SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — Elizabeth Smart and her foundation to help victims and survivors of sexual exploitation and trafficking have joined forces with the Malouf foundation, which helps educate the public about recognizing the signs of sex trafficking.
“It’s everywhere,” said Smart, who survived kidnapping and sexual assault for nine months when she was a teen.
Smart has since become an outspoken advocate for victims and survivors. She wants all Utahns to learn to recognize the signs of sex trafficking because it takes everyone in the public to fight it and help victims escape and get help.
Smart said if you recognize that someone is being trafficked, call police. If it turns out you make a mistake, that’s the worst thing that can happen.
There is a training video available from On Watch that teaches people how to recognize the signs of sex trafficking, and it features the experiences of survivors.
“If you are the person who made that phone call that leads to their rescue, what a miracle," Smart said. "What a blessing that you took the initiative."
That’s how Julie Whitehead, now 44, was saved from sex trafficking. A stranger noticed something was wrong and approached her in a restaurant when her trafficker stepped away momentarily.
“I was able to get away from my trafficker that way because of a stranger,” said Whitehead.
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Whitehead was in her early 30s when she was victimized right in her own Davis County community.
Vulnerable, after an abusive marriage and a divorce, she was working at a preschool when the father of one of her students told her that he was inspired by God to help her.
“I fell for that pretty hard because I was in need of a support system,” she said.
The man was everything she needed him to be at first. Then he raped her. He became controlling and aggressive.
Soon, he started trafficking her along with other women and children.
“We were taken to different neighborhoods, sometimes nice neighborhoods where there was (a) hidden brothel," she said. "In my own apartment I was trafficked."
She and the other victims were taken to other states. but much of the abuse and trafficking happened along the Wasatch Front.
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“We were just in plain sight in Ogden, Layton, Salt Lake, other states, and I felt really invisible because nobody knew what was happening to me,” said Whitehead.
She didn’t dare try to escape as the perpetrator threatened her life and that of her family.
Smart said trafficking often occurs in plain sight.
That’s what happened to her when she was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City home. Her perpetrator disguised her then took her around town, hid her in a camp in the hills of Salt Lake and raped her repeatedly. He took her out of state, and she was eventually spotted by strangers who called police when they returned to Utah nine months after she was kidnapped.
The first thing members of the public can do to combat the problem is believe that it exists and believe victims when they tell their story - even if the trafficker is someone with a good reputation in the community or someone known to the victim.
Whitehead said one of the signs of trafficking is when a victim isn’t allowed to identify herself and doesn’t make eye contact when she’s with the perpetrator.
“If it seems like they don’t speak for themselves, don't interact for themselves, they have someone else doing that for them, that’s a red flag,” she said.
Whitehead said her process of recovery has been long. Having to relive the trauma of being trafficked has been difficult during therapy sessions, but she has come a long way.
Now she has joined Smart and other advocates for victims and survivors.
“I feel like I’m getting my life back,” she said.