258: Missing Children and the Overlap with Child Trafficking, with Elizabeth Smart


Dr. Sandra Morgan is joined by advocate, Elizabeth Smart to discuss the importance of teaching young children how to protect themself, safe boundaries, and how to know who to trust. They conclude the conversation with the topic of bystanders and how everyday people can play a role in protecting women, men, and children.

Elizabeth Smart

The abduction of Elizabeth Smart was one of the most followed child abduction cases of our time. Elizabeth was abducted from her home at the age of 14 on the night of June 5, 2002. For the next nine months, her captors controlled her by threatening to kill her and her family if she tried to escape. Fortunately, her grueling imprisonment ended on March 12, 2003, when an observant and courageous bystander took action, alerting the police and ultimately leading to her safe return to her family. Elizabeth triumphantly testified before her captors and the world about the very private nightmare she suffered during her abduction, which led to their convictions. Through this traumatic experience, Elizabeth has become an advocate for change related to child abduction, recovery programs, and national legislation.  Elizabeth has helped promote the international AMBER Alert system, the Adam Walsh Child Protection & Safety Act and other safety legislation to help prevent abductions. She is the founder of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing hope and ending the victimization and exploitation of sexual assault through prevention, recovery, and advocacy.

Key Points

  • Having conversations with your children when they are young about protecting themself in a dangerous situation. And to continue having those conversations so they practice, learn, and understand how to protect themselves.
  • Adding “appease” to the fight, flight, freeze response paradigm and understanding that some people will go along with their captor/trafficker to appease them and to deter any threats of harm.
  • Teaching children about personal boundaries, and as the adult, to validate those boundaries as okay and right.
  • Bystanders play a pivotal role in protecting women, men, and children and preventing harm if they see something that does not appear right.


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David [00:00:00] You’re listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. This is episode number 258, Missing Children and the Overlap with Child Trafficking with Elizabeth Smart.

Production Credits [00:00:11] Produced by Innovate Learning, maximizing human potential.

David [00:00:31] Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast. My name is Dave Stachowiak.

Sandie [00:00:37] And my name is Sandie Morgan.

David [00:00:39] And this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Sandie, one of the things that I have been so grateful for over the years of being involved with you and the show and the Global Center for Women and Justice is just the wonderful connections and opportunities to coordinate with so many other leaders in the space. And today, absolutely, what a privilege we have to talk to someone who’s very much a leader, not only in her work, but also through her own lived experience. I’m so glad to introduce to you Elizabeth Smart. The abduction of Elizabeth was one of the most followed child abduction cases of our time. She was abducted from her home at the age of 14 on the night of June 5th, 2002. For the next nine months, her captors controlled her by threatening to kill her and her family if she tried to escape. Fortunately, her grueling imprisonment ended on March 12th, 2003, when an observant and courageous bystander took action alerting the police and ultimately leading to her safe return to her family. Elizabeth triumphantly testified before her captors and the world about the very private nightmare she had suffered during her abduction, which led to their convictions. Through this traumatic experience, she’s become an advocate for change related to child abduction, recovery programs, and national legislation. Elizabeth has helped promote the international AMBER Alert system, the Adam Walsh Child Protection & Safety Act, and other safety legislation to help prevent abductions. She is the founder of the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, an organization dedicated to bringing hope and ending the victimization and exploitation of sexual assault through prevention, recovery, and advocacy. Elizabeth, thank you so much for your work and what a pleasure to have you here on the show.

Elizabeth [00:02:25] Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s an absolute honor to be with you today.

Sandie [00:02:29] So, Elizabeth, tell us a little bit about your kids. As we were signing on, you had just transitioned from kid care to professional advocate.

Elizabeth [00:02:41] My children are the best part of my life–the most exhausting part of my life–but the best part of my life. I have three young children, six, four and two. I have two girls and one boy, and they rule the roost, it seems, my home.

Sandie [00:03:01] So, I’ve listened to a few of your podcasts and I love the conversational nature. And so I kind of want to start off in the same vein, not just as sometimes we are a little educational academic, but we’re also pretty conversational, right, Dave?

