as my strength to inspire others to use theirs, because that’s what it’s about.”

Neet says she dreamed of having her own bakery ever since she was a little girl.  Neet’s Aunt Koona owned a catering business and, as a child, Neet followed her around the kitchen.

“It fascinated me,” Neet said, “to see her so passionate about making dishes that left everyone smiling, including me.”

Neet says she was captivated not only by her aunt’s cooking and baking but also by the fact that she owned her own business.  Neet and her sister lived in upstate New York where their mother struggled to provide for them.

“My mom worked hard to take care of us,” Neet said, “and I always felt like I needed to help and support her.”

Living in a low-income, single-parent family, Neet was at-risk for exploitation and abuse. After moving to North Carolina as a teenager, Neet’s vulnerability was recognized by a 38-year-old man.  This man befriended Neet and began to shower her with gifts.  Having grown up without a father, Neet naturally craved the attention.  One day, the man asked Neet for a favor…a favor which eventually and ultimately led Neet to be recruited and trafficked through an escort service.  In a recent interview, Neet said she felt “controlled and trapped.”  Neet’s dreams of owning her own bakery began to fade away.

Several years later, Neet says fate stepped in.

“God, being the great redeemer, brought a special friend into my life; he encouraged me to escape.”

Neet took the first few courageous steps away from a life to which she had become accustomed- a life of exploitation- and she started a cake decorating class.  Neet says it was through teaching this class that she thought of the idea to create a baking business in order to employ other survivors of commercial sexual exploitation and domestic sex trafficking.

“I chose to speak out because I felt not only was it important for me to be a voice for myself…but [also] for…young women [who] don’t see a way out of what they are doing, [who] feel like there is no hope,” Neet said, “I come from that world and want them to see that there is hope; you can overcome your past and reach your goals.”

Neet hopes to provide encouragement and support to survivors of trafficking through connections with counselors, housing referrals, mentors, and other opportunities for self-improvement.

“Getting them back on the right track [is our goal],” Neet said, “while teaching the importance of philanthropy through our ‘Market Your Mind, Not Your Body’ campaign.”

“For [survivors] to see me make it out and give back encourages them and motivates them,” Neet continued, “and all I can say is, God inspired [me], and I know he will make a way for me to employ my sisters as well.”

In recognition of her efforts Neet earned the 2011 Prevention and Intervention Survivor Award in Union County, North Carolina from the United Family Services.

Neet says her Aunt Koona was her motivation to survive and overcome the life.

“Her smile was always imprinted in my mind,” she said, “even during the lowest of times in clubs and motel rooms; she was my first investor by giving me an electronic mixer.”

Neet’s Sweets has been in business since January 2008.  Recently, Neet sent a large shipment of cake pops to Mrs. Cindy McCain, wife of John McCain, for an event in Phoenix, Arizona.  Next month, Neet will be delivering 500 cupcakes to a conference in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“These cakes are very important to our organization,” Neet said, “because they represent recovery and being able to bring prevention and awareness to at-risk youth…

“Neet’s Sweets stands not just for cakes and sweets, but for taking a stand for what’s right and for protecting our next generation of girls…

“Though there are days when I feel like giving up, or I feel like what I do does not matter, I get a sign or reminder every day to keep pushing, and that’s all the confirmation I need…

“As we continue, and I spread our mission, I want to say thank you from the bottom of my heart; and we won’t stop, you will see Neet’s Sweets very soon!”

As a survivor and advocate, I encourage you to think of Neet’s Sweets when planning your next event.  From weddings and birthday parties to conferences and training symposiums, you can call on Neet for catering services.

To inquire about catering or to order a shipment of cupcakes, cake pops, cookies, or other delicacies, please visit Neet’s Sweets at www.NeetsSweets.com.

Start strategies to prevent child trafficking early

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Girl and brick wall

WASHINGTON, DC, May 16, 2012 – Last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed into legislation several bills aimed to combat human trafficking within the state.  As a survivor of child trafficking, I was honored to be part of the bill signing ceremony at the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria, VA.  However, as an advocate for the SB 259/HB1188 bill, I am concerned about the future implementation of this legislation.

This bill, which was sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegate Vivian E. Watts, requires the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies to prevent trafficking of children. I’m told that passing the bill was the easy part. The hard part is ensuring its execution and impact.

