Healthcare: Are your staff educated to recognize human trafficking?

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Huffington Post

When I was 14 years old, I was lured away from home by a man I met at a New Jersey shopping mall. This man told me that I was pretty enough to be a model and that I was too mature for high school. It was the summer after my eighth grade middle school graduation, and I feared high school. I was afraid of getting beat up in the hallways, and I was afraid of losing my friends. This man pretended to be my friend, a romantic interest even. He said he could help me find a glamorous job in Los Angeles, California. Within hours of running away, however, this man forced and coerced me into prostitution in Atlantic City, NJ.

It didn’t take long for law enforcement to spot me – I was a young girl on Pacific Avenue wearing a red dress and oversized high heel shoes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t immediately seen as a victim of a crime. I was seen as a criminal, a juvenile delinquent, and I was arrested for prostitution. The most painful part of this experience wasn’t what happened to me in Atlantic City, it was the way I was treated after Atlantic City – by law enforcement and even hospital staff. Today, I’m passionate about sharing my story and working with front-line professionals. By understanding my mindset and needs as a young victim of sex trafficking, professionals will be better equipped to recognize and respond to this victim population.

Read the rest of the article on the Huffington Post website

Sex Trafficking: How Activist and Survivor Ele DeRomano Uses Her Past to Help Others

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Huffington Post

Meet EleSondra “Ele” DeRomano.

Ele is a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation/sex trafficking and the founder of Standing Together Against Real Slavery (STARS), a victim services organization based in Toledo, Ohio. Ele has lived an extraordinary life overcoming many obstacles. When she was very young, Ele’s father had prostituted her mother, along with other women and girls, through an organized network of gang and pimp-controlled prostitution in Detroit, Michigan. In response to a sign of disrespect from a pair of alleged drug dealers, Ele’s father shot and killed the two men. Ele was then placed in foster care at the age of four. Within the foster care system, Ele experienced years of physical and sexual abuse. She says this taught her “how to take a beating and how to tolerate sexual molestation.” Ele was later returned to her mother, but she continued to endure physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. Tired of the abuse, Ele says she “hit the streets.” By age 11, she had graduated to a world of gangs, drugs, street violence, and forced prostitution (i.e. sex trafficking). By age 13, Ele had been sentenced to prison where she says she was known as “Hustler No. 34257.”

At age 17, Ele was released from juvenile detention and placed with a Christian foster family in Toledo, Ohio. She says she initially rejected the family’s attempts at love, guidance, and supervision. Ele returned to the streets (this time in Toledo), where she was introduced to crack cocaine and again forced into a life of prostitution. After several years, Ele had finally had enough. While working for the House of Emmanuel, Ele says she realized she needed to do something to move forward from her past.

Read the rest of the article on the Huffington Post website

Sex Trafficking: Should All Perpetrators Be Sentenced As Sex Offenders?

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Huffington Post

Recently I was contacted by an organization seeking feedback from survivors regarding a sex trafficking bill. I often advocate that any anti-trafficking efforts should include feedback from survivors, and I’m grateful they reached out to me as well as other survivors. One of the main points of this particular bill was that it would require any person convicted of sex trafficking youth to register as a sex offender. This sounds like a no-brainer, right?

Well…maybe not. When I first began anti-trafficking advocacy in 2009, I believed any person convicted of human trafficking should face mandatory sentences, including registration as a sex offender if the offense involved sex trafficking minors. However, after reading multiple cases, I’ve since changed my mind. I now believe that each case should be judged on an individual basis. And, if you read Wendy Barnes’ recently released memoir, And Life Continues: Sex Trafficking and My Journey to Freedom, I think you might agree or at least be open to the debate.

Wendy Barnes was 15 years old the first time she met Greg, a sixteen-year-old high school junior who would ultimately become the father of her three children and force her to accept a life in prostitution for 12 years. “All I wanted was to be loved,” writes Wendy in a personal email. “I wanted to be special to someone.”

Wendy grew up in what she calls a “pretty average” home life. She writes: “Considering that ‘average’ is the biggest bulk between horrible and great. We were poor, the ‘working poor.’” Wendy says she was “picked on” by peers and her older brother while in grade school. “I had red hair and freckles and the neighborhood kids were [bullies]…I was quiet and mostly a loner.”

