Human trafficking and other causes: Donate wisely during the holidays

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

Holiday Giving


RICHMOND, VA December 27, 2012 ― ‘Tis the season for baking cookies and shopping, singing carols and gift-wrapping; for spending time with family, calling on friends, and spreading holiday cheer to those we know and love. ‘Tis also the season for donating time, money, and gifts in-kind to worthy causes and charitable organizations.

As our nation struggles to recover from an economic recession, charitable organizations are faced not only with budget cuts, but also with a greater demand for their services. As a result, nonprofits have a growing need for private donations just when their resources are at an ebb. As a columnist and speaker, I often encourage my audiences to support their local charities, especially youth-based organizations.  While I urge you to donate generously to any charity, I also warn you to be wise about your investment.

Human trafficking is an issue which has gained a wildfire of attention recently; and in turn, scores of anti-trafficking organizations and campaigns have cropped up across the country.  The increased attention to this heinous crime and its victims is positive; however, the list of nonprofits is growing so rapidly that it’s nearly impossible to keep up with it.  Many of these groups aren’t yet listed with reputable watchdog organizations like Charity Navigator or GuideStar.  If you choose to support an innovative, local anti-human trafficking group, then the responsibility of vetting falls on you, the donor.

CharityWatch offers ten tips for “Giving Wisely,” the first of which is to “know your charity.”  CharityWatch recommends that you request detailed information including a list of the board of directors, financial statements, and a mission statement.  I encourage you to take your time in reading the mission statement.  If the organization’s mission is unclear to you, then it’s likely unclear to the organization as well.  While it may change over time, the mission statement must have a clear baseline.  Without this, neither you nor the organization can understand its goals or boundaries.

In the nonprofit world of anti-human trafficking, an organization’s services may be geared towards raising awareness, implementing methods of prevention, advocating for stronger laws, providing services to victims or victims’ families, or any combination of these and more.  All of these agendas are important, but you should pick and choose which agenda fits with your interests and the needs of your community.  If you want to support an organization that offers services to victims, be sure you aren’t donating to a nonprofit that concentrates its funding towards raising awareness or prevention, and vice versa.

Then, I encourage you to ask questions in order to ensure that the organization has a viable plan in place to achieve its goals.  For example, if the organization claims to be currently providing services to victims, then inquire about the services.  How many children or adults is the organization currently serving?  What services are provided, and how are they provided?  Is it a group home or do they manage case work involving service providers within the community?  Who are the service providers?  An honest organization will be transparent and welcome an open discourse on its inner workings, except when it compromises the safety of its clients.

If the organization is raising money in order to provide future services, then ask for a timeline.  When can donors see the results of their donations?  By results, I don’t mean restored victims of human trafficking- I mean a group home, or a solid network of outreach service providers.  If the organization is implementing methods of prevention within the community, then ask for details.  With whom are they working?  Ask to participate in one of their programs or to visit their facilities.  Heed the advice from CharityWatch: know your charity of choice.

Be wary of organizations which evoke emotion via documentaries, films, picture images of abuse, or survivor accounts of trauma, and then ask for your money “to combat slavery in your own backyard.” Set aside your emotion and ask questions: How do they plan to fight human trafficking and other forms of exploitation?  To whom are they giving the money?  Are they keeping the money?  If so, what specific services are they offering “to combat slavery” within your community?  Are they offering services to victims?  Are they donating portions of the raised funds to other organizations that provide services to victims?  If yes, then ask who these other organizations are and confirm with them directly.

As in all causes, there are those organizations which mean well and those which are looking to exploit a cause and a donor’s generosity.  There are also those organizations led by passionate but misdirected advocates who unintentionally spend donations on fruitless efforts.  I encourage you to reach out to others in the community for reviews on the organization you wish to support.  Check with your State Attorneys General Office, your local and state police departments, your local Better Business Bureau, local survivor advocates, the National Survivor Network, and other established charities in your community.

If you are proactive in vetting your local anti-human trafficking organizations, then you will strengthen your community’s response to a growing issue and a hidden epidemic.  Otherwise, you risk loss of your time and money while trafficking continues uncurbed.  For more tips on giving wisely this holiday season, see CharityWatch and Charity Navigator.

Human Trafficking: U.N. Ambassador, Mira Sorvino, addresses legislators in D.C.

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

Mira Sorvino speaks on human rights at NCSL

WASHINGTON, December 19, 2012  The National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) Fall Forum was held earlier this month in Washington D.C., and I was honored to join Oscar-winning actress and U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, Mira Sorvino, in the plenary session of speakers.  Also a wife, mother, and Harvard graduate, Mira devotes much of her time towards promoting awareness for the heinous crime of human trafficking and advocating for its victims.  In her speech, she urged legislators to adopt numerous state laws aimed at preventing trafficking, prosecuting traffickers and buyers, and protecting victims.

During her speech, Mira unveiled a U.S. map which highlighted each state’s rating according to Polaris Project’s grading system.  Polaris Project rated all 50 states and the District of Columbia based on ten categories of laws.  Each state was placed in one of four tiers based on whether it had passed legislation in each of the ten categories.

