“I didn’t know anybody really cared.”
“I just want people to see me as a good girl.”
These phrases are what Gretchen Smeltzer hears most often as founder and director of Into the Light nonprofit that advocates for survivors of sex trafficking. Smelter, who with other like-minded people, helped start the faith-based nonprofit in Mountain Home and a chapter in Fayetteville, will speak about child sex trafficking and internet safety with parents and teens at St. Peter the Fisherman Church in Mountain Home Wednesday, Feb. 7. The presentation, from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., will take place in the parish hall’s gym.
Brandi Noval, director of youth ministry at St. Peter, said parents need to educate themselves about the dangers that lurk even in small towns like Mountain Home.
“They were interested in what’s happening with their kids, things going on that they don’t know about,” Noval said. “I didn’t even realize what a huge danger it was in this area in particular. It’s globally I know that” but there is not a law enforcement unit specific to sex crimes in the area. “I just think educating our families is important.”
It was this realization that led Smeltzer and others to start Into the Light, which became an official nonprofit in April 2015 that also trains and educates law enforcement and the public about sex trafficking.
Though no far-reaching studies have been done on sex trafficking in Arkansas, ARBEST, which in part provides clinical care to child abuse victims through UAMS Psychiatric Research Institute in Little Rock, surveyed 918 youth who had been to 14 child advocacy centers in the state from November 2016 to April 2017. It found 183 were considered high risk for commercial sexual exploitation. And often, victims are too afraid to go to an advocacy center, Smeltzer said.
‘This is reality’
The nonprofit has four trained crisis response advocates at both locations and will be hiring two more. They also have about 40 volunteers who are trained to speak with clients at juvenile detention centers and other areas they receive referrals, even from parents, to help possible victims.
Currently, they work weekly with girls in four juvenile detention centers in Garland, Benton, Washington and Independence counties. The nonprofit partners with many advocacy groups and people, including Mariae Acosta-Westbrook of Catholic Charities of Arkansas in Springdale.
Acosta-Westbrook, who volunteers as a Spanish interpreter for the nonprofit, said sex trafficking is “very prevalent” in Arkansas, but it often goes unreported because of fear or shame. Through her work with victims of crime, she personally reported five cases in 2016 of minors being trafficked.
“You have girls walking out of their houses at 1 in the morning getting in the car” of a stranger after chatting online, she said. “This is reality, this is happening where our offices are.”
Acosta-Westbrook pointed to the case in Rogers, where four people were arrested Jan. 19 in connection with human trafficking and promoting prostitution. According to an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette article, a 17-year-old runaway from Rogers was found hiding in the home under a blanket.
“People think they’re doing it for money, so it’s prostitution, but in reality it’s sex trafficking,” Acosta-Westbrook said. “… Everybody is vulnerable. It could be my child today; it could be somebody else’s tomorrow.”
For about six months to a year, Smeltzer said crisis advocates work with clients who have experienced the trauma of sex trafficking and making sure they are directed toward state or national resources.
“It’s our desire to bring prevention, to help kids that are high risk, help them understand there are people out there that will exploit them,” Smeltzer said. “It’s our response to the Gospel, that Jesus came to set the captive people free.”
Children at risk
Currently, the nonprofit is working with 15 sex trafficking survivors, ranging in age from 14 to 29, including one male, from northwest and north central Arkansas.
“They say the equivalent of trauma from being trafficked is 20 times what a victim of domestic violence faces,” Smeltzer said.
Those at risk include children who have had contact with social services, the juvenile system, a history of sexual abuse, running away and those who have been kicked out of a home for their sexual orientation.
“Many victims we work with sleep in their own bed every night. They were trafficked on the weekends. Or maybe they were gone for a couple of weeks and got picked up,” for having drugs or for other criminal charges, Smeltzer said. In Arkansas, the state can charge someone with prostitution as young as 15 years old.
“It doesn’t matter which town or city we live in. There’s a vulnerable population no matter where we live in any size town whether it’s 25 or 1 million,” Smeltzer said. “Unfortunately, in our culture there’s a major demand for buying sex and that’s fueled by the pornography industry. It is totally normal in our culture to buy sex.”