In three weeks, Holly Austin Smith went from being an insecure, lonely 14-year-old longing for someone to notice her to working as a prostitute on Pacific Avenue in Atlantic City, N.J.
She told her first trick, an older man, that it was her first night. He said she reminded him of his granddaughter.
Smith, keynote speaker for a workshop on sex and commercial trafficking, told her story about how she was lured into child sex-trafficking and how she survived the experience to become a nationally known advocate for stronger anti-trafficking protection and a consultant for Amber Alert.
The workshop, “Human Trafficking,” sponsored by PNC Bank, was Thursday at Mr. Anthony’s Banquet Center in Boardman.
Smith has written a book, “Walking Prey: How America’s Youth are Vulnerable to Sex Slavery,” which she said is not her memoir but a manual to help social- services providers and law enforcement deal with and help sex-trafficking victims.
She said the foundation for her quick path to child prostitution, albeit for only two nights, was laid long before she was lured into it by a young man in a New Jersey mall.
It was June 1992, and Smith and a couple of friends were at a mall when a young man caught her attention and curled his finger calling her over to him. Smith, who felt unnoticed, was intrigued that an older man would pay attention to her.
“He continued to watch me ... I was unsure what to do, but I didn’t want to miss an opportunity,” said Smith, who said she was afraid she would never have a boyfriend and get beaten up and left out when she got to high school.
“He looked strong and nonthreatening and cool. I was not cool. I still had hamsters,” she said.
Not knowing what to do, she went to him and asked for pot. He wrote his phone number in the palm of her hand.
“That’s how I met my trafficker. I didn’t know he was a pimp. I called him on my private phone,” Smith said.
“Child sex-traffickers are charismatic. He didn’t call too often or push me. He was casual and cool and seemed interested in me. I wanted to know what it was like with an older guy. I wanted to be an adult and go to clubs. Through conversations, he learned about me,” she said.
Two weeks after meeting the pimp in the mall, she packed a pair of jeans, a picture of her best friend, and the scribbled lyrics of songs she was writing, and met him in another New Jersey mall.
“He was different, and years later I learned that he was not the guy I talked to on the phone. He bought me a dress and red high-heeled shoes and blond hair dye and took me to a motel where he told a beautiful older woman to ‘get her ready.’”
Smith said she had begun to feel uncomfortable and thought about getting away, but didn’t know how.
“No one said prostitution, but it was understood. No one asked me if this was what I wanted. They said ask for $200 and if the client complained, to take $100,” she said.
By the end of the first night on the street, Smith said she began to feel empowered. I knew what was expected of me, and it got me money,” she said.
Then, her pimp raped her.
“I begged him to stop, but I kind of accepted it. I realized I wasn’t empowered and deserved what was happening,” she said.
Her second night on Pacific Avenue began her path back from prostitution and depression when a policeman learned she was 14, apprehended her and returned her to her parents without any counseling.
Four days later, she attempted suicide. After 20 days in the hospital, she was sent home and again ran away after four days.
Her story does have a happy ending to the struggle as a survivor which she called “long and bumpy.”
She said she struggled with drug abuse and depression all through high school, but finally realized that if she didn’t stop what she was doing no one was going to help her.
“A victim has to want to change”, she said.
Smith earned a bachelor’s degree with a minor in writing from Richard Stockton College of New Jersey and works as a microbiologist. She is married and likes to run 10K races.
Today, she advocates for specialized training for social-services providers and law enforcement on how to deal with and help sex-trafficking victims and for long-term aftercare. Twenty days won’t do it, she said.
Other speakers at the workshop included Tracey Plouck, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, and Isabel Seavey, co-director of the North East Ohio Coalition on Rescue and Restore. The workshop was presented by Help Hotline Crisis Center.