To those appointed with this task, I implore you to understand that prevention strategies are paramount and must begin early.

I was 14 years old when I was trafficked.  I had barely begun my summer vacation from eighth grade middle school when a man lured me away from home and forced me into prostitution.  The day this man spotted me in the mall and pointed me out of a crowd of kids, he was looking for a girl just like me- a girl who was depressed, who had low self-esteem, and who lacked self-value.

Traffickers consider the pre-teen and early teen years to be prime picking seasons for girls and boys struggling with self-identity and self-confidence issues.  If we are to outsmart traffickers who are preying on our children, we must initiate prevention strategies early on in elementary and intermediate school.

The most effective tactic to fighting traffickers is arming children with self-confidence, and the best way to boost a child’s self-confidence is to support them through the awkward, and sometimes painfully difficult, transitions of childhood and to help strengthen their self-identity.  By doing this, a child will be less prone to manipulation and coercion by predators.

According to the CDC website (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), elementary school students begin a stage of development called “middle childhood” between the ages of 6 and 8.  Middle childhood, they explain, is a time in which independence from family becomes more important as the child attends school, makes new friends, and discovers the larger world.  The CDC states that “[t]his is a critical time for children to develop confidence in all areas of life, such as through friends, schoolwork, and sports.”

CDC’s website indicated that middle childhood continues into age 9 to 11 years, and it’s during this time that a child’s growing independence will be met with peer pressure.  The CDC states, “[c]hildren who feel good about themselves are more able to resist negative peer pressure and make better choices for themselves.”

As an adult, I can trace back to elementary school the very moments in which the seeds of self-doubt were planted.  From bullies to worrying over self-image, these seeds grew into a gaping loss of confidence and a crippling dependency for acceptance.  By fourteen, I was the perfect victim; I lacked the self-esteem to stand up for myself, and I was unable to differentiate between exploitation and genuine friendship.

To those in charge of prevention strategies, I beseech you to start early and to create programs which will help children develop and maintain self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-identity.

For those in charge of awareness training and resources for teachers, FAIR Girls of Washington D.C. offers the following warning signs for potential child trafficking in students:

  • A sudden withdrawal from friends or classmates
  • Unexplained absences, particularly on Thursdays or Fridays
  • A sudden shift in dress – particularly toward provocative or risqué clothing
  • A new, much older boyfriend
  • A growing occurrence for suddenly texting or wanting to step out of class to talk to someone
  • A new, expensive phone and/or clothing that costs outside the student’s price range
  • Talk of going “clubbing” or dancing
  • Talk of travel or going somewhere outside of the city

FAIR Girls was created to empower girls in the U.S. and around the world who have been forgotten or exploited, or who are otherwise at-risk of not reaching their full potential.  Through prevention education, compassionate care, and survivor-inclusive advocacy, FAIR Girls aims to create opportunities for girls to become confident, happy, and healthy.  Co-founder, Andrea Powell, lists the following instructions for a teacher who suspects a potential trafficking situation:

  • Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888 to report your concerns.
  • Reach out to the student to ask if something is wrong at home. If the teacher shows real concern, a student will often open up.
  • Educate students about human trafficking by inviting an organization like FAIR Girls or a trafficking survivor into the school to speak.  For a list of survivor speakers, visit Survivor Strong.

 

Courtney’s 10 Tips for Educators

Courtney's House BannerThe past few weeks have been so busy and so very exciting!  Speaking at the 2012 National Trafficking in Persons Symposium in Salt Lake City, UT allowed me to meet so many fabulous survivors.  I was invited by several different organizations to speak at events in VA, NJ, and PA:  the Virginia Attorney General’s Office; the Henrico, VA Police Academy; the University of Pennsylvania; the State Public Affairs Committee of the Junior Leagues of NJ; the NJ Human Trafficking Task Force, the Children Advocacy Centers of VA, and others.

Last week, I attended a bill signing ceremony at the Northern Virginia Community College in which Governor Bob McDonnell signed into legislation several bills aimed to help fight human trafficking.  One such bill will require the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies for the prevention of trafficking children.  To read more, please visit my new weekly column with the Washington Times.

