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

Think your child is safe from sex traffickers? Think again

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

CHERRY HILL, NJ, May 11, 2014 – In my recently-released book, Walking Prey, I address the fact that many parents believe that their children are immune to the tactics of child sex traffickers.  Oh, that would never happen to one of my kids, I often hear from parents living in American suburbia.  But the truth is that any child can be susceptible. This is because the very nature of being a child is a risk factor as youth often engage in risky and impulsive behavior. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offers scientific research on why this behavior in adolescents might be biologically-based: they say a human brain does not reach adult maturation until the early 20s. According to their website, brain scans revealed that gray matter (which forms the cortex of the brain) is at its highest volume (i.e. its least efficiency) in adolescence.  The cortex is the area of the brain which controls thought and memory processes. As the brain matures, these areas are “pruned” to allow the brain to work more efficiently.

Those areas of the cortex involved in more basic functions (e.g. controlling movement) mature first, while those areas involved with impulse-control and “planning ahead—the hallmarks of adult behavior—are among the last to mature.” NIMH states: “One interpretation of all these findings is that in teens, the parts of the brain involved in emotional responses are fully online, or even more active than in adults, while the parts of the brain involved in keeping emotional, impulsive responses in check are still reaching maturity. Such a changing balance might provide clues to a youthful appetite for novelty, and a tendency to act on impulse—without regard for risk.”

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

How well-meaning efforts can be harmful to survivors of trauma

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

PHILADELPHIA, April 21, 2014 — Human trafficking is one of those issues that cuts deep into the hearts of men and women across the globe, and many have vowed to take a stand against it.  As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I continue to be moved by the passion of advocates to prevent trafficking of persons and to protect victims.  Many advocates have volunteered their time, money, skills, and resources toward awareness events, educational projects, and fundraising efforts for service providers and other organizations; and I am deeply grateful for their sacrifices. However, those taking on roles of advocates must understand that survivors of trafficking and other forms of exploitation are under no obligation to do the same.

Just because a man, woman, or child has survived human trafficking or commercial sexual exploitation does not mean that this person is obligated to share that experience or sacrifice his/her time, money, expertise, or resources for the sake of raising awareness, educating or training professionals, or for any other reason even if that event or project is funded and carried out by unpaid volunteers.  Volunteers have been given the choice and opportunity to participate without pay, and survivors should be offered the same.

When a survivor is asked to share his/her story on camera or before a live audience, this person is recounting and thereby reliving that trauma again and again.  Therefore, a survivor is sacrificing not only his/her time, travel expenses, and work loss, but also he/she is potentially sacrificing his/her physical, emotional, and/or mental health.  When organizing an event or project and inviting survivors to share their stories, the organizer must, at a minimum, offer a survivor speaker/participant compensation for his/her travel expenses (and work loss, if requested); this can at least ease the difficulty of sharing such an experience.  Travel expenses include lodging, airfare, train tickets, bus passes, taxis, shuttles, parking fees, tips, car mileage, tolls, baggage fees, food, and any other fee associated with the effort to attend or participate in that event.

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Sex Trafficking: My Life My Choice offers a mentorship model for victims

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

My Life My Choice

BOSTON, April 5, 2014 — In my recently-released book, Walking PreyI explain that exposure to healthy and empowered survivors is vital in aftercare programs, especially for child victims of commercial sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking. In the chapter on Intermediate and Long-term Aftercare, I point out that, “One way to do this is via a Survivor Mentor model like the one created by My Life My Choice (MLMC).”

MLMC of the Justice Resource Institute, located in Boston, Massachusetts, pairs survivor mentors with exploited girls to encourage their use of existing services — including those outside of MLMC’s scope — to support their exit from the commercial sex industry, or to break their bonds with their traffickers. Exploited girls are identified through a variety of sources, including law enforcement, child protective services, medical providers, and clergy.

MLMC’s Survivor Mentor program seeks to stabilize a girl’s situation shortly after identification, thereby decreasing the likelihood that she will run away during this time. It then provides support, motivation, and hope to the young woman consistently over time.

