Child Sex Trafficking and The Virginia Free Citizen Internship Program

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The Virginia Free Citizen internship program produced a series of articles and this interview of Holly Austin Smith. VCU Interns Kate Miller and  Shelby Mertens wrote and produced this interview in March of this year. These productions cost money and please donate to our campaign to hire next semester’s interns to continue bringing Virginians current and important issues as human trafficking in Virginia.  Human trafficking in the form of child sex trafficking is in our communities.   The majority of human trafficking victims in Virginia are between 11 and 14 years old.

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Child Sex Trafficking Survivor Becomes Advocate

By Shelby Mertens and Kate Miller, Virginia Free Citizen

When Holly Smith was 14 years old, a man pulled her out of the crowd at a shopping mall in southern New Jersey. They exchanged phone numbers and they talked on the phone for the next two weeks. He told her she was pretty enough to be a model and that he could introduce her to famous people so she could become a songwriter.

For a 14-year-old, this sounded fun. At the time, Smith said she was struggling at home and at school, which made her vulnerable. She was looking for an escape.

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I was really struggling at home with depression … I was just really struggling with the transition from middle school to high school

I was really struggling at home with depression … I was just really struggling with the transition from middle school to high school,” Smith said. “I was afraid of getting beat up, I was afraid of losing my friendships, so this guy offered this new life and this big adventure.

But little did Smith know, she was about to become part of the child sex trade and a victim of sex trafficking. After running away with the man she met at the mall, she was forced into prostitution in Atlantic City, N.J. within hours of running away.

Luckily for Smith, a police officer spotted her on the street 36 hours later. He arrested her and she said she was treated like a criminal. The year was 1992 and the term “human trafficking” was unheard of. Smith was charged with prostitution, but the charges were later dropped. (Smith noted that the charges still appear on her juvenile record.) There were a total of three traffickers in her case and all three were arrested. However, Smith said one was let go, another one posted bail and fled, and the main trafficker served 364 days in jail with five years probation. Of course the punishment today would be much stiffer than in 1992, Smith points out.

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Smith said she went home with no aftercare services or counseling. She said the experience was traumatizing and she struggled thereafter.

So the officer sent me home, no aftercare, no services at all, and I really struggled a lot of years after that,” she said. “It was very, very bad for me, it was really traumatic afterwards. After being home for about four days and being grounded and feeling very ashamed, I attempted suicide.

Smith was then sent to a halfway house where she received help from a psychiatric facility. However, Smith said her therapist wasn’t trained in sex trafficking, so Smith didn’t get the help she needed. Smith was only there 20 days and she continued to struggle all throughout high school.

“My friends found out what had happened to me and I was ostracized, I was called names and I had to change schools several times,” she said.

Smith admitted that she actually tried to get back in touch with her traffickers because, at the time, she thought they were the only people who accepted her.

“I began to feel like society kind of looked down on me … so I started to feel like … these people who took me to Atlantic City, now they’re the only people who will accept me,” she said. “And so I actually was trying to get back to them because everybody else looked at me and treated me like I was dirty, or that I should be ashamed of what I had done.”

Smith then got into drug and alcohol abuse as a way to cope with her struggles.

“Because I didn’t get aftercare services, I began to self-medicate, and that’s why I got really into drug abuse and alcohol abuse,” she said. “So I found myself at age 17 hooked on drugs and selling drugs to support my habit.”

Smith was arrested again by one of the same officers in her trafficking case, she said. She was sent to juvenile jail and she realized she was going on a dangerous path. She decided she needed to change.

I just realized that if I continued the way I was going, the result was going to be drug addiction or death,” Smith said. “I just realized that I wanted more than that.

With the help of her teachers, Smith was accepted into a local community college. She then transferred to Richard Stockton College where she graduated with a degree in biology. She then got a job as a biologist.

“At the age of 17 I just realized that nobody was going to save me, nobody was going to help me, I had to help myself,” she said.

Although Smith worked hard and became successful, her past still haunted her.

“Things seemed really good after that, I mean I had excelled professionally and academically, but still I harbored this secret in my past that I used to be a prostitute, because I didn’t understand that I was a victim,” Smith said.

As a result, Smith said she had low self-esteem and didn’t think she deserved a good relationship. She believed she was at fault.

“So what I understood was that he tricked me, I understood that he told me a lie in order to get me to run away, but I didn’t truly understand that I was a victim because I had chosen to run away,” Smith said. “I actually believed that I was the one at fault for being stupid enough to run away with a stranger.”

It wasn’t until she met other survivors and learned what human trafficking was in 2009 that she realized she was a victim. She said the experience was life changing.

“Meeting other survivors and hearing their stories just helped me to realize that I was a victim when I was 14 years old, that I was manipulated, that I was exploited,” Smith said. “And it’s really helped me to put all of that behind me and to move forward with my head high.”

When she discovered human trafficking in 2009, she reached out to Tina Frundt, who runs an organization based in Washington D.C. called Courtney’s House, which serves child sex trafficking victims in D.C., Virginia and Maryland. Smith spoke at a fundraising event for Frundt and continued sharing her story with others. She said she kept hearing the same questions from audience members over and over again, which eventually inspired her to write a book.

“I realized I really wanted to write a book, so that I could address all these questions that I was commonly hearing, questions like, ‘why didn’t I run away when I was in the motel room?’ and ‘why would I talk to a stranger?’” she said.

Smith’s book, Walking Prey, is a non-fiction academic book about child sex trafficking in the United States. Smith wrote her story while she was in college, but she didn’t start writing Walking Prey until 2012. The book is not just a memoir because it incorporates research studies and news reports from across the country. But Smith said she wrote the book from a 14-year-old’s perspective.

“Those questions actually project a lot of blame on to the victim, you’re asking why she didn’t do this or that, when the victim was just a 14-year-old kid, she didn’t really know how to react,” Smith said. “So I write the book in order to take the reader on the journey of a 14 year old, I try … to help my reader understand her mindset.”

When asked what more needs to be done to fight human trafficking, Smith suggested more programs for children who may be in a position that would make them especially vulnerable to traffickers.

“Well, my big thing is prevention and I think prevention needs to start in school,” she said. “I think there needs to be a prevention program in place for at-risk youth that addresses anything from school bullying to living in poverty.”

Smith’s book Walking Prey will be released on March 18. Anyone interested can order the book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble or IndieBound.

Holly Smith, a survivor of child sex trafficking, is now an author, advocate and a consultant for AMBER Alert. She has appeared on the Dr. Oz Show to raise human trafficking awareness. She seeks to educate law enforcement and the community, advocate for survivors and support stronger laws against human trafficking. For more information, please visit her blog. Follow her on Twitter @Holly_A_Smith and ‘like’ her Facebook page.

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Virginia Free Citizen Team: Shelby Mertens, Kate Miller and Jeff Bayard

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