Human Trafficking: Are We Effectively Reaching Victims?

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.

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Congress: Please Remove Controversial Pieces From Human Trafficking Legislation

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.

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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, 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 in middle school and ninth grade in 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. But, like the little girl in India, I returned to Atlantic City on my own weeks later.

Until that moment, I had no idea there was a term for what had happened to me in 1992. I also had no idea there were others out there like me. After searching the Internet, I connected with advocates and survivors in Washington, DC, and I cannot begin to describe to you how life-changing this was for me.

I felt compelled to continue to share my story, and this is when my journey took an unfortunate turn.

Read the rest of the article on the Elite Daily website

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

Sex Trafficking: Survivor Marcela Loaiza becomes international advocate for prevention, advocacy, collaboration

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

LAS VEGAS, NV, November 13, 2014 – Meet Marcela Loaiza: wife, mother, author, and international advocate against human trafficking. Marcela’s story began on February 20th, 1978, the day she was born in Armenia, Colombia, an area in South America known for coffee growth and production. She says she remembers her father as a simple, hardworking man who was dedicated to his family; however, financial struggles led her father and mother to face a painful divorce. Marcela’s mother moved Marcela and her two younger brothers to the foothills of the Andes Mountains, to the city of Pereira, to be nearer to Marcela’s grandparents. Marcela says some of her favorite childhood memories included times spent with her grandparents.

At the age of 17, Marcela became a young single mother. Despite the hardship, Marcela says the birth of her daughter was one of the happiest moments of her life. Marcela completed high school and then took extra courses in English, Information Systems, and Marketing. However, due to economic difficulties in her country, Marcela says employment opportunities were lacking. She worked several jobs to make ends meet. Eventually, Marcela began working two jobs: one as a cashier in a supermarket and another as a professional dancer on the weekends. In a recent interview with (Moloney, 2014), Marcela says, “I remember a Colombian man coming up to me in [the] nightclub…He introduced himself to me as a talent scout looking to hire dancers to work abroad. I didn’t accept his offer, but I took his card and kept it.”

A few weeks later, Marcela’s 3-year-old daughter had an asthma attack. “I stayed with her in [the] hospital night and day…as she recovered,” Marcela stated in the interview. “As a result, I lost my two jobs, and I didn’t have the money to pay for the hospital bill.” Marcela says she was desperate and called the man she’d met at the nightclub. The man loaned her money to pay the hospital bill and then offered her a job as a professional dancer in Japan.

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Human Trafficking: International awareness events draw together survivors, government leaders

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

Pictured from left to right: Marcela Loaiza, Founder of the Marcela Loaiza Foundation; Ima Matul, CAST & NSN Survivor Organizer; Holly Austin Smith, Author of Walking Prey; Marcela Pastore, Ministry of Justice of the Province of Buenos Aires; Norma Bastidas, Author of Running Home; Shamere McKenzie, CEO of the Sun Gate Foundation; Evelyn Chumbow, Survivor Consultant at Humanity United; Beth Jacobs, Founder of Willow Way; and Rani Hong, UN Special Advisor for Victims Survivors.

CALI, Colombia, September 20, 2014  – On July 30th, 2014, advocates across the globe united in observance of the first annual World Day Against Trafficking in Persons.  In honor of this day, Marcela Loaiza, Survivor and Founder of the Marcela Loaiza Foundation, planned an international meeting for survivors of human trafficking, titled “Breaking the Silence”.  With support from the Minister of Interior of Colombia, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and the International Organization of Migration (IOM), this event was held in Cali, Colombia with over 280 people in attendance.

Participants included Juan Camilo Restrepo, Deputy Minister of Interior; Mauricio Castro, Delegate of the Government of Valle; Felipe Montoya, Peace Advisor to the Mayor; David Alamos, Officer in Charge of the UNODC; Carolina Lopez, Program Coordinator, Trafficking and Gender, IOM; and eight survivors of human trafficking, including Beth Jacobs, Founder of Willow Way; Evelyn Chumbow, Survivor Consultant at Humanity United; Holly Austin Smith, Author of Walking Prey; Ima Matul, Survivor Organizer for the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking (CAST); Norma Bastidas, Author of Running Home: A Journey to End Violence; Rani Hong, UN Special Advisor for Victims Survivors; Shamere McKenzie, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Sun Gate Foundation; and Trong Hong, Co-Founder of the Tronie Foundation.

