Category: Blog

Blog updates from RJI Staff.

A Survivor Explains the Vulnerability of Child Sex Trafficking Victims

RICHMOND, April 9, 2012 — Many people question why some sex trafficking victims stay with their traffickers. As a survivor, I know this simple question requires a rather complex explanation. I am a survivor of sex trafficking and of child abuse by a family member. My story demonstrates that an untreated case of child sexual abuse can lead to the sex trafficking of that child victim. My history of sexual abuse began when I was under the age of ten. To make this trauma worse, my parents instructed me to lie about it when confronted by a social worker at home. My parents seemed to believe that they needed to protect our family from the social stigma associated with child sexual abuse. But by squelching the truth, they in turn sentenced me to an adolescence of misunderstanding and distrust. My resilience and sense of self-worth further diminished. Without proper counseling, I harbored a secret of past abuse, a secret which slowly ate away at my self-confidence. The day I met my trafficker, I was shuffling behind my friends in the mall. I was feeling angry and depressed. I hated my parents and teachers. At the same time, I was losing my friends in the naturally changing social circles between middle and high school. My self-esteem had spiraled downward throughout intermediate and middle school. I endured several exploitations by older high school boys and men who prowled the neighborhood and local skating rink for unsupervised girls. By the time the trafficker spotted me in that New Jersey shopping mall, I had already been broken down.

Holly Smith

As traffickers are skilled predators, they look for girls that are withdrawn and quiet. They prey upon minors with emotional brokenness as my trafficker did in late June, 1992, soon after my eighth grade middle school graduation. Child sexual abuse paralyzes many children with the inability to differentiate a healthy relationship from an exploitative one. I, too, thought that exploitive relationships were the norm. Prior to meeting my trafficker, I was already used to relationships based on deception. Many victims do not understand their fundamental right to say “No.” They often fail to understand ownership over their bodies. I didn’t run away when my trafficker demanded that I agree to prostitute. This was not because I wanted to stay but rather because I didn’t understand that I had another option. Scholars agree on a strong correlation between childhood sexual abuse and the sex trafficking of minor victims. In her podcast, Ending Human Trafficking, Sandra Morgan, R.N., M.A., the director of Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice (GCWJ), discussed predisposing factors for homeless and runaway youth who fall victim to traffickers “The reason kids are homeless often is because of preexisting abuse; Maybe there’s a history of domestic violence in the home,” Ms. Morgan says. “The child may have experienced sexual abuse. And in fact some of the literature now shows us anywhere from 65 to 85 percent of child victims of commercial sexual exploitation have a history of child sexual abuse in their own community or home environment. And so they may have run away to escape that and now then they’re in another situation where they’re being sexually exploited.” Kate Price, M.A. lectured in a Wellesley Centers for Women seminar titled, Longing to Belong: Relational Risks and Resilience in U.S. Prostituted Children. Price stated a link between the prior history of sexual abuse and the prostitution of minor victims. She stated it really is that history of betrayal that really is a risk, and oftentimes…the entryway, into how children even end up in prostitution. Price reports that at least 60 percent of sexually exploited children, which includes prostituted children, have a prior history of sexual abuse. Studies also show that roughly one in four girls—and one in six boys—will be victims of childhood sexual abuse. Gustavo Turecki, M.D., Ph.D. argues that a history of abuse is associated with the decreased function of a gene that is important in helping a person respond to stressful situations. As a survivor, I believe that, without proper therapy, child sexual abuse often leads to further sexual exploitation because an abused child is unable to recognize the difference between a healthy relationship and exploitation. April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. And, it’s long overdue that we draw greater attention to the critical link between childhood sexual abuse and child sex trafficking in the U.S. Prevention methods to reach out to vulnerable youth are critical in ending the sex trafficking of minors in the U.S. Holly Austin Smith is a survivor advocate, author, and speaker. She invites you to join her on Facebook or Twitter and to follow her personal blog. Holly is a guest writer on Communities 

Sara Speaks Before Governor School Students at Model UN Event

Sara Pomeroy recently spoke before 35 to 40 students from all parts of the state of Virginia, who were attending a Model UN event at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School. She addressed the Human Rights Council section of the event concerning human trafficking. The title of her presentation: “Modern Day Slavery”. With the average age of those forced into sex trafficking falling between 12 and 14 years of age, Sara especially loves to speak before middle and high school aged students, because they are the ones most targeted by sex traffickers.