Read the rest of the article on the Huffington Post website

Human Trafficking: Are We Effectively Reaching Victims?

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Huffington Post

In two recent articles I addressed imagery in advocacy efforts against human trafficking. In the first article, I discussed negative effects from the overuse of images that portray violence in child sex trafficking. In the second article, I addressed the overwhelming objectification of victims. In my online research, I was surprised to find very few campaigns directed at victim outreach efforts.


One such campaign from the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC) uses an image on billboards to promote the NHTRC hotline to potential victims. The image depicts a female dressed promiscuously and leaning into a car window possibly engaging with a buyer of commercial sex. “I like it because it’s real,” says Tanya Street, a survivor of sex trafficking and Founder of Identifiable Me. I agree with Tanya — this image captures exactly what I looked like as a so-called “willing victim”, a term which I discuss in my book, Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery. I think this image would have resonated with me had I seen it in Atlantic City, N.J.

Read the rest of the article on the Huffington Post website

Congress: Please Remove Controversial Pieces From Human Trafficking Legislation

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Huffington Post

The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) has recently stalled due to a provision which expands the Hyde Amendment — a rider that restricts federal funding for abortion and other health care services. The JVTA is one of three bills on which I testified last month in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing; the other two being the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETTA) and the Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act.

The SETTA and the JVTA both had bipartisan support and passed unanimously out of the Judiciary Committee. As I stated in my congressional testimony, had there been bills like these in 1992, I might have immediately been recognized by law enforcement as a victim of child sex trafficking, not a criminal.

When I was 14 years old, I was lured away from home by a man I had met at a local shopping mall in New Jersey. Within hours of leaving home, this man ordered and coerced me into prostitution in Atlantic City, NJ. The following night I was arrested by law enforcement and treated like a juvenile delinquent. Had there been a JVTA intact, perhaps I would have been assigned to a victim’s advocate to accompany me through the process of cooperating with and providing testimony to detectives.

Read the rest of the article on the Huffington Post website

Human Trafficking in the United States: Protecting the Victims, Congressional Testimony

Photo of Nikolaos Al-Khadra taken by Amy Green, Survivors Consultation Network

Last week, I had the honor of speaking before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on behalf of two bills addressing human trafficking: the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act and the Stop Exploitation Through Trafficking Act. I was able to share my personal story and stress the need for laws that better protect victims of human trafficking. As I state in my testimony, had these bills been passed before 1992 perhaps law enforcement would have immediately recognized that I was a victim, not a criminal. Perhaps funds from the proposed Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund could have enabled me to immediately enter effective aftercare treatment and remain there until I fully understood that what had happened to me was not my fault. Perhaps my healing process could have been easier, faster. And perhaps my family and I could have had an easier transition. Even though these protections weren’t available to me, they can be made available to victims today. With effective and well-informed legislation and services, victims can heal, overcome, and achieve their greatest dreams and highest potential.

Without effective support and services in place, however, it may be difficult for victims to move forward. Child victims may return to exploitative situations or they may be returned to abusive or neglectful situations from which they had originally run. While youth may escape juvenile detention, they might not escape continued abuse or sexual exploitation. This is particularly true in states implementing safe harbor protections where law enforcement cannot adequately respond without well-resourced service providers trained to work with child victims of commercial sexual exploitation. This is why I encourage legislators to include provisions that authorize resources for services for all victims of human trafficking and child exploitation – girls, boys, men, and women.

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Human Trafficking: Do Our Advocacy Efforts Dehumanize Victims?

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Elite Daily

Anyone who has read my book, “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery,” knows the topic of objectification is important to me.

In “Walking Prey,” I address the specific connection between sexual objectification of women and the vulnerability of girls to sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking.

In essence, my argument is that the overwhelming portrayal of sexually objectified women in the media can cause impressionable girls to self-objectify and, in turn, be more vulnerable to and accepting of sexual exploitation.

Sexual objectification of women is essentially the representation of women in a way that highlights and values only one aspect of their whole selves (i.e. their sexuality or conventional sexual appeal).