As a follow-up to this article, 14-year-old Courtney (8th grade middle school student and namesake for Tina Frundt’s organization, Courtney’s House) offered to write up some tips to help teachers recognize when a child is being trafficked.

Thank you so much, Courtney!  You are so smart and brave and AMAZING!!

Courtney’s 10 Tips for Educators on How to Recognize a Child / Teen is in Danger of Trafficking Continue reading

A call to action: prevention efforts must begin in schools

By Holly Austin Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Washington Times

Help Me

WASHINGTON, DC, May 8, 2012 – Reports of child sex trafficking cases have been sweeping through the nation.  Northern Virginia alone has had several cases reported by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia in the past 6 months, several of which involved violent gangs like MS-13 and the Underground Gangster Crips (UGC).

In a case from just last month, a Manassas, Virginia member of the street gang, SUR-13, pled guilty to the sex trafficking of a 14-year-old girl.  And just days ago, it was reported that a Lorton, Virginia leader of the Crips gang was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of luring at least seven high school girls into a child sex trafficking ring by recruiting them from local schools and through online social networking sites .

The Commonwealth of Virginia is the rule, not the exception.  Violent child sex traffickers are targeting middle and high school students nationwide.  Last week, a Tennessee jury convicted three members of a Somali gang that were responsible for the sex trafficking of a 12-year-old seventh grade girl.  Last year, police in Oceanside, California led an investigation that resulted in the indictment of 38 Crips gang members for child sex trafficking.

In February 2012, a Florida man was charged with sex trafficking of children, conspiracy to commit sex trafficking of children, and inducing a minor to engage in a commercial sex act.  The following month, a Portland, Oregon man appeared in federal court for charges of sex trafficking, including sex trafficking of a child, coercion and enticement of a minor, and transportation of a minor for prostitution.  A woman from Columbia, Missouri was also sentenced the same month in federal court for her role in a sex trafficking conspiracy in which a child was sold into prostitution.

These are only a few of the cases reported throughout the country.

Traffickers specifically target school-age boys and girls not only because children are preferred by the buyers but because children are deemed easier to manipulate and control.  I know this because I was once one of those kids, lured away from home at age 14.

In the summer of 1992, just after I graduated eighth grade middle school, I ran away with a man I had met at the mall.  I was lonely and angry, and this man reached out to me.  This stranger, who gained my trust over several phone conversations, turned out to be a manipulative and intimidating pimp.  He took me to Atlantic City, New Jersey, and he forced me to prostitute.  By the time police spotted me on the street, I had been trafficked over half a dozen times.

Besides immediate family members, the only people to visit me in the hospital were my middle school science teacher, Mr. Steele, and two guidance counselors, Ms. Jackie Somma and Ms. Carol Turano.  They drove over an hour to see me.  Mr. Steele brought science textbooks because I loved biology.  Ms. Somma and Ms. Turano sat close together on a couch and encouraged me the best way they could.  I don’t remember anything they said.  I just remember them being there for me.

These teachers wanted to help me; they just didn’t know how.  Within days of my rescue, I attempted suicide.

Earlier this year, I testified in Richmond, Virginia, before the Senate Education Committee in support of SB 259 which had been introduced by Senator Adam Ebbin.  This legislation, which passed unanimously and is being signed by Governor Bob McDonnell today, will require the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies for the prevention of trafficking children.

As a survivor and advocate for child trafficking victims, I encourage other legislators and states across the country to follow Virginia’s lead.  Teachers have the unique opportunity to identify children who are at risk for trafficking, those who are currently being trafficked, and those who have been trafficked for sex or labor.  With the right tools, I believe our teachers will rise to the call to help protect our children from these predators and to serve those who are adjusting to life after the trauma.

I cycled through several high schools in New Jersey as I struggled to overcome what had happened to me.  Those who acted as the most positive constants in my life were my teachers.  They were my beacon in the darkness.  It was with their guidance, and my family’s support, that I managed to complete high school and to graduate college with a Bachelor’s degree in Biology.

Teachers are among our first lines of defense to ending human trafficking.  If we hope to gain the tactical advantage over traffickers, then we must recognize this collectively countrywide.  The Commonwealth of Virginia is among the first states to require that educators be given these resources.  In order to protect our nation’s children from the knuckled grasps of predatory traffickers, it is imperative that other states follow the lead of Virginia and pass similar legislation.