When Holly Austin Smith was 17, she was seduced by a pimp at a South Jersey mall and dragged into the 1980s Atlantic City prostitution scene.
Last week, she told a roomful of Hudson County law enforcement officers and others that she never even realized until a few years ago that she had been a victim of sex trafficking.
She and a New Jersey teenager who had been a victim of bullying spoke about their experiences to a roomful of local prosecutors, lawyers, activists, and counselors at Hudson County Community College’s campus in Union City last week.
Union City may have been an appropriate venue for the conference, as it was at the center of a trafficking scandal in 2005 when a local businesswoman, Luisa Medrano, was arrested for smuggling Honduran women into New Jersey who worked at her Union City bar. It was said that the women were prostitutes. Medrano was sentenced to house arrest, and the scandal brought down Guttenberg Mayor David Delle Donna, a friend of Medrano who, with his wife, was accused of accepting gifts from her.
Bullied no more
Also speaking last week was Ashley Craig, the 17-year-old head of a growing organization called Students Against Being Bullied (SABB). She said 500,000 young people around the country contemplate suicide each year because of bullying, and 5,000 succeed.
Both speakers said that silence is not an option, and that increasing awareness was important.
Smith said that before being dragged into prostitution, “I really, really needed help” for drug abuse and sexual assault. “The only person who recognized that was my trafficker.”
The half-day conference was sponsored by the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office in celebration of National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. And though it was coordinated by the New Jersey Crime Victims’ Law Center and the Hudson County Office of Victim and Witness Advocacy, the conference was much more a celebration of the many advances in the victims’ rights movement than it was a seminar for law enforcement.
“In the last 30 years the victims’ rights movement has moved with incredible force.” - Richard Pompelio
“We, as elected officials, need to make sure law enforcement has what it needs to deal with these types of crimes,” said Romano.
In accepting the proclamation, Pompelio compared the victims’ rights movement, which began in the 1970s when activists decided the legal system had become too indifferent towards victims, to the Civil Rights Movement.
“It took nearly a century after the 13th and 14th amendments were passed before any real change was seen with the Civil Rights Act of 1964,” he said. “But in the last 30 years the victims’ rights movement has moved with incredible force.”
Pompelio praised an amendment made to New Jersey’s Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights late last year as turning the state’s victim advocacy law into one of the strongest in the nation, and singled out Hudson County as having one of the finest victim/witness advocacy offices in the state.
‘Safe rooms’ from bullying
Craig was first bullied by a group of students in seventh grade after she told a teacher the truth about how she ended up on the ground during gym class – that she’d been pushed. Constantly harassed and unable to get away from the bullies for four months, she decided that her only option was to shift her entire class schedule. Things improved until June of her eighth grade year, when she noticed an acquaintance, who she knew was also a victim of bullying, across the classroom looking depressed.
“I asked him what was wrong, and he said ‘Ashley, I’m going to end my life,’” said Craig, explaining the event that served as a catalyst for the formation of SABB, which is now in its third year.
The program, which Craig has said can be easily adapted to fit nearly any high school, centers on an open line of communication between students, administrators, and counselors via texting, a medium that Craig said she thought students would be most comfortable with. The program has also implemented supervised “safe rooms” for students before the morning bell rings, so that they don’t fall victim to bullies that may be in the hallways, and student support groups.
Smith spoke about the need for counseling opportunities for victims of sex trafficking, many of whom struggle to reassimilate with society.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org