David [00:03:20] Indeed.

Sandie [00:03:21] So I’m pretty interested in how you see child safety issues right now.

Elizabeth [00:03:32] Child safety, I think is huge. And there is so, it feels like as a parent, and I guess I never fully understood until I became a parent myself, but as a parent, it feels like there’s always something that you need to be aware of. There’s always something to worry about. There’s always kind of a constant level of anxiety that I think maybe you just learn to live with. I remember when my oldest daughter was born, I felt like all of a sudden my heart had migrated from my chest and set up residence in my throat. And I think sometimes I still feel like it’s there because there isn’t a day when I don’t worry about my kids. They know now two of them are in school currently, and I always want to make sure that they’re safe. I want to make sure that I know where they’re at all the time. I mean there’s, but there’s truthfully only so many elements that I can actually control. And I think what struck me a lot was at the end of last school year, my daughter was coming home from school. I’d picked her up and we were driving home. And I knew that one of the local organizations that I support and is amazing had gone on to talk about acceptable behavior, red flags, good touch, bad touch, that kind of thing, which I was very happy that they were going in to do. And so I had asked her, I said, you know, do you think it’s ever OK to to bite someone or to kick someone or to fight back? And at first she just kind of giggled and she was like, oh, no, momma. Like, if I did that, I lose the star next to my name.

Sandie [00:05:17] Oh.

Elizabeth [00:05:17] And I was like, but sweetheart, what if someone hurts you? What do you do then? And she’s like, well I go and tell my teacher? I was like, yes, but what if your teacher’s not around? And, she’s like, well, I’ll tell my teacher when I see her. I was like, but what if you’re all by yourself? And I said, honey, I always want you to protect yourself, because if something happens to you, there’s no other little Chloe in the entire world. You’re my only Chloe that I will ever have. So if someone scares you and you need to fight to protect yourself, then that’s what I want you to do. And she’s like, but what if I get in trouble? And I was like, I don’t care, honey. I will come down to school. I will talk to your teacher. I’ll talk to the principal. If you’re still in trouble, we will go get ice cream, because that’s exactly what I want you to do. And she just kind of giggled about it. But then we kept on having that conversation. And so now I’m when I ask her, she kind of rolls her eyes at me and she’s like, Oh, Mama, she’s like, I know, I can hit them, I can bite them or I can scream at them. But I mean, and she’s still very young. I mean, all my children are still very young. But these are things that I think that if we start out having these conversations right now and talk about what’s appropriate, what’s not appropriate, to talk about what’s safe behavior and what’s not, even at these very young ages, and we keep these conversations alive then as they grow, we can allow these conversations to grow as well. So that, heaven forbid anything ever does happen, but if it does happen, they’ll know what to do. I mean, if you catch on fire, everyone knows what to do, stop, drop and roll. But how many people actually have that response built in them of what they should do if they’re raped or if they’re kidnaped or, you know, if they’re beaten to a pulp?

Sandie [00:07:20] So your conversation is like totally my love language. It’s about prevention that begins with education when your kids are really small. As soon as you can start having that conversation. And I like in it, my background’s pediatric nursing, and I liken it to a public health model, just like teaching your kids to brush their teeth and they have to practice it every day. They don’t do it just once. You don’t have that conversation and now I’ve been a good parent. I love that you’re doing this over and over again and getting her more comfortable because we have to break down the social structures that actually, especially for little girls, teach them. I remember being told ladies don’t run and it’s like, well, if you’re in trouble, you can run. And so tell us a little bit about the defense training that you’ve been designing.