Sara began the presentation by quizzing the students on their knowledge of human trafficking. I was impressed to see that the students seem to know more about the issue than most adults. However, most of the students were amazed to learn just how active human trafficking is in this state. Sara shared how Virginia was historically the center of the slave trade here in the U.S. during the 1800’s. And, only until recently due to changes in legislation, was one of the Dirty Dozen states with regard to human trafficking. She briefly described the laws that have been passed over the last two years that have resulted in Virginia going from a red state to a green state. This year alone, Bills SB259 (training materials for educators), HB1200 (hotline to be posted in all strip clubs), and HB546 (adds human trafficking to gang predicate offenses) were passed. Sara said our new goal is to pursue changes in legislation that will go after the demand side of human trafficking.

Sara defined RJI’s mission which includes awareness, education, prevention, and advocacy. Our goal, she stated, is to grow a community of modern day abolitionists. She provided current statistics on human trafficking worldwide. But Sara wanted the students to understand that while educating oneself on the issue was important, she encouraged them into action by pursuing a more active roll in abolishing this heinous crime. She then had the students pull out their cell phones to add the National Human Trafficking Hotline to their contact list, and encouraged them to call the hotline if they saw something suspicious going on with kids they knew that could possibly be trafficking.

The next steps for RJI were then explained by Sara: to develop the Virginia Coalition Against Human Trafficking; launch the Prevention Project; to continue in our mission; and to duplicate the model for Justice Initiatives elsewhere. She then opened up the floor for questions, which the students were eager to participate in. Questions such as: “Why is Virginia such a hotspot for human trafficking?” to “Can criminal organizations be dismantled in order to stop them from engaging in human trafficking?” and “Why don’t the victims forced into human trafficking just simply walk away?” were asked. We ended by encouraging the students to get involved as abolitionists themselves, and that one simple way to do that, was to visit our web site and share some of the posts on their Facebook sites and through Twitter educating others on the issue of human trafficking. – Christina Nyczepir

RJI First Annual Benefit for Freedom

Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI) held its first ever Benefit for Freedom event this past month. The purpose of the event was to raise money and to encourage the attendees to partner with RJI by becoming on-going sponsors in this ever growing organization. The desire from our local communities, as well as from those throughout the state of Virginia, to learn more about this increasing worldwide problem of human trafficking has caused the responsibilities and tasks of RJI to mushroom in turn. More and more opportunities are presented for RJI to further raise awareness, educate the communities, and advocate for victims. The need for continued prayer, as well as financial support, is greater that ever for RJI to continue in its efforts.

The Event Host for the evening was Mechanicsville Christian Center (MCC). Attendees were greeted with a wonderful musical performance by the Offering Band and encouraged to visit the various partitions throughout the room where further information on the issue of human trafficking could be found. Opportunities to place bids in a silent auction for various items donated by local merchants, were also provided, along with the chance to win one of the gift baskets filled with goodies in a raffle drawing. The Emcee for the evening was WRIC 8 News Investigative Reporter, A.J. Lagoe. RJI Founder and Director, Sara Pomeroy provided the formal welcome to our guests. She recognized those who were influential to her in getting RJI off the ground and took us from the time of the organizations inception to where the organization is today. She concluded with emphasizing how each person in the room could make a difference in the fight against human trafficking, a difference that could change their lives.

Pastor Carter Goolsby of MCC offered the Invocation. While the attendees were served a catered dinner by Firehouse Catering, a video of the events from the past two years that RJI has played a role in in its efforts to end human trafficking was shown. Ms. Holly Burkhalter, Vice President for Government Relations of International Justice Mission (IJM) was the Keynote Speaker. She provided us with observations that she has made since becoming involved in the issue of human trafficking. What I found to be the most encouraging of her observations, was in learning that a crime so horrific as human slavery and so enormous with regard to its numbers, could be stopped. She explained, and gave examples of, how even small efforts on the part of IJM were found to produce big results in this battle against the world’s second largest form of organized crime. Ms. Burkhalter closed with encouraging each of us to make that leap of imagination, to imagine the life of a slave, and to then in turn help the slave to imagine a life outside of slavery.