Each mentor spends a minimum of one to two hours per week face-to-face with each girl. When appropriate, MLMC survivor mentors take their mentees into parts of the community where they have been denied access during their period of exploitation: movies, restaurants, cultural resources, etc. These outings help the girls bond with their mentors as they get to experience ordinary adolescent activities, thereby building their confidence and social skills.

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Survivors of Slavery: New book offers global narratives on modern-day slavery

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

 

NEW ORLEANS, LA, March 24, 2014 – Last week, my book, Walking Prey, was released by Palgrave Macmillan and is available via AmazonBarnes & Noble, and IndieBound.  Walking Prey is an academic nonfiction book about child sex trafficking in the United States.  This week, another promising book will be released: Survivors of Slavery: Modern-Day Slave Narratives by Laura T. Murphy, Ph. D.  In Survivors of Slavery, Murphy offers survivor narratives from Cambodia, Ghana, Lebanon, Macedonia, Mexico, Russia, Thailand, Ukraine, and the United States, all “detailing the horrors of a system that forces people to work without pay and against their will, under the threat of violence, with little or no means of escape” (description from Amazon). As a way of introducing this book, I’d like to include here a portion of the foreword written by Minh Dang of Berkeley, California:

An Open Letter to the Antitrafficking Movement, March 2013

Dear respected members of the anti-human-trafficking movement,

As a U.S. citizen and survivor of child abuse, incest, and domestic sex trafficking in the United States, I write to you to communicate my deepest wishes for how we approach our antitrafficking work. Over the past three years, I have publicly shared my story of slavery and freedom in venues large and small across the United States. I have met college students, teenagers, mothers, fathers, clergy, professors, service providers, and many others working to fight modern-day slavery. Through my presentations and conversations, I have developed a working set of guiding principles for the antitrafficking movement. I urge all of us to take heed of these principles because our adherence to or refutation of them will deeply affect the work that we do and the impact we have.

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Wellspring Living serves victims of sex trafficking in Georgia

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

ATLANTA, GA, March 15, 2014 – Wellspring Living is an organization that offers services to victims of sexual abuse and exploitation. Their mission is “to confront the issue of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation through awareness, training, and treatment programs for women and girls.” In the following interview, Founder and CEO Mary Frances Bowley takes us inside the walls of Wellspring Living in order to educate the public about their services.

Holly Smith: Mary, where are your headquarters, and where are your efforts based?

Mary Frances Bowley: Our vision is to serve locally and influence globally. Locally, we are committed to the rescue, restoration, and renewal of survivors. Globally, we hope to come alongside other organizations and give them a replicable model so they can do the same in their communities.

Holly Smith: Can you tell us about the restoration programs available at Wellspring Living?

Mary Frances Bowley: Wellspring Living offers three types of comprehensive healing programs: Wellspring for Girls, Wellspring for Women, and the Transitions Program. All of our programs focus on the holistic restoration of sexual abuse and trafficking victims.

Wellspring for Girls is offered to girls between the ages of 12 and 17 who have been sexually exploited. Girls are offered counseling, group therapy, education, life skills, vocational training, family reunification, and spiritual care. The program aims to help exploitation survivors heal and move toward a positive and healthy lifestyle. The program collaborates with a licensed children’s home, a non-traditional school, and community partners.

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Interviewing victims of human trafficking: Survivors offer advice

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

RICHMOND, VA, March 1, 2014 – Recently, I discussed with law enforcement interviewing techniques when working with potential victims of human trafficking. As a survivor of child sex trafficking, I wrote an academic nonfiction book on the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) in the United States, titled Walking Prey.  Although I do share my personal story in Walking Prey, this book is much more than a memoir. I discuss predisposing factors and community risk factors for CSEC, as well as the potential mindset of a “willing victim”.

A child victim who does not self-identify as such is often referred to as a “willing victim,” as was I at age fourteen in 1992. In Walking Prey, I discuss “willing victims” in order to offer victim-centered insight to law enforcement and other first responders and victim advocates. My hope is that such insight will help professionals interview and care for such victims. When offering tips to law enforcement, I often pull from my resources in Walking Prey. However, I believe that additional insight from other survivors of human trafficking is needed in order to offer comprehensive advice on interviewing techniques.  Following are quotes from a few survivors of sex and labor trafficking within America.

