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