July 17, 2012
By SARAH MERVOSH
For nearly 20 years, Holly Austin Smith thought of herself as a prostitute. She looked back at those 36 hours she spent in Atlantic City, N.J., wearing red high heels, and she thought she had chosen that for herself.
It was only recently that it clicked for Smith: she was never a prostitute. She had been a 14-year-old girl who didn’t think she was pretty enough to wear dresses. She had been a victim who was manipulated and exploited.
And now, at 34, Smith considers herself a survivor of child sex trafficking. She has chin-length blond hair and a Chinese symbol that means “power” tattooed on her hand. Smith travels around the country to support and empower others who are — like she once was — young, insecure and afraid.
At a conference Monday at Southern Methodist University, Smith spoke about her experience, so law enforcement could learn from her story. The three-day conference, organized by the U.S. Justice Department, hopes to shed light on the latest trends in child sex trafficking and help police agencies and others combat the problem.
The majority of the country’s reported trafficking victims are American, and factors like running away from home, a history of abuse and poverty put children at greater risk for exploitation, said Jim Walters, assistant police chief at SMU.
Trafficking is particularly a problem in the Dallas area because of the city’s location. Highways from all over the country cross through Dallas, and victims are sent here from the U.S.-Mexico border, said Pat Davis, associate director of SMU’s Embrey Human Rights Program.
The Dallas Police Department identifies 350 girls a year as at risk for sex trafficking. About half of those have already been forced into prostitution, Davis said.
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