By Amy Taylor, Special to The Record
BARDSTOWN, Ky. — Holly Austin Smith was just 14 when she met the man who forced her into sex slavery.
It was the summer after her eighth-grade graduation — June of 1992. The teen said she was tormented by feelings of self-hatred, loneliness and depression. As she walked through a mall, she felt invisible to the popular kids in school — to her teachers — or to anyone who mattered.
“I felt that if somebody, anybody, didn’t look away when I bumped into his view, I would know that I was really there,” she said.
Then someone at the mall noticed her. A young man dressed in “cool” clothes, wearing gold chains, curled his finger at her, motioning the girl to come over. When she did, he supplied his phone number.
That was the beginning of several long phone calls made from Smith’s bedroom while her parents sat watching TV in the living room, completely unsuspecting. “Greg” showed an interest in the teen’s life, she said, asking questions about her hopes and dreams. She noted that he seemed concerned about what troubled her.
“It was an instant friendship,” the New Jersey native said. Later she would realize that “child traffickers are charismatic. They are casual and cool. He talked to me like I was an adult. I didn’t know then that my new friend was actually a pimp.”
On March 21, at the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth Bardstown campus, Smith served as the keynote speaker at a forum hosted by the Nelson County Human Trafficking Task Force, a group assembled by the Sisters with grant funding from Catholic Health Initiatives. Smith was there to share her experience of becoming a victim, then a survivor, and finally an advocate for victims.
Shortly after “Greg” had one of his prostitutes dye the teen’s hair blond and squeeze her into “slutty” clothes, he told her they were going to Atlantic City.
“I assumed the high heels were for getting into a dance club,” Smith said. “Nobody said the word prostitution. It just hung in the air like a slab of meat.”
Greg put two condoms in the teenager’s hand. Then he found her a “john,” a customer. Smith climbed into the man’s car. In a casino motel room, the john stripped down to his socks.
“That night separated life as I knew it into two parts,” Austin said. “Before Atlantic City and after Atlantic City.”
Later on, her rescue from sex slavery came in the form of a policeman who arrested her.
“I wasn’t treated like a victim,” she said. “I was treated like a criminal.”
Austin knows now that she was at risk for sexual exploitation simply because she was a child, she said. In addition, she was an easy target because she had been molested by a cousin when she was under the age of 10.
She told the March 21 forum that a number of factors can predispose kids to become victims, though “many parents want to believe their children are safe.” Risk factors include abuse or neglect in childhood; poverty; difficulty in school; mental health issues; and the sexualization of women and girls on TV, in magazines and in movies. She details the problem and offers solutions in a book she has just published, Walking Prey.
A panel discussion followed the author’s talk. Four of the five panelists are Nelson County Human Trafficking Task Force members.
One panel member, Sister of Charity of Nazareth Adeline Fehribach, serves as provincial for the order’s Western Province.
“Your story illustrates that high school is too late” to educate about sex trafficking, she said. “This message needs to be given in grade school — even though there’s going to be a lot of resistance to that.”
Sister Fehribach said she was struck most by Smith’s statement that as a teen, she wanted someone to acknowledge that she was alive.
“I come out of a church background,” Sister Fehribach said. “We’re not doing enough, as church, for our young people. I don’t care where they go, as long as there are responsible adults who let them know, ‘I see you.’ Let’s challenge our churches to work with our youth.”
According to task force member Morel Jones, program coordinator for Doors to Hope in Louisville, “community awareness and involvement are important.” However, Jones said, “We can’t stop there. We need to strengthen the task force so that we have a comprehensive response to human trafficking. We need to deal with the legal, social, emotional and medical needs of victims. They need beds and emergency shelter.”
Task Force member Marissa Castellanos, who serves as the human trafficking program manager at Catholic Charities of Louisville, said human trafficking training for key professionals, such as police officers and emergency workers, has increased. But she said there must be more education for parents, teachers and children.
“There’s an argument that we can’t say words like ‘prostitution’ or ‘sex’ around kids,” she said. “I think we’re underestimating them. I know it’s ugly — but we have to talk about this with our children.”
If you suspect that you are dealing with a victim of human trafficking, call 911 or the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 888-373-7888. Or Monday through Friday during daytime hours, call Marissa Castellanos at Catholic Charities of Louisville at 974-4947. Castellanos also can provide free human trafficking training. For more information on trafficking, visit RescueAndRestoreKy.org or SharedHope.org.
Amy Taylor is a member Nelson County Human Trafficking Task Force and is communications coordinator for KentuckyOne Health at Flaget Memorial Hospital in Bardstown, Ky.