News Release

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What's a "Willing Victim?"

WilmU's 2nd annual human trafficking symposium highlights a suburban slave's story.

The words "human trafficking" tend to suggest foreign crimes and kidnapped hostages. But human trafficking happens in America, too, and it often involves teens who are "willing victims," said one of its survivors, the keynote speaker at Wilmington University's second annual human trafficking symposium on July 18.

What are willing victims? They're people who don't identify themselves as victims of human trafficking, largely because they don't recognize they're being controlled. They're people like Holly Austin Smith, who was lured into prostitution at age 14 from her South Jersey suburb by a man she believed was her boyfriend.

"I didn't even understand that I was a victim of a crime," said Smith, whose 2014 book Walking Prey: How America's Youth Are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery recounts her experiences and their aftermath, while providing an overview of the issue and resources for responding to it.

"Kids are easier to manipulate, kids are easier to exploit," she told an audience of about 150 school counselors, law enforcement officials, and others at WilmU's New Castle campus.

In her case, a lack of self-esteem, parental supervision, emotional validation, and counseling — risk factors complicated by an incident of sexual abuse, her family's silence about shame, and popular culture's hypersexualized portrayals of women — led her into the hands of a predator and, a few days later, a 1992 arrest in Atlantic City, N.J.

"People asked, 'You weren't kidnapped, drugged, or beaten? How was this human trafficking?'" said Smith, who ran away from home a second time, and was arrested for prostitution a second time, after her first arrest. "Everything that happened before shaped what happened to me in Atlantic City."

The hazard of human trafficking to at-risk teens has increased, Smith notes, with their access to social media. "Every time a kid turns on his or her cell phone, there's a chance that they're going to cross paths with a predator," she said.

What's more, public awareness and victim outreach efforts still fall short of the magnitude of the problem. "When I first started sharing my story in 2009, there were not many victims who were sharing their stories," she said.

While that number has since grown, most victims don't volunteer to advocate for their fellow victims through recovery organizations. "That's the missing link," said Smith. "We need more awareness. More shedding of stigma. So that more survivors can come out and fill these roles."

WilmU's human trafficking symposium, organized by Dr. Johanna Bishop, director of behavioral science programs in the College of Social and Behavioral Science, also featured breakout sessions and panel discussions on the factors that put children at risk of this modern-day slavery, how to recognize and respond to incidents of human trafficking, and the current thinking on treating victims' trauma.

WilmU faculty, human services providers, and law enforcement personnel — including representatives of the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and the Maryland State Police —also addressed how money laundering and social media fuel human trafficking, the black market for human organs, and the latest amendments to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000.

WilmU president Dr. LaVerne Harmon and Delaware's attorney general, Matt Denn, opened the event with remarks on the local impact of this global problem.

"Five years ago, no one was talking about this," said Abigail Layton, deputy attorney general and director of the family division for Denn's office. "Half the problem is, people don't understand what it is."

A recent reworking of the laws policing human trafficking, however, was accompanied by an awareness campaign. "We taught first responders, schools, even the general public what to look for and what to do if you suspect you're meeting a victim," she said.


About Wilmington University

Wilmington University is a private, nonprofit institution committed to providing flexible, career-oriented, traditional and online associate, undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree programs. Ranked as the second fastest growing nonprofit doctoral institution in America by The Almanac of The Chronicle of Higher Education (2004-2014), Wilmington University enables greater student success through affordable tuition, academic excellence and individualized attention. For more information, contact Wilmington University at 302-356-INFO (4636), via email at infocenter@wilmu.edu, or visit www.wilmu.edu.

Published: Thursday, July 20, 2017 - New Castle, DE