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

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