Trust, trust, trust…Building the rapport, trust, and relationship with victims takes time and patience…it is essential for [human trafficking] cases…[this is] one big reason why these cases are different from any other and [why] specialized training is needed. [Plan for m]ultiple contacts, multiple interviews. [Have p]atience! Never expect the victim to give you all, or even hardly any, intel the first interview. The first few meetings are you gaining their trust and building rapport. You will most likely get tiny bits of info, which will grow little by little, and over time pieces will come together.  – Anonymous Survivor and Consultant for the International Association of Human Trafficking Investigators (IAHTI)

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Mental health workers must collaborate with trauma survivors

Written by Zoe Kessler and edited by Holly Smith — From her column Speaking Out in the Communities Digital News

BOSTON, February 22, 2014 – My name is Zoe Kessler, and I am both a clinical social worker and a survivor of commercial sex exploitation as a minor. As a clinician and an advocate against all forms of commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), I have witnessed a gross misunderstanding for CSEC on the side of mental health professionals.

First of all, in order to provide effective mental health services to victims, mental health professionals must place value on “insider survivor knowledge.” Put simply, “insider survivor knowledge” is an understanding that can only be attained through personal experience. Without collaboration between survivors and service providers, the understanding for any victimization will be limited. This is because survivors can offer victim-centered insight into the potential effects from trauma, potential signs and symptoms of victimization, and those aftercare treatments that may be most appropriate and effective.

One common misunderstanding, not just among health professionals but among the general public, is that victims of CSEC have a “true choice” in whether or not they are commercially sexually exploited. This belief can affect the ways in which mental health professionals view survivors of CSEC, just as it once did for the way in which professionals viewed survivors of domestic violence. For example, if a girl (or boy) runs away and is “turned out” by a pimp or continues to live at home while simultaneously under the control of a pimp, this child is a victim of exploitation and manipulation.  Without “insider survivor knowledge,” professionals may place blame on those girls and boys. They might ask these victims: Why didn’t you ask for help?

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

Survivors Offer Insight to Federal Anti-trafficking Efforts

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

WASHINGTON, February 15, 2014 – Last month, the White House administration announced a five-year “Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the Unites States…, a collaborative effort involving more than 15 agencies across the Federal Government.”

As stated in last week’s article, the Plan outlines intentions for each agency to integrate the experiences and voices of survivors into their initiatives. One anonymous survivor responded to this ambition as follows: “For a successful collaboration there must be an intentional disbursement of power between the government agencies that have traditionally held all the power of decision-making and the survivor groups that have held none.”

In response to the Plan, the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families created a technical working group with the goal to enhance the health care system’s response to human trafficking. Among those invited to attend the first session were medical and health professionals, service providers, advocates, researchers, and survivors of human trafficking.

In this article, I’d like to include some perspectives from survivors who were unable to attend the meeting. Following are the questions I posed to survivors along with their answers:

What are the needs of human trafficking victims (both short and long-term) as it relates to healthcare providers?

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website

The Federal Government steps up anti-trafficking efforts

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

WASHINGTON, February 3, 2014 ─ In September 2012, President Barack Obama spoke at the Clinton Global Initiative and openly declared a U.S. initiative to address human trafficking.

In his speech, Obama called for a national action plan to better identify victims of human trafficking and address their aftercare needs. Last month, the White House administration announced a five-year “Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the Unites States, a collaborative effort involving more than 15 agencies across the Federal Government.” Co-chairs of the Plan include Eric H. Holder, Jr., Attorney General; Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services; and Jeh Charles Johnson, Secretary of Homeland Security.

In an introductory statement, the co-chairs acknowledged nationwide efforts to combat human trafficking and proposed that the Plan would strengthen “coordination, collaboration, and capacity across governmental and nongovernmental entities dedicated to providing support to the victims of human trafficking.” Further, the President’s Interagency Task Force (PITF) to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons recognized “that services must be provided in a manner that respects survivors and endeavors to integrate their experience and their voice.”

Read the article on the Communities Digital News website