Elizabeth [00:08:20] So, at the Elizabeth Smart Foundation, one of our flagship programs, if you will, is our smart defense program. And I mean, it’s a mixture of different martial arts and frankly, just straight up dirty fighting, because when it comes to your safety, when it comes to protecting yourself, there’s nothing that’s off limits. I want you to do whatever you need to do to be safe. And within this program, it is very physical, but it also brings into like this mental awareness and situational awareness as to what are red flags in relationships or, and I don’t even necessarily just mean romantic relationships. I mean, it could be friendships. It could be anything. But then also when you go out, who are you with? Do you feel like you could run away in the outfit that you have on? Or do you feel like you’re going to be with people that you know well that should something happen, they’ll be there to stand at your side with you? It talks about like you absolutely have the right to protect yourself and you can take that and protect yourself as far as you need to. But of course, within this program, we always recommend do whatever you have to do to give yourself the opportunity to escape. This isn’t like the Army or the Marines or the Navy or SEAL training program. This is not that. This isn’t to kill someone. This is to give you the opportunity to get away. And that’s what we always stress. And even within this entire program, I mean, we have our head instructor, our head of the program, the one who continually is refining it and improving it so it can be the very best it can be. I mean, she is a world rated champion in the field of jujitsu, and she’ll be the first one to tell you that she could get raped tomorrow. And even though she’s had this training her entire life because she doesn’t expect it, it could completely cause her to freeze. And it’s not that she did anything wrong. It’s just part of the body’s system. You know, we’ve got these fight, flight, freeze, and appease that are just natural instincts that kick in. So even if you don’t call on the skill set that you are trained to use, it doesn’t mean you did wrong. It doesn’t make anything that happens your fault. It doesn’t, you know, it doesn’t set the field for any kind of judgment whatsoever. This is simply a tool that we want to help promote and provide. And I mean, I’ve been through the training multiple times and I’ve held the mats as women of literally all different shapes and sizes have hit the mat, struck the mats. And for me, I think more than anything, it’s so inspiring seeing these women realize how, women and girls, realize how powerful they actually are. Because you are so right. When you said just a minute ago how you were taught ladies don’t run. Well, I mean, I wasn’t taught ladies don’t run. But I was absolutely taught, you know, ladies don’t fight. Ladies don’t hit. They don’t bite, they don’t scratch. Like you are polite and you are kind. And there are rules of etiquette and you follow them all the time. And that’s definitely what I was taught. And when I initially first started, I mean, I didn’t even know how to make a proper fist. I mean, I probably have broken all the bones in my hand.

Sandie [00:12:01] Wait. There is a way to make a fist. And I don’t know that. Tell me how to do it.

Elizabeth [00:12:07] Well I was taught was that you roll your fingers up, do not, like if you make the letter like four, like you’re showing a child four fingers, do not hold your thumb across your palm like that. You will break your thumb. Oh, you roll your fingers up so that your fingers are in contact with your palm. Almost like your finger nails are almost pressing into your palm and then your thumb kind of seat belts across the top of those fingers, if that makes sense.

Sandie [00:12:38] No, it makes it. You’re doing a great job. And I’m doing it now. And it is very different than when you first started talking about a fist. So, because my thumb was kind of just hanging out there like I was hitchhiking. So I’m going to do the seatbelt thing. I learned something so cool. So how do people learn more about your defense training?

Elizabeth [00:13:00] So we have it on our website. You can just go to www.ElizabethSmartFoundation.org. And it’s called Smart Defense. And we actually have our virtual smart defense that will be opening up this in a few short weeks. So even if we’re not in a physical location nearby, you can still find us and that would be under our Victory Club tab. That’s a drop down. And you would go down to our Virtual Smart Defense and sign up for it there.

Sandie [00:13:32] We’ll put links in the show notes. OK, so another thing that you said that I know a lot of people have never heard this language. You talked about fight, flight, freeze, and then you added a fourth one. Will you tell us what that means?

