How to advocate for trafficking prevention in your local school districts

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


WASHINGTON, DC, 30 May 2012 – Ever since Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell signed into legislation the SB 259/HB1188 bill, I have received emails from advocates around the country asking how they might bring similar change to their own states.  This bill, which was sponsored by Senator Adam Ebbin and Delegate Vivian E. Watts, will require the Board of Education and the Department of Social Services to collaborate and provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies to prevent trafficking of children.  As a survivor advocate for this bill, I’m proud that others want to join the movement.

On January 16th, 2012, I testified in Richmond, Virginia before the General Assembly Education Committee regarding SB259.  As a survivor of child trafficking, I cared about this bill very much.

Initially, I was unnerved by the political setting.  A panel of busy lawmakers pushed each impassioned, and sometimes angry, speaker past the crowd of observers anxiously awaiting their own turns to speak for or against some other bill.  I nervously scratched and scribbled at my speech until I was finally called upon to speak.  Although I was uneasy, I was also adamant about explaining why a law like this is imperative in the fight to protect our children from predatory child traffickers.

Each legislator voted favorably, one after another; it passed unanimously.

My goal is to ensure that advocates across the country are given the same opportunity to speak and to experience a similar sense of honor and victory when their bills pass.  In order to make this possible, I consulted with James Dold for advice.  James is the Policy Counsel with Polaris Project, an organization which was instrumental in the passing of this law, and he suggested the following steps:

1. Build a case – Quote general nationwide statistics from organizations like Polaris Project, Shared Hope International, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), and others.

Quote local statistics by consulting with the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NHTRC).  The NHTRC can provide details for calls made to their hotline from your state.  For example, the NHTRC can provide details for the number of calls made, the number of calls regarding minors, the number of calls from teachers, and the number of potential minor victims, along with other useful information.

Cite news articles which report areas of the state considered to be “hotspots” for the trafficking of children, recent arrests, and recent activity by the Attorneys General and the Governor’s offices.

2. Be realistic – Don’t overload the proposed legislation with details; keep it simple. Don’t specify proposals for the actual school curricula as this will create conflict; instead, propose only a general statement like “awareness and prevention strategies will be provided.”  Take it one step at a time as amendments can be added later.  Also, restrict requests for mandatory training as this will require extra costs; perhaps this can be proposed at a later, more economically-friendly time.

3. Advocate – Pick a well-respected sponsor for the bill.  The Chair of the Education Committee would be a great choice, or someone who is in a leadership position in the House or Senate, like Majority Leader or Majority Whip.  Mobilize efforts across the state by writing Op-Ed pieces, writing letters to the editor, lobbying for the bill, collaborating with empowered survivors, and organizing press conferences and other events.

“It [is] important to get bi-partisan support and really drive home the point that educators are one of the first lines of defense,” James said, “We did this initially in the sub-committee hearing by providing statistics from the NHTRC hotline about how many teachers had called the hotline with concerns about their students. We also provided vignettes about actual cases we had heard…from teachers and the outcome[s] of those calls…

“We made a very strong effort to work with and gain the endorsements of the Catholic Church and the Family Foundation, as well as several anti-human trafficking organizations working in Virginia.  These organizations are widely-respected in diverse political circles, so having them express support and ultimately showing that this was a bi-partisan issue was very important…It is paramount for advocates to be acutely aware of the political dynamics in [their] state, while at the same time…building a bi-partisan coalition of diverse organizations…

“We always keep things non-partisan and work with both democrats and republicans,” James continued, “as well as liberal or conservative-leaning organizations…With that being said, strategically, it’s important to keep your audience in mind and who they are most likely going to respond to…Legislative advocacy is all about coalition-building and strategic planning; being thoughtful every step of the way is critical.”

I’d like to personally thank James and Polaris Project for their support and passion in the movement to build laws which will protect men, women, and children from all forms of human trafficking in America.  For more information, please contact James at

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