We survivor speakers were honored to be invited to share our personal testimonies and journeys toward healing, empowerment, and leadership.  We also took the opportunity to offer words of encouragement to those victims and survivors of human trafficking living within Colombian borders, as well as words of advice to Colombian government leaders.  Such advice included the need for a comprehensive approach to victim services and the need to support victims and survivors in such a way that enables them to become local, national, and international leaders.

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Holly’s Speech for National Missing Children’s Day

Esther J., California, 2013 National Missing Children's Day poster contest winner

What follows is Holly’s speech for the National Missing Children’s Day commemoration event on May 21st in the Great Hall, Department of Justice, Washington D.C.

When I was 14 years old, I went missing on a summer day in 1992, just weeks after my middle school graduation.  When my parents realized I wasn’t where I was supposed to be and that none of my friends knew my whereabouts, they filed a missing person’s report with our local police district in Little Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey, and then they waited for two days to hear something.

What my parents didn’t realize was that I had met a man at our local shopping mall a couple weeks earlier, and that I had begun to talk to him regularly over the phone.  This man told me that I was pretty enough to be a model and that I was too mature for high school.  He told me that, if I ran away with him, he would get me a fake ID, that he could get me into dance clubs, that I could meet famous people, and that he could give me a red Corvette to drive to Los Angeles and work in the music industry.  As an angry, insecure, naïve, and impulsive teenager, I believed him. I wanted to be in a relationship with an older guy; and more than anything else in the world, I wanted to be an adult.  I didn’t want to go to high school.  I wanted to be able to make my own choices, to come and go as I pleased.

And so, on July 1st, 1992, I chose to run away with this man from the mall.  This wasn’t the first time I had run away on a whim or in response to my teenage emotions, but it was the first time I had run away with someone I didn’t really know.  Within hours of running away, this man forced and coerced me into prostitution on the streets of Atlantic City, New Jersey.  Because I gave this man my phone number and because I agreed to run away with him, I believed I had gotten myself into this situation.  I believed I alone was at fault for my circumstances.  And, as the hours passed in Atlantic City, the idea of ever going back home became less and less of a reality to me, so much so that I failed to seek help from anyone, including law enforcement, as they passed by me in the hotels, motels, and on the streets of Atlantic City.

When I was finally approached by a law enforcement officer the following night on Pacific Avenue, I was questioned about my age.  At first, I insisted that I was over 18, but then I asked the officer what would happen if I was underage.  What I meant by this was What are my options?  I wasn’t ready to face my parents or my past, but I wanted to get away from the man who lured me away from home and then raped me inside a motel room.  In response to my question, though, this officer arrested me, and then he ridiculed me as we drove to the Atlantic City police station.

I don’t tell you this to shame this officer – I tell you this to emphasize the need for law enforcement training on all levels when working with juvenile victims, especially victims of commercial sexual exploitation.  Had this officer been trained, he likely would have recognized a potential situation of sex trafficking.  He might have recognized that I was a child in need of compassion and resources.  Without immediate support and understanding from law enforcement, child victims of sex trafficking are often left only with the support and understanding offered by their traffickers; and as a result, they will often return to those very people who victimized them. I’m happy to report that law enforcement agencies across the country have stepped up to this challenge and have trained many of their officers on the issue of child sex trafficking, and many have even created protocols and programs in specific response to this victim population. I urge others to follow suit.  Exploitation, including sex trafficking, happens to children in all states, in all communities, and our officers must know how to properly respond.

It was in the middle of the second night when my parents received a call from the Atlantic City police – their worst fears had come true.  Upon arrival, my mother asked the officer for help – What are we to do? she said.  The officer responded stating that he wasn’t a babysitter and to get me out of his station. Again, I don’t share this to shame the officer, I share it to emphasize the need for all levels of law enforcement to be trained on how to support child victims of exploitation.  Immediately after my recovery from Atlantic City, and for years following, both my family and I needed support and services. If nothing else, law enforcement must be prepared to offer compassion and a list of resources.  Without knowing what to do next, my parents took me home. Twenty years later, my mother e-mailed me about this night and wrote: “We [later] got a call from [the local police station and when] I told them you were home…they were very surprised!…[Y]ou think you are doing everything you can [to find your child,] but two police districts very close to one another had no communication!”

