When Gretchen Smeltzer and her husband, Jon, looked into international adoption about six years ago, she never fully considered the issue of human trafficking. That's because, to her — naturally — it seemed scary.
Yet, the "orphan," as Smeltzer says, is one of the most vulnerable.
"That's what broke my heart," Smeltzer said. "That there's 147 million orphans in the world, and that was most likely their life, because they didn't have a protector, they didn't have someone watching over them, because they didn't have the same opportunities as someone with parents."
At that point in her life, the Mountain Home woman said she could no longer ignore the issue of human trafficking, the exploitation of children.
It's an issue on an international level, but thousands of cases are reported each year in the U.S. — including Arkansas.
Why Mountain Home?
Today, Smeltzer is director of Into the Light, a faith-based nonprofit established in April.Into the Light says its mission is to provide refuge and restoration to underage female victims of sexual exploitation. Smeltzer says volunteers speak with groups in the Twin Lakes Area on human trafficking and organize events throughout the year.
They saw a need in Arkansas, specifically for young girls, though people often ask why the group is based in Mountain Home.
"I think that the reason ultimately is we were a group of people that gathered together and we laid it on our hearts, and for whatever reason, no one in the state was addressing the issue," Smeltzer said. "We, ourselves, asked that question multiple times, ‘Why Mountain Home?'
"The more that we researched it, we felt like, because Mountain Home was a way out of the city, it's a good place for refuge and restoration to occur."
According to Smeltzer, a restorative home or shelter does not exist in the state currently for underage girls who have been trafficked in Arkansas. The organization's goal is to provide "trauma-focused" residential care for girls ages 12-17 who have been sexually exploited, survived child sex slavery or trafficking. They hope to establish a state-licensed home and therapy program.
The home would be similar to a shelter, like Serenity's in Mountain Home, but the nonprofit says it is far from reaching its goal. They hope to secure a year's worth of finances to support their mission, and they estimate the cost of housing a victim would be $50,000 per girl each year. The cost would cover physical, medical and educational needs, along with operating expenses and home maintenance.
‘Girls for sale in Mountain Home'
While the Mountain Home Police Department has not seen human trafficking cases in the city, one major red flag the nonprofit noticed were online sites advertising girls in Mountain Home. A typical ad might claim the girl is "barely 18."
"One of the most popular online sites for the girls to be trafficked through, about six months ago Gretchen searched just to see what would come up as far as from a john's perspective, if he was looking for a girl, and there were about a half-dozen ads for girls in Mountain Home," said Chris Carter, an Into The Light board member. "Girls for sale in Mountain Home."
A "john," the nonprofit explains, is an industry term to describe the consumer, the person who buys another person for sex.
Carter says while the ad may mention Mountain Home, it is unclear whether the young girls are in the city. Into the Light says it's not uncommon for pimps to move girls from city to city, but when it comes down to it, sex trafficking happens everywhere — from big cities to small communities.
"It happens everywhere. I think it doesn't matter how rural or how metropolitan an area is," Smeltzer said. "It happens in any area, in any location, and so we're not naive to think that just because our crime rate is low here that it's not happening here.
"It's just been known to show that it happens in tourist areas, but that is not the reason why we chose to have Into the Light here."
Victims found in detention centers
One critical area the group says it has recently focused on is state juvenile detention centers.
Into the Light is focused on education and fundraising, but also speaking with law enforcement, staff and children who are at risk or have been trafficked.
Smeltzer noted they went to the Benton County Detention Center for the first time last week, where they met girls who have been identified as human trafficking victims. Denyse Collins, juvenile detention center director, believes what Into the Light is doing is "definitely" a need for the state of Arkansas. Collins said her staff received a three-hour training in July.
"There have been two cases here, but I believe that there has been more than that," Collins said Friday, adding that many juveniles end up in the detention center for other charges, including drugs.
Into the Light says it's not uncommon that a "john," or a pimp, would keep young girls addicted to drugs as a way of control.
"Unfortunately, (the detention center) is where they have to place them if law enforcement, if first responders, find them. That's often where they have to be placed just to hold them, or determine the best care for them, and they're often there under other charges," Smeltzer explained, adding that Into the Light plans to go back to Benton County later this month.
Case uncovered in Little Rock
Though the issue of sex trafficking is not prevalent in Mountain Home specifically, Smeltzer says the response from the community to their mission has been positive.
"Our state has come a long way in a short amount of time, and I do believe law enforcement is doing the best they can, the best way they know how," Smeltzer said. "I think it's a change in mindset for someone who goes into a situation."
In one example, Little Rock officials uncovered a case in May when Arkansas State Police arrested a North Little Rock woman and reported it as part of a larger human trafficking investigation. One 15-year-old girl had been sexually exploited as part of the operation. ASP said a 2- and 3-year-old also were being kept in a room with the teen. Though officers had "very little" information to work with, ASP says it received help with specialized training.
That case is among seven reported in Arkansas this year, according to statistics compiled by the National Human Traffickers Resource Center. Four of those cases involved labor trafficking and three involved sex trafficking. A total of 64 reports were documented by NHTRC in the state from 2012-2014.
Additionally, Arkansas has strengthened its laws in recent years with the passage of HB 1203, the Human Trafficking Act of 2013, making the crime a Class Y felony, punishable by 10 to 40 years or life in prison.
Mountain Home Police Department also has shown interest in the group's mission. Lt.Eric Neal was "shocked" after hearing a presentation from Into The Light about human trafficking victims and signs. Because most girls involved are found to be runaways, Neal says it gives MHPD a chance to follow up with reported runaway cases.
"What's good about this organization is that they're out there educating people about this and they are now going to come and do a training for the police department on what to look for and how to follow up on some of this stuff," Neal said. "It's a need, not just for Mountain Home, but for the state in general."
Human trafficking statistics provided by Into the Light of Mountain Home:
• Child trafficking is a $12 billion a year global industry
• About 90 percent of runaways become part of human trafficking
• The average age of a child first used in sex trade is 14
• One in four girls is sexually abused before the age of 18
• Only 1-2 percent of victims are rescued in human trafficking incidents
What is human trafficking?
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines human trafficking as "modern-day slavery" and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to obtain some type of labor commercial sex act or commercial sex involving a person under the age of 18. In exploitation, something is exchanged.
Want to know more?
The National Human Trafficking hotline number is 1-888-373-7888.