Sex trade survivor: Kids are easy prey

Holly Austin Smith, a former sex-trafficking victim and current advocate, looks over a list of other survivors in a notebook she carries with her after speaking Wednesday in Charleston.

A woman who was lured into commercial sex when she was 14 brought a warning to Charleston parents Wednesday.

Just about any unhappy teen can be enticed in the same way, according to Holly Austin Smith, who has spent the past 20 years trying to figure out how she got hooked. She repeated the message of her 2014 book, “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery.”

“The truth is that any child can be susceptible,” said Smith, who lives in Virginia. “The very nature of being a child is a risk factor as youth often act on emotion and impulse.”

Smith told her story at a fundraising luncheon for the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children’s Center, often the first stop for abused children who are taken into custody.

At the same time as Smith was speaking in Charleston, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson was giving a similar message to a Rotary Club in Mount Pleasant.

“Trafficking is far more nefarious than what you see in Hollywood,” Wilson said to the group of about 50 people.

He shared with them a story of a woman he had met who was blackmailed into sex trafficking in the 1980s after being drugged, raped and photographed by a classmate.

“She wasn’t kidnapped in Europe,” he said. “She wasn’t taken at gunpoint. She went home every day, she did her homework, she went to church on the weekends and she went to school. For two years she was trafficked over and over and over again. She told me that story and it really resonated with me because she was living under her parents’ roof and they did not realize she was being trafficked.”

Smith met the man who would lure her to the dark side at a suburban shopping mall in New Jersey. A well-dressed young man made eye contact, smiled and motioned her over. She was flattered by the attention. They started talking on the phone. He promised to take her to Los Angeles and help her get started in the music industry.

She knew she was running away when she left town with him. She was upset that her best friend was not paying attention to her anymore, among other problems. She had always been used by older boys, yet longed for their attention.

They ended up in a motel in Atlantic City. An older woman dressed her up and told her they were hitting the streets and had to make $500 a night before they came back home.

Nobody called it trafficking in 1992, when Smith was 14. She was arrested her second day on the street. Cops treated her like a teen prostitute, but they didn’t press charges, instead sending her back home to her parents.

It wasn’t until 2000 that the federal government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which says any child under 18 involved in a commercial sex act is a trafficking victim by definition. Since the federal government doesn’t have the power to pursue every sex-trafficking case, it was up to states to pass similar laws for local prosecution. South Carolina passed its version in 2012.

The man who trafficked Smith was eventually arrested and sentenced to a year in prison for prostituting a child. The penalty would be much harsher today. Under South Carolina’s human trafficking law, anybody involved in inducing a minor into commercial sex can be sentenced to 30 years in prison.

Smith is an advocate for more services for teens rescued from sex trafficking. That includes teens like herself who don’t believe they need rescuing.

The children’s center is the site of monthly meetings of the local Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children workgroup. Representatives for juvenile justice, social services, law enforcement, medical and mental health interests have been working to create a set of guidelines that detail the local provider response protocol and will increase awareness.

The S.C. Legislature is considering a Safe Harbor Act that would grant immunity for any minor caught selling themselves for sex, treating them as victims instead of criminals and referring them for services. The bill has been sitting in the House since January.

“We’re in favor of Safe Harbor,” Wilson said after his talk. “We’ve just got to make sure it’s drafted and written the right way.”

The House and Senate are trying to work out a compromise on another bill that would allow courts to vacate prostitution convictions for minors involved in sex trafficking. The big disagreement has been over whether a defendant can use a victim’s sexual history as a defense.

Wilson has been tirelessly proclaiming the message that sex trafficking is a major threat in South Carolina. Yet the arrests on trafficking charges have been relatively few since the state passed its law in 2012. Wilson said more arrests will follow, now that the state grand jury has been given the legal authority to indict on human-trafficking charges, a necessity since traffickers often move around across jurisdictional lines.

The low number of trafficking arrests can also be explained by the fact that many traffickers are still being arrested on other charges, Wilson said. Educating officers and prosecutors to recognize trafficking for what it is takes time, he said.

“We have cases right now that get charged with criminal sexual conduct with a minor or kidnapping because some law-enforcement agencies still don’t fully understand the law around the state,” Wilson said. “There are other human trafficking cases out there by another name.”

The state’s human-trafficking task force released its first report last summer. The report acknowledged that nobody knows how widespread trafficking is in South Carolina, mainly because until recently not many police officers or other first responders were looking for it. The report called for more education and for more services for victims, including shelters.

Reach Dave Munday at 937-5553.