The final speaker of the evening, was Ms. Victoria Cobb, President of the Family Foundation. Ms. Cobb again emphasized the vital role RJI has played in ending human trafficking since its beginning, especially here in Virginia. She also explained that while RJI has just received a $25,000 grant from AT&T for a Prevention Program for area schools, the Program would need to be funded long term. She provided the challenge to each and everyone in attendance to help support RJI through prayer and monetarily. “The need of RJI is great!”

Though the Benefit was a first ever for RJI, the feedback from the evening has been very positive and the recommendations for improvement beneficial. One attendee wrote that he felt the event, “had the feel of a celebration”, and that he “could tell there was a lot of enthusiasm in the room and a lot of love” for the organization. He also said that it seemed as if RJI had been putting on such events for years, that it was “high quality all around”. Truly the two who put the most effort into the event, and are to be commended, are staff members Lea Whitehurst and Lane Burgess. We are also very grateful for all the people who volunteered their time and money to make this event such a success. But most of all, we give all praise to God for blessing the evening and moving in the hearts of those who attended to give so generously. RJI received a total of $19,000 from the evening after all expenses were paid to hold the event. If you too wish to partner with RJI in the battle against human trafficking, begin by first praying for the organization, for God’s continued leading as our efforts grow. Then ask what role the Lord would have YOU to play in this fight. As the motto for RJI states, “Slavery still exists…together we can stop it.” – Christina Nyczepir

Sara Speaks Before WEAG’s Eighteen22

In late January, Sara Pomeroy spoke at West Assembly of Gods’ (WEAG) college ministry, Eighteen22, on the difficult topic of human trafficking. Sara kicked it off with sharing her testimony of how God showed her His heart for the victims of the second largest criminal industry in the world, the trafficking of human beings. The simple statement the Lord spoke into her life after hearing the devastating statistics of human trafficking was, “You must respond to what you just heard.” Sara took these words to heart and, without looking back, ran with them.

Sara started praying unceasingly that God would give her the “blue prints” for her role in the justice movement, and God gave her a vision fo Richmond Justice Initiative. Through partnering with other organizations, awareness has been heightened in the Richmond area and several arrests and rescues have taken place! RJI is now striving to bring awareness, education, prevention, advocacy, and aftercare to Richmond City in the name of Jesus through their many volunteers. In the words of Sara, “God’s plan to end this injustice is us….there really is no Plan B…we are it!”

During the time our group had with Sara, she spoke on something that I think we all need to be reminded of every day: the foundation for justice is prayer. I think we underestimate the power and importance of prayer too often and forget that prayer brings the Kingdom of Heaven to earth, which means that prayer brings the justice of the Almighty God to earth!

That night, we ended up praying for a good thirty minutes as a response to the terrifying, heart wrenching, and tear jerking information Sara brought to us. Pouring out to the Lord our hearts and passion about this unjust world, sixty college age students took a step of faith and asked God, “What can I do?”, and “What is my place?” God is giving each one of us our very own “blue print”. I know that as we seek Him, He will shine on us and make us radiant (Psalm 34:5). RJI is just a piece of the grand puzzle that God has made. I am excited to see how he continues to use His people to bring justice to this broken world. “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream.” (Amos 5:24) – Heather Tobey, RJI Volunteer Staff

Freedom Sunday

The atmosphere was charged with excitement as soon as we arrived at Walnut Grove Baptist Church. Freedom Sunday was a night of powerful prayer and songs of worship to the ONE TRUE GOD, who protects, frees, and demands justice.

We’ve all heard it said that music is the universal language, and it’s so true. No other vehicle powerfully captures our collective hopes and fears or more poignantly celebrates our dreams and triumphs. Within the first song, Justice Band members: Tim Bakker, Brandon Baldwin, Bruce Camp, Mary Beth El Shafie, Logan Jones, Phil Lawson, Alex Mejias, and our own Sara Pomeroy, made it obvious that this worship service would express truth in a way that transforms and entertains.

Dr. Drexel Rayford, Pastor of Walnut Grove Baptist Church greeted us with such a welcoming prayer of love and affection for God’s people. Sara Pomeroy, RJI Director and Founder, introduced us to Christa Hayden, IJM Director of Church Mobilization. Christa shared an amazing story of her involvement in the heroic rescue of little girls in Cambodia. She powerfully prayed for the victims of human trafficking. For their strength, salvation, protection, freedom, and justice. For their hope and healing. The power of this prayer caused many of us to cry and earnestly seek God for the victims.

Pastor Brian Gullins led us to pray for the traffickers and johns. For conviction, repentance and salvation, for the criminal networks to dismantle, and for the oppressors to be arrested and prosecuted.

Pastor Lisa Hampson prayed for our law enforcement officers, for their discernment in forming alliances, for cunning, and for the corruption to cease. One brave officer came forward to stand as a representation of all officers.

Shannon Meyyer prayed for all Non-Government Organizations. Pastor Sam Meyyer, prayed for the Church.

2 Chronicles 7:14 – “If my people, who are called by My name, will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” – Ellen Andrusia, RJI Volunteer Staff

Virginia General Assembly 2012 Session – SB 259 Human Trafficking: Board of Education to Provide Information for Public Schools

Human trafficking; information for public schools. Requires the Board of Education, with assistance from the Department of Social Services, to provide awareness and training materials for local school divisions on human trafficking, including strategies for the prevention of trafficking of children.

1/26/12 Senate: Reported from Education and Health with amendments (15-Y 0-N)

Senator Adam P. Ebbin, Holly Smith (Survivor and Advocate), Sara Pomeroy (Founder of RJI), James Dold, Esq. (Polaris Project) all appeared before the Committee on Education and Health. The vote of 15-“yes”, 0-“no” is attributed to the outstanding work of Senator Ebbin. He is passionate about this issue and has support all around him.

The Senator’s work in passing the bill is unmistakable, but it was Holly Smith who gave the Committee the most compelling reason to vote “yes”.

Holly Smith began telling her story to the Committee: “I was trafficked in 1992 in the summer after eighth grade middle school graduation. I was 14 years old. After the police obtained my testimony, they began working on the case against my traffickers. I was sent home with no counseling, no guidance, and no support. I attempted suicide within days. In the hospital I was visited by three people who were not immediate family members – my middle school science teacher and two middle school guidance counselors. My teachers were the biggest positive influences in my life. But without understanding what happened to me, my teachers’ ability to help me was limited. Had these teachers been given the tools to support a child victim of sex trafficking I believe not only that my teen years would have been easier but that I would have excelled in school. I was a student worth investing in as I proved by graduating college with a 3.6 GPA in biology. I support this bill which will give teachers the tools to create future leaders out of child victims of sex trafficking. Thank you.”

Words will never explain the “hush” that ushered into Senate Room B while Holly courageously told her story. No one moved, no one spoke, and everyone listened. Committee Chairman Stephen H. Martin acknowledged. “Holly, I am familiar with your entire story. Thank you for coming here today.”

Senator Ebbin met Holly, James and I as we were leaving. We discussed with delight the unanimous vote, and we were all so thankful that we witnessed justice that day. – Ellen Andrusia – RJI Staff Member

International Justice Mission Benefit Dinner

It was such a great privilege to volunteer for the International Justice Mission (IJM) Benefit Dinner held on December 8th. Sara and I arrived at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. to a slew of volunteers. We stuffed programs, created name tags, all while enjoying the camaraderie of the other volunteers.

After a much needed nap, we dressed for the event. First on the agenda was the silent auction. Everything from a “surprise bag” to luxury vacations were on display. The most wonderful hot chocolate bar was the place to be and be seen during the silent auction.

Sara and I were stationed at the entrance of the ballroom. We pressed a program in the hand of everyone who walked in the door while the Dove Award winning and Grammy nominated band, Sixpence None The Richer, entertained us.