In the end, my case was handled by three different police districts: our local police station in Little Egg Harbor Township; the Atlantic City police station, where I was arrested; and a police station in Absecon, New Jersey, the district in which I was raped by the man who had befriended me and lured me away from home. I was escorted and questioned by multiple police officers in different cities; and, as a result, I felt isolated, judged, and without any rights.  My mother’s description of this time period expresses equal frustration: “[W]e went to [the local] police station so they could talk to you[,” she wrote, “D]ad was with you… at some point…we had to go to the third police department…none of them seemed to know what the other was doing and we were so confused…”

In my book, Walking Prey, I dedicate an appendix with tips for law enforcement and other first responders on proactive and reactive protocols to identify victims and to prevent commercial sexual exploitation of youth, as well as resources to aid law enforcement in their efforts to communicate and collaborate with each other and aftercare specialists.  In my experience as a speaker and consultant, I have met law enforcement officers across the country who are eager to make a difference and to learn from survivors to best help victims today.  I’m so grateful to all of them and to all of you for your continued efforts to assist missing and exploited children.

Although it took many years for me to overcome my victimization, my story does have a happy ending. I graduated high school and then graduated college with a 3.6 GPA and a Bachelor’s degree in Biology. Today, I’m a biologist, an advocate, and an author. My journey toward advocacy began with a documentary I watched in 2009; this documentary on human trafficking followed the stories of several young women and girls who were forced into brothels in India.  I was struck by one young girl whose story was so similar to my own that I wondered if I, too, could have been a victim.  I researched human trafficking in America and began to meet other survivors across the country – it was through meeting these men and women that I finally understood that I had been victimized as a teenager, and that I had nothing to be ashamed of.  I later met boys and girls who were just coming out of exploitative circumstances, and I listened as they struggled to understand how they were victims.  Like me, they believed that because had they had “chosen” to run away with an adult who promised a better life, that they were the ones at fault.

These young survivors are the ones who inspired me to share my story, especially with law enforcement.  My hope is that my story helps you to see the manipulation and exploitation at play between a trafficker and his or her victims, especially when those victims are children and youth.  It took me many years to mature enough to see how vulnerable and immature I was at age 14 – victims today will also need time to grow and understand this.  I encourage you to have patience when working with juvenile victims of sex trafficking and other forms of exploitation; they need your understanding and your lack of judgment.

As an advocate, I often speak to communities across the country and I’m often asked by event organizers to address the fact that this crime happens to all children, including “good” kids from the suburbs.  This is true: commercial sexual exploitation of children, including sex trafficking, can and does happen to all children regardless of gender, race, or family income, but it very often happens to those youth who lack support in their homes and communities. In response to one recent event, an article had been written on the issue of child sex trafficking, and the opening line was written as follows:

Human trafficking doesn’t just happen in back alleys in big cities to children and teens that no one cares about.

If that line doesn’t anger you, it should. Any child who is being trafficked or otherwise exploited deserves love and compassion – whether that exploitation happens in a big city or suburb or in a back alley or a private mansion.  Whether that child is poor or rich, street-smart or book-smart, homeless or from a middle class home – that child deserves victim-centered, trauma-informed services from both law enforcement and service providers, as well compassion and understanding from the community. Awareness, education, and advocacy are important for the welfare of all children and youth, and we are all responsible as adults and as community members.

Although I was a victim of sex trafficking, I am no longer a victim. I am a survivor; I’m also a wife, a daughter, a sister, and a friend.  I don’t want you to feel sorry for me because I’m in a beautiful place today.  However, I do want you to consider those children and youth who are out there today in 2014 experiencing what I experienced in 1992. You can make a difference in each of their lives.  You can be the first person to offer that child compassion, support, and resources.  You can be the reason that child ultimately graduates high school and realizes his or her dreams.  You can be the reason that child graduates college and goes on to become a scientist, an artist, or even a law enforcement officer or social worker to help others.  Many of you are already that person in a child’s life; and as a survivor, I thank you.  Please continue to work together, to advocate and educate each other, and to serve all youth in order to bring all of our missing children home.

Thank you.

Holly Austin Smith, Author of Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery