Holly Austin Smith tried to commit suicide at 16
WASHINGTON – At a Senate committee hearing, a New Jersey woman who was trafficked sexually two decades ago testified that both the man who exploited her and the government betrayed her trust. Holly Austin Smith, 37, said the ordeal drove her to the brink of suicide.
“When I was 14, I was coerced into prostitution at a shopping mall in New Jersey. This man had promised me he would take me to California. He told this girl he would take her to Disneyland and to see the stars in Hollywood. Instead, he charged men $200 to have sex with me,” Smith told members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Tuesday.
Smith said that she and her abuser were arrested and punished, as if both were complicit in the crime. “I was made to feel like a criminal. I felt so abandoned, so forsaken by society that I attempted suicide,” Smith said. “Perhaps law enforcement should have recorded I was a victim not a criminal.”
The hearing was the latest evidence that lawmakers from both parties want to crack down on human trafficking. Last month, the House approved several legislative proposals to stem the practice. On Feb. 11, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing on the role the United States can play in combatting human trafficking internationally. The day before, all 20 female senators signed a letter that urged the Judiciary committee chairman, Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, to examine trafficking in the United States.
Last summer, lawmakers were reminded of the urgency of combatting trafficking after thousands of children sought to cross the border from Mexico into the United States. On Tuesday, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee said traffickers lure and exploit children and teens throughout the country. “This disgusting trading in human flesh is happening right here in America,” Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said.
“This is the first time we’re interested in staying together," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California added, "to see that this insidious practice, which is so malevolent, is curbed dramatically,”
How do traffickers succeed in the United States? Witnesses gave several answers. Malk Saada Saar, executive director of Human Rights Projects for Girls, a non-profit, said traffickers use the Internet to lure children and teens and feel no stigma from society. “We’ve watched these ads migrate from Craigslist to Backpages,” Saar said of one popular website. “It’s a culture of impunity. They are not afraid of being caught.”
Jayne Bigelsen, co-director of Covenant House in New York, said her non-profit found that one in four homeless minors has been trafficked.
Senators have proposed legislation that would force convicted traffickers to pay the government for prosecution, give minors who are trafficked a safe haven free from persecution, and remove the penalty for child prostitution.
Although senators agreed on the need to combat trafficking, two key lawmakers disagreed about the prospect that Congress would approve additional funding.
In an interview after the hearing, Grassley said he was “cautiously optimistic.” Yet Sen. Pat Leahy of Vermont, the ranking Democrat on the committee, was more pessimistic. Asked if his Republican colleagues would increase funding, he shrugged his shoulders and advised a reporter to talk to them. “They want to give a blank check to Iraq,” Leahy said, referring to the authorization of the use of military force to fight ISIS. “It would be nice if they would spend a little money here at home.”
Despite the disagreement, Republican and Democratic senators said they expect Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to hold votes to combat trafficking by next week.
After the hearing, Smith said she wished that tougher laws to address trafficking had been on the books two decades ago. She said she still has a misdemeanor on her record for child prostitution. Her abuser was given one year in prison and five years of probation, she said. The man, whose real name was Greg Johnson and has aliases, including Greg Crump, might be trafficking children today, Smith noted.