After an amazing dinner Senior Vice President of Structural Transformation, Sharon Cohn Wu spoke about IJM’s ongoing casework. She explained, “IJM investigators, lawyers and social workers intervene in individual cases of abuse in partnership with state and local authorities.”

By pushing individual cases of abuse through the justice system from the investigative stage to the prosecutorial stage, IJM determines the specific source of corruption, lack of resources, or lack of good will in the system denying victims the protection of their legal systems. In collaboration with local authorities, IJM addresses these specific points of brokenness to meet the urgent needs of victims of injustice.

Sharon also detailed for us the story of Prema. As a young girl, Prema was trafficked into a brothel where she was beaten and sold to customers. Today, Prema is living in a safe and loving aftercare home. We were told how IJM was able to rescue Prema and other stories of freedom. – Ellen Andrusia, RJI Staff Member

Coalition Building Workshop Facilitated by Polaris Project

An all day Coalition Building Workshop was held on December 15th for Modern Day Abolitionists. The Workshop was facilitated by Mary Ellison, Director of Policy; James Dold, Policy Counsel; and Nikki Marquez, Policy Associate – all of Polaris Project.  Polaris Project is one of the largest anti-trafficking organizations here in the United States (being active in over 25 states), as well as in Japan. They have programs that operate at the local, national, and international levels. They are also one of the few organizations that work on all forms of human trafficking serving victims within the U.S., as well those from foreign countries.  Polaris Project also handles a toll-free, 24 hour a day National Hotline for those interested in more information, resources, referrals, or to report a suspected case of human trafficking. We encourage anyone and everyone to add this number to their cell phones (1-888-3737-888). Their motto: “For a world without slavery”.

The purpose of the Workshop was to educate the attendees on the skills and tools needed to advance anti-trafficking legislative efforts in order to have an impact for trafficked victims. It was all about empowerment. The Workshop was well attended not only by volunteers from the Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI), but also volunteers from the Shenandoah Valley Justice Initiative, the Virginia Beach Justice Initiative, the Release Me organization, law students from Regent University, and other individuals concerned about the issue of human trafficking.

After an overview of what human trafficking and modern-day slavery look like (Human Trafficking 101), the role that Polaris Project plays to help in the fight against this atrocity was explained. The facilitators then went on to discuss why coalitions are necessary and how to build them. We were provided not only a refresher on how the legislative process works, but also a better understanding of Lobbying 101. We were taught the importance of communication and the use of the media in communicating with coalition members and legislators, and how to do so effectively.  Finally, the facilitators educated us on how to overcome the common obstacles that can occur when working in coalitions. Obstacles can arise from within the coalition such as: distributing tasks, choosing leadership, dealing with disagreements and difficult people. And obstacles can arise from outside the coalition such as: fiscal challenges to getting legislation passed, dealing with outside agencies and law enforcement, and convincing law makers on the importance of passing legislation to aid in ending human trafficking.

The Workshop was clearly, overall, a very information intensive program.  It was a wonderful opportunity to meet other Virginia state Justice Initiative volunteers, as well as others who have a heart in wanting to see an end to all human trafficking. Polaris Project truly did a beautiful job in organizing this Workshop and encouraging everyone to get involved in the legislative process in order to meet that end.  – Tina Nyczepir

Speaking Engagement at Johnston-Willis Hospital

Sara Pomeroy started the month of December out with a speaking engagement at Johnston-Willis Hospital located on the south side of Richmond. While a smaller audience than what she is use to, Sara always welcomes the opportunity to educate the public on human trafficking. And of late, she is receiving more and more invitations from those within the medical profession who desire a greater understanding of human trafficking and what those victims look like should those victims come into their Emergency Rooms or be admitted to their hospitals. Health care providers play a vital role in identifying and helping trafficking victims.