The process strips away their humanity and turns them into objects, which are often used as tools to promote a product or to appeal to a certain audience.

This is why I am so sensitive to the way in which women are presented in media, including television commercials, print advertisements, billboards, television shows, movies, video games and more.

But, lately, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in how victims of human trafficking are portrayed in the media, especially in images used for advocacy, awareness and/or promotion, and particularly for promotion of products.

Read the rest of the article on the Elite Daily website

How Certain Efforts To Prevent Human Trafficking Are Proving To Be Hurtful

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Elite Daily

As an advocate against all forms of human trafficking and child exploitation, I’m grateful this issue is gaining the national attention it deserves. However, as a survivor of child sex trafficking, I’m concerned about many of the images used in efforts to raise awareness around this particular topic. As advocates around the country prepare for this month’s awareness efforts, I’d like to take a moment to address specifically the efforts surrounding child sex trafficking in America.

In 2009, I happened upon a documentary about sex trafficking in India. I watched the stories of women and girls who had been forced, lured, or born into working in brothels. There was one young girl in particular who struck me. Working in the sex trade had become so normalized to her that, after she had been rescued by an advocate, she ran away from services and returned to the brothel. This was the moment in which I realized I might also have been a victim of sex trafficking. In the summer between eighth grade middle school and ninth grade high school, I met a man at a shopping mall in New Jersey. This man convinced me to run away from home, and, within hours of doing so, he ordered me into prostitution in Atlantic City, NJ. I was ultimately arrested by law enforcement and returned to my parents; however, like the little girl in India, I returned to Atlantic City on my own weeks later.

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I Survived Child Sex Trafficking In America

By Holly Smith — From her column in the Elite Daily

My name is Holly Smith, and I am a survivor of child sex trafficking in America.

At age 14, I was a shy, insecure and angry teenager. I had just graduated from eighth grade and I was afraid of starting high school.

I was afraid of getting beat up, I was afraid of never finding a boyfriend and I was afraid of losing my friends. I was depressed and in need of real help and guidance.

I grew up in southern New Jersey, in a town so small that I had known most of my friends since kindergarten. In middle school, my friends and I often hung out at the local mall, and it was at this mall where I met a man who picked me out of the crowd and asked for my phone number.

I felt special that he picked me, and he told me that I was special when we talked on the phone. He said I was too mature for high school, that I was pretty enough to be a model, and that he could introduce me to famous musicians to help me become a songwriter. As a kid who grew up on MTV, this was my dream.

After we talked on the phone for about two weeks, this man suggested that I run away from home with him. And I did. Within hours of running away, I was forced into prostitution and coerced into working on the streets and in the casino hotels of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

The first man to whom I was sold told me that I reminded him of his granddaughter.

Read the rest of the article on the Elite Daily website

Sun Gate Foundation: How YOU can help victims of human trafficking to access education

By Holly Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Communities Digital News

ALEXANDRIA, Va., November 22, 2014 — Meet Shamere McKenzie, the recently-appointed Chief Executive Officer of the Sun Gate Foundation, a national organization focused on providing support to survivors of human trafficking who wish to gain access to private, continuing, and/or higher education. Why is this mission important to Shamere? Because she herself was once a victim of sex trafficking, and as a young adult pursuing a college education, she has had to overcome many obstacles.

“As a survivor, I know firsthand the stigma and difficulties faced by survivors of sex trafficking,” Shamere says, “And, as the recipient of the first Sun Gate Foundation scholarship, I am a walking example to other survivors that they too can pick up the broken pieces and live a life of their choosing.”

In this special interview, Shamere tells us more about the Sun Gate Foundation and how we can all get involved in supporting victims of human trafficking.

Holly Smith: Shamere, how was this organization started?

Shamere McKenzie: Sun Gate Foundation was founded in 2013 by Suzanne Priest and co-founded by Ashley Davidson when they became aware of issues of human trafficking. Suzanne and Ashley quickly realized that they wanted and could make a difference in the lives of trafficking survivors in the United States by creating opportunities for access to education that would otherwise not be available. They believe that, through education, survivors can create a life enriched with greater opportunity, giving them a chance to live their dreams.

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website