Linda Smith could not have predicted the turn her life would take one night in November of 1998. She was wrapping up the final months of her term in the U.S. House of Representatives and wanted to see with her own eyes what until then she’d only heard about in Congress.
“I was told children were for sale in cages on the street corners of India,” Smith said. “I thought it was mostly hyperbole.”
Within hours of arriving on Mumbai’s notorious Falkland Road, Smith learned what she heard had zero hyperbole.
“It turned out to be a street paved with brothel stalls, a hell on earth. Ruthless brothel owners prostitute thousands of young girls here to satisfy the throngs of men,” Smith would end up writing in her 2014 book, “From Congress to the Brothel.”
The next day Smith began reaching out to her base, securing $40,000 within hours. It would be enough to lease an apartment building where some of the women and girls she’d met the night before could seek refuge.
Back home a few days later, Smith had new clarity and determination. “I had been considering a run for governor of Washington,” she said.
Instead, she got to work dismantling her political life.
“I had $5 million in my campaign fund. I returned the contributions with a letter telling everyone about my new nonprofit and its mission of eradicating sex trafficking,” Smith said.
Nearly every single donor returned the money in the form of a check written to “Shared Hope International.”
Twenty years of activism
From this launching pad, Shared Hope has become a leader nationally and globally in the anti-trafficking movement. The Vancouver-based organization marked its 20th anniversary in November.
Anti-trafficking experts point to Shared Hope’s “Protected Innocence Challenge” as a driving force in improving the way the United States combats sex trafficking and treats child victims.
Sex trafficking is when a person or persons force someone else to provide sex against their will. It overwhelmingly involves girls and women. An estimated 25 million people are victims of human trafficking worldwide, according to the White House. In the United States alone last year, more than 8,500 trafficking cases were reported.
Some observers call it a global epidemic, and although awareness is increasing, misconceptions abound — such as the assumption it is limited to border areas or centers of poverty. Not only is sex trafficking rampant globally, it happens in almost every part of America.
Shared Hope began its Protected Innocence Challenge in 2011. It is a set of report cards on all 50 states to highlight performance of each on 41 parameters of law regarding sex crimes against children. The intention is to guide states in improving their laws on child sex trafficking.
Before it could issue any report cards, however, Shared Hope had to first assemble a team of attorneys, along with an army of intern and volunteer lawyers who could research laws of every state. They also proposed recommendations for better laws, state by state, that would treat people as victims instead of prostitutes.
“We knew if we started talking about state laws in understandable metrics, states would want to get better,” said Smith.
Once the work was ready for the public, Shared Hope needed to get it in front of an influential audience. Smith found one when she went to the 2011 annual meeting of the National Association of Attorneys General.
Former Washington State Attorney General Rob McKenna still remembers the presentation.
“State AGs weren’t aware of the nature and extent of human trafficking in America until Linda Smith accepted my invitation to speak at our annual meeting. Her presentation profoundly moved my AG colleagues and me, and sparked a movement among state AGs that continues to this day,” said McKenna, Washington’s attorney general from 2005 to 2013.
In that first year of the challenge, 26 states got F’s and 15 had D’s on their report cards. In 2018, there were no F’s, and 35 states received A’s and B’s.
In addition to better laws, frontline responders take a different approach. “They really shined a light on an area where we just weren’t that familiar,” said John Chapman, chief criminal deputy of the enforcement branch at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.
“It changed my whole mindset and that of many others to seeing these young ladies and young men as victims and treating them accordingly,” Chapman said.
Shared Hope arrived rather circuitously at the point of devising its challenge because trafficking was understood widely as an international problem.
“In Congress, we knew trafficking as something that happened ‘over there,’ sometimes spilling over our borders when people were brought here illegally,” Smith said.
Early international focus
In its early days, Shared Hope established a “Village of Hope” outside Mumbai. Others followed around the world — two in Jamaica, one each in Nepal, South Africa, Fiji, Japan, Singapore, the Dominican Republic, the Netherlands and another in India. Today the organization remains involved with a few and is opening a third in India in April. Most provide educational and occupational opportunities in addition to housing.
Shared Hope estimates it has helped thousands of people escape sex trafficking via its villages, as well as several safe houses it supports within the U.S.
In following years, Shared Hope started leading conferences and forming partnerships with others to spotlight the issue and solutions being attempted globally. A notable event was a 2003 partnership with the U.S. Department of State, the first world summit, “Path Breaking Strategies in the Global Fight Against Sex Trafficking.”
At about that point, a better understanding of trafficking within the U.S. began to emerge. In 2006, Smith and her team began work that would become three research reports — United States Mid-Term Review on the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, and Demand.
Done in conjunction with Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Department of State, respectively, these reports brought into focus the reality of sex trafficking in the U.S. They noted at least 100,000 American juveniles are estimated annually to be at risk of trafficking. The urgent need for anti-trafficking efforts to focus on U.S. children became clear.
Also illuminated: The U.S. lacked a legal foundation to fight trafficking. “You’d talk to a judge, prosecutor, law enforcement or a social worker, and they realized they lacked laws to deal with trafficking effectively,” said Ernie Allen, a founder of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and its CEO until 2012. Allen in 2016 became special adviser to Shared Hope.
Although Congress had passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, most cases relating to sex-trafficking arrests and prosecutions are brought under the laws of the individual states, which often don’t comply with TVPA.
To fill the void, Shared Hope embarked upon the statewide effort that would become the Protected Innocence Challenge.
The team is collaborating with people on the front lines to identify best practices for implementing the systems and services that anti-trafficking laws call for.
With revenue of about $3.5 million, 20 full-time staffers, six contractors and nearly 900 trained volunteers, Shared Hope is poised to further emphasize this by consolidating it in a new physical location. Staff leading it are under the umbrella of the Shared Hope Center for Justice and Advocacy and based out of a small office in Virginia. Later this year, they hope to hang their shingle in the D.C. area at a location with greater meeting capacity. A real estate search is underway. Shared Hope headquarters will remain in Vancouver.
“Under the umbrella of our Center for Justice and Advocacy, the impact of the Protected Innocence Challenge continues to increase,” said Nancy Winston, Shared Hope’s vice president.
“More and more states have good laws, and now they need support in the form of advocacy to bring about changes in application of the laws and implementation of services,” Winston said.
Smith said she has as much energy as ever to keep fighting.
“I thought in this country we’d gotten past slavery. The knowledge that instead we have one of the largest population of slaves in the world makes me furious,” Smith said.
“I’m one of those people who believes that, once I know something, I have an obligation to try to do something about it,” she said.