On this particular day, Sara spoke before the nurses who work in the Pre-Admission Testing for Surgery Department. The invitation was extended by Ms. Cindy Burgess – who, after hearing about the issue of human trafficking from another staff member of Richmond Justice Initiative, felt it was important that the other nurses she worked with become educated on this issue as well. Sara’s title for the discussion: “Look Beneath the Surface: Role of Healthcare Providers in Identifying and Helping Victims of Human Trafficking”. She began by asking the women if they had any clear knowledge or understanding of human trafficking. Most of those in attendance shook their heads in a “no” response. Those few who had heard of human trafficking, heard about it largely from television. As Sara went on to explain human trafficking and to provide the statistics of its occurrence, locally and worldwide, the room was filled with sounds and remarks of surprise. She discussed how someone falls into sex trafficking and how traffickers press their victims into lives of servitude and abuse.  Sara shared the story of Holly Smith as an example. Holly is a local resident and survivor of sex trafficking , which she was forced into at the age of 14. The attendees were very interested in hearing Holly’s story, asking a number of questions as to how she managed to escape.

Sara continued her presentation by discussing how to identify human trafficking victims, the signs to look out for should such victims enter their hospital, signs such as: avoiding eye contact, anxiety, depression, signs of abuse, medical neglect and/or has someone speaking for him/her. She also discussed what the health issues trafficking victims are likely to face such as: malnourishment, anemia, pregnancy, consequences of a previous abortion, and sexually transmitted diseases. Finally, Sara explained the special considerations when working with trafficking victims, so that those in the medical profession would know just how to communicate with the patient they suspect is being forced into trafficking. She provided clear instruction on who to contact in order to get the victims the help they need. Because the size of the group in attendance, the women had the opportunity to ask questions and make comments throughout the presentation, being very interested in the subject. The one point that Sara always makes clear at the end of her presentations, is that each and everyone in attendance CAN make a difference in the fight to end human trafficking.  – Tina Nyczepir


VSU 15th International Forum – Human Trafficking: A Global Dilemma

In another first for Richmond Justice Initiative (RJI), Sara Pomeroy was invited to participate as one of four panelists for the Virginia State University’s 15th International Forum. The title of this year’s forum for the University was “Human Trafficking: A Global Dilemma”. Besides RJI Founder, Sara Pomeroy, the other panelists were Her Excellency UN Ambassador Simona-Mirela Miculescu; Mr. Ralph L. Cwerman, President and Co-Founder of the Humpty-Dumpty Institute; and Dr. Nana Derby, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice at Virginia State University (VSU). VSU President, Dr. Keith T. Miller, opened the forum with a greeting. Dr. Ceslav Ciobanu, Professor of Economics and former UN ambassador of Moldova, served as not only moderator, but introduced panel members as well.

Mr. Cwerman was the first panel member to speak. His focus was on the struggles of Somaly Mam, a survivor of the Cambodian slave trade and now a prolific activist in the fight against human trafficking. Her Excellency Simona Miculescu of Romania then discussed the global dilemma of human trafficking by citing numerous statistics on the issue. She also discussed how human trafficking was affecting her country of Romania – a hot stop for sex trafficking due to the geographic position of the country – making it a gateway to Europe and Asia.

Dr. Nana Derby was the third panelist to speak. Her topic: “Resilience! The African Child’s Response to Labor Abuse”. Having grown up in Ghana, Dr. Derby spoke of the servitude and child labor she saw within her own country. She discussed how economic conditions allowed for the abuse of the traditional fosterage system of the country in such a way, that its children were exploited instead, and forced to live years of cruel servitude.

Lastly, Sara Pomeroy spoke – bringing the subject back to “Slavery in Virginia: Past & Present”. Sara did an excellent job in opening to the young audience and asking them how familiar they were with different trafficking terms. She then told the story of a Virginia victim and how easily a young person could find themselves in such a dilemma as being forced into sex trafficking. Sara discussed RJI’s mission, then went on to describe what slavery looked like in the past – compared to what slavery looks like today for the state. She pointed out that slavery was never really abolished – that it just has a new face. Sara ended by encouraging the students to get involved in the issue – that “everyone can do something” with regards to ending human trafficking.

Truly the highlight of the whole experience for Sara, was having the opportunity to dine with Her Excellency Simona Miculescu at the Jefferson Hotel the night before the forum. Her Excellency quickly put Sara at ease, and they found that they had a number of interests in common. One is the love for jazz music. Upon learning of this mutual interest, Her Excellency invited Sara to join her in New York with the promise of visiting some of her favorite places to hear jazz in the near future. – Tina Nyczepir