Some statistics from Polaris Project:

  • Twenty-one states are currently in the top category, Tier 1 (up from 11 states in 2011)
  • Only four are in the bottom category of Tier 4 (down from nine states in 2011)
  • One-third of states increased their rating by at least one tier
  • Washington had the highest point total (with 11 out of 12)
  • Wyoming was lowest (with -2 points)
  • Massachusetts and West Virginia passed their first human trafficking laws in the past year
  •  Twenty-eight states (55%) passed new laws in the past year
  • Massachusetts earned the “Most Improved” state distinction
  • South Carolina, West Virginia, and Ohio were also applauded for improvements
  • Wyoming has yet to pass any law against human trafficking
  • Wyoming is one of Polaris Project’s “Faltering Four,” the others including Arkansas, Montana, and South Dakota
  • Few states passed Safe Harbor laws

Mira Sorvino has been a long-time advocate for Safe Harbor laws being enacted in each and every state.  In February of this year, she interviewed with John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) for a two-hour special on sex trafficking.  In the interview, Sorvino explained how Safe Harbor laws decriminalize children (or teenagers) and offer victims support and assistance.

“It gives them access to social services,” Sorvino stated, “and really establishes that the child in prostitution is the victim of a trafficker- the pimp is the trafficker [and] the child is the victim.”

As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I am also an advocate for Safe Harbor laws.  Within hours of being lured away from home by a man in 1992, I was forced and coerced into prostitution.  A police officer spotted me on Pacific Avenue only thirty-six hours later.  But by then, I was unrecognizable even to myself.

My lack of cooperation angered the officer, and I was arrested.  I was handcuffed, insulted on the drive to the station, searched by a female officer, and then threatened with juvenile detention until I gave up my real name.  By the time police detectives realized I was a victim, I had become unresponsive.  I was then sent home with no counseling, no support, no transition, and no explanation as to what had just happened to me.

Within days of my “rescue,” I attempted suicide.

This is why I advocate, strongly, for Safe Harbor laws.  As Mira points, child and teen victims of trafficking must be treated as children, not criminals.  Victims of human trafficking need immediate aftercare and transitional services, along with follow-up support to help them as they move forward.

Polaris Projects lists the following as strong points for Safe Harbor laws:

  • Strong laws grant immunity from prosecution or create the presumption that a child is a trafficking victim
  • Strong laws create diversion programs away from criminal or delinquency proceedings
  • Strong laws move children into services (e.g. safe shelters, mental health counseling, health care, education, etc.)

Illinois is listed with Polaris Project as having the most effective Safe Harbor law in place.  Those which follow close behind include Connecticut, Washington, and Minnesota.

Safe Harbor laws are currently missing in 39 states and in D.C. 

To find out where your state stands with laws like Safe Harbor, please visit Polaris Project’s 2012 State Ratings Map.

On behalf of the National Survivor Network, I would like to take this opportunity to thank the legislators who attended the conference and to beseech their sponsorship for all of the bills as outlined by Mira Sorvino and Polaris Project.

Local nonprofit creates anti-trafficking program for schools

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

School Program

WASHINGTON, December 4, 2012 — Halloween was scary to me this year, and it wasn’t because of zombies, ghosts, or gremlins!  It was because I was speaking to a group of high school students about the connection between negative messages in the media and the exploitation of young girls.  As a teen survivor of child sex trafficking, I was ridiculed in high school with labels like hooker and prostitute.  As a result, some of those painful memories boiled up on October 31st as I made my way through the hallways of Hermitage High School in Richmond, Virginia.

But my nerves quickly gave way as the students embraced my presentation with questions and comments and offered me their utmost respect and kindness.  It was truly a positive experience, and I was honored to be part of their day.  These students are the first teens to be introduced to The Prevention Project curriculum, an anti-trafficking education project started by the Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI).

The Richmond Justice Initiative is a grassroots, non-profit organization that began in 2009.  Their mission is “to educate, equip, and mobilize communities to be a force in the global movement to end human trafficking.”  Recognizing that victims of sex trafficking are often young girls between the ages of 12 and 14, RJI founder Sara Pomeroy used a $25,000 grant from AT&T to fund a program aimed at educating teens.

“The Prevention Project empowers students to be abolitionists,” stated Sara, “to lead their generations in the fight against human trafficking, and to be the ones who see the final demise of modern day slavery.”

The mission of The Prevention Project is as follows:

We believe that in order to eradicate human trafficking, the selling of human beings for profit, we must educate young people on the lures of trafficking, and invest in character and leadership development; so we not only prevent sex trafficking from occurring, but create and equip leaders to bring a lasting change for our communities and beyond.

The Prevention Project is a 9-week academic curriculum administered to middle and high school students within the classroom. The program focuses on the following:

•  educating students on the issues of human trafficking locally and globally;

•  developing healthy self-awareness and boundaries;

•  strengthening character;

•  and fostering leadership.

“The Prevention Project was created, developed, and executed by a committed group of advocates from across the country,” Sara stated, “We have a passion to act against the perils of human trafficking, and we believe that if change is going to happen, it must begin with the younger generations.”

When Sara approached me to participate in the project, I was excited to include an element of media literacy in The Prevention Project curriculum.  As I have stated in the past, I believe that media literacy is pivotal to any trafficking prevention program geared to teens.

RJI launched The Prevention Project in September 2012, and RJI members are working with other schools in the area (and in other states) in order to expand their program.  As a survivor advocate, I have supported and continue to support any legislation which will require awareness and training materials to be provided to schools on human trafficking.

“From school teachers to parents, from teenagers to college students, there is a place for you on The Prevention Project team,” Sara urged, “We can match your greatest talents and gifts with our greatest needs; join us in a movement that brings justice, freedom, and healing to victims of slavery.”

For more information about The Prevention Project or the Richmond Justice Initiative, please

Educating the next generation is crucial to the prevention of commercial sexual exploitation of children, as well as all other forms of human trafficking happening within America and beyond.  I encourage school administrators across the nation to investigate available programs and to include one which best suits their schools’ goals and needs.