- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 6, 2014

Jen Spry was 8 when a man moved in a few houses down from her family. He soon became a part of her daily routine. After school, she was expected to go to “work,” then be back home in time for dinner.

“I was keeping a secret at the dinner table while I was trembling on the inside,” Ms. Spry, now 41, said Thursday. “It went on for two years and then the man moved. As abruptly as he moved in, he moved out. Every day I left the house thinking that was my last kiss goodbye to my mother. I believed he was definitely going to kidnap me because I made him money.”

Today Ms. Spry advocates against child sex trafficking and works with Shared Hope International, a nonprofit striving to end the crime around the world.

She said she wanted to speak out to let victims know that there are people who can help and that they don’t have to be afraid.

“No one ever told me that things would be okay,” Ms. Spry said. “These predators really hold these kids captive through threats and fear, and then the fear of the unknown is what holds them in bondage.”

Despite the fact that most Americans seem to think of child sex trafficking as occurring only overseas, it remains a huge problem in the U.S., where Shared Hope estimates that 100,000 children are exploited each year.

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The Justice Department estimates that the number of children vulnerable to exploitation could be as high as 300,000 each year.

In June, the FBI announced that it had rescued 168 victims and arrested 281 pimps in a single week during its annual Operation Cross Country to fight human trafficking.

“These are not far away kids in far away lands,” FBI Director James Comey said at a press conference. “These are our kids on our street corners, our truck stops, our motels, our casinos. These are America’s children.”

It was a trip to a faraway land that made former Rep. Linda Smith of Washington state realize what a problem human trafficking is, and prompted her to start Shared Hope International. A member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, she said was in her office when she spoke with someone who wanted help fighting child exploitation in India.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Ms. Smith said. “I was in the Clinton impeachment votes, so we’d vote and fight and vote and fight. So there was five days between [votes], I actually got on a plane and went to Mumbai.”

“I saw children, young women with kids, younger than my 11-year-old-granddaughter,” she said. “They were literally stood in front of a stall, and guys would go in for a minute, two minutes, five minutes.”

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Shortly after returning to the U.S., Ms. Smith started Shared Hope and was able to find safe homes for some of the children born in the brothels of India. Several of them are in college now, and they still stay in touch.

On Thursday, the nonprofit released its annual report card on how U.S. states are doing fighting underage sex trafficking on American soil. The underlying theme, Ms. Smith said, has been progress, as many state governments have stepped up prevention and enforcement action.

But while D.C. and Maryland have seen improvement, Virginia still lags at the bottom of the pack, with a grade of “D.” It remains the only state without a human trafficking law that would make it easier for law enforcement to catch predators, said Samantha Vardaman, Shared Hope’s senior director.

The problem with the current law, she said, is that “it requires force, fraud, and coercion. It’s abduction.”

While that may address children who are kidnapped, it’s less effective at helping kids who are being abused by their own families or other people they know personally.

Under current law, “you’re taking, you’re kidnapping. Trafficking doesn’t require that,” Ms. Vardaman said. “Trafficking is about the exploitation: not how you got the child but what you did to them while you had them.”

The Washington Times could not reach representatives for the Virginia governor’s office Thursday afternoon, but state Delegate Tim Hugo said he is introducing legislation that would enhance Virginia’s anti-trafficking laws.

“We can figure out better how to give the law enforcement the tools they need to get these criminals off the street and get them where they belong which is behind bars,” Mr. Hugo said.

• Phillip Swarts can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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