Holly Austin Smith knows why her story hits home: She was the girl next door. She shows pictures of herself as a child, smiling at the camera and squinting into the sun, lovingly holding a pet cat, standing on a concrete driveway in front of a small house in South Jersey. There’s another, from 1992, when she is 14, smiling and hugging two middle-school friends, their hair teased-out, 90s-style. Within weeks of taking that picture she was on the streets of Atlantic City working as a prostitute, coerced by a young man she met while at a shopping mall with her friends. The author of an upcoming book with the self-evident title "Walking Prey," Smith told her story at a human trafficking seminar recently, and she recalled how her first client told her "I reminded him of his granddaughter." A collective groan by the audience proved Smith made her point. Many of the girls and young women put on the streets by pimps are somebody’s vulnerable sisters, daughters and granddaughters. Smith’s audience on this day was a group of truck-stop managers at another installment of the state’s human trafficking awareness program. In the coming weeks, there will be seminars for other hospitality and transportation workers, first responders and medical people. In January, there will be presentations in front of 20,000 "girls next door" when the Attorney General’s Office holds 40 large assemblies for middle and high school students in 10 locations, including The College of New Jersey. "They will hear from girls who were trafficked," said Tracy M. Thompson, who runs the program for the Attorney General’s Office. "And they will hear it could have been stopped if somebody just said something." That statement — "if somebody just said something" — is at the heart of awareness. "We’re not asking people to necessarily intervene, but we’re asking them to be more eyes and ears on the ground," she said. "We’re letting them know the signs of trafficking, and how to reach out to law enforcement." The current schedule of programs is being pushed against the backdrop of the Jersey Super Bowl — all those men, all those hotel rooms — though Thompson said it won’t end there. "The Super Bowl will cause a spike in it," Thompson said. "But this is an ongoing initiative."
How much of a spike can sometimes be grossly overestimated. While national anti-trafficking groups estimate as many as 10,000 prostitutes will descend on a Super Bowl site, the arrest numbers in the last three host cities, New Orleans (105), Indianapolis (85) and Dallas (133), seem little more than routine. "Any premier, large-scale event will draw prostitution from outside the area," said Col. Rick Fuentes, the State Police superintendent. "Our primary concern regarding the sex trade is to stop underage prostitutes and children from being exploited by organized rings." The state’s aggressive stance on human trafficking and the exploitation of underage girls for prostitution began with Jeff Chiesa, a former state attorney general and U.S. senator who carried his passion for the cause from his time in the U.S. Attorney’s Office. "I started working on the issue and made it a priority because of the extremely vulnerable nature of the victims," Chiesa said. "Many are young girls who are preyed upon because they lack support of family and friends and are lured into human trafficking. "New Jersey is also particularly vulnerable because of our diverse population and our location," said Chiesa, who also brought the issue to the Senate floor as a member of the Homeland Security Committee. Chiesa instituted a directive in June 2012 that Thompson said "took a victim-centered approach to human trafficking." In other words, girls and young women forced or coerced into prostitution would be viewed as victims, not criminals. In May, Gov. Chris Christie signed the Human Trafficking Prevention, Protection and Treatment Act into law. Now, anyone who pimps a girl under 18, whether she is coerced or not, faces maximum penalties and fines of 20 years in jail and $250,000. It created a survivors assistance fund from fines, and leaves room for civil action. But it’s another element that anyone trawling Craigslist or back pages for escorts, or visiting their local massage parlors, should know. It is now a human-trafficking crime "to make or attempt to make a person engage in sexual activity … knowing or understanding there is a substantial likelihood that the person was a human-trafficking victim." So in raising awareness, the law is also raising this warning: These vulnerable girls are not criminals, they’re victims, and the men who collect the money, and pay the money, are the ones who will end up in jail.