Elizabeth [00:13:47] Appease. So the number of victims, and myself included, my natural response was to do exactly what my captors told me so that they wouldn’t kill me. I think that is the probably most straightforward way of saying it. You appease your captor in hopes that if you do what they say, they won’t hurt you or they won’t kill you. And that’s what I, that was the category that I fell under the night that I was kidnaped. And the next nine months. I did whatever I had to do to survive. And a lot of the time from the outside looking in, it would have looked like maybe it would have looked like I was willingly going along with them, that I was willingly buying into everything that they were saying. But I never wanted to be with them. I never wanted to do the things they forced me into doing. But I also felt that the threat was real enough that if I didn’t, that they’d kill me. And if they didn’t kill me, they’d certainly threatened my family enough that I felt like it was very likely that they would go after maybe my younger sister or one of my brothers. So that is another category that I feel needs to be acknowledged and included. When we talk about the other three terms that I think probably more people are familiar with the fight, flight, or freeze.

Sandie [00:15:15] I really appreciate your drilling down on that. As I talk to my friends about who I’m going to interview next, I mentioned you and they said, but she was kidnaped. That’s not common. But the reality is it does happen sometimes. But ultimately, that appease response is exactly what keeps victims under control of traffickers, of any abuser. The need to appease, and in the elements of human trafficking, when we talk about the legal aspects, we call that coercion on the part of the trafficker, the abuser. And we seem, especially, I know I was a first born daughter. I was very compliant. I was probably eligible to compete for champion appeaser. And so it took a lot for me to learn to speak up even when it was really like coercion. Well, if you don’t do this, you’re not going to get to go in the school field trip or something like that. How would you do defense training in more verbal thinking processes about teaching a child to speak up before they’re experiencing that coercion that would result in them responding with this appease response.

Elizabeth [00:16:41] That is a great question, and I don’t honestly know if I have an answer to it. But I guess I have to refer kind of back to what I was saying earlier. These are just conversations that really as soon as they start interacting with us, we need to start having with them and helping them to realize that they have boundaries that they can set and that we will respect them as well. I mean, I’m sure my little boy, my four year old, would love to set the boundary that he’s never going to eat vegetables and that he would like to live off of a diet of macaroni cheese and Cheetos. And so there’s, of course, teaching them what are actual boundaries they can set currently. But, kind of going back and having the conversations with them, you know, what is OK? What is not OK? Making sure they are able to recognize what’s OK. And, for instance, something that’s, I mean, come up on my radar a whole lot more lately, and I wish that I could claim I came up with this out of thin air, but I absolutely did not. This has come to me from multiple sources. I’m sure you probably are one of the sources that inspired this. But that children do not keep secrets. No adult should ask a child to keep a secret. And there’s a difference between a secret and a surprise. A surprise is OK. A secret is not. And even just beginning with something as basic as that for children is huge because as they grow, I mean, like as I have learned more and more about human trafficking, I have been shocked at how young and how quickly children and young women are captured, are caught in this highly manipulative situations. I’m not, I know I’m not even using, the right word.

Sandie [00:18:45] No, it’s a good word. It’s very manipulative.

Elizabeth [00:18:50] But I mean, they can come home every day to a nice neighborhood, a nice family. No one has a clue that anything’s going on, but at the same time, they can also be being trafficked.

Sandie [00:19:02] And that kind of, there’s something happening sometimes right in front of us that we don’t see where a child is being groomed and being manipulated in ways that can lead to further exploitation. So when you’re doing training, when you’re having conversations with really young children, how are you communicating those red flags that you’ve already mentioned.

Elizabeth [00:19:34] Those are, that is yet again a good question that I’m still working on finding a good answer to. Currently, we do have some staff involved in trying to research that very topic and help to develop training for that. But I currently actually do not have an answer. I mean, maybe maybe I could ask you the same question. Do you have some advice to share with me?

Sandie [00:19:58] We’re sharing back and forth. Well, I think actually that parents need to think about their children in terms of how will that child interact with an adult when I’m not around? Will they keep their safe distance? Will they understand that they have boundaries? And when someone says, oh, just give me a hug, I’m like an uncle, I’m like an aunt. That’s like red flag language for me. I’m constantly teaching parents, your child doesn’t have to hug anybody they don’t want to hug. And actually teaching them to be very discerning and careful about giving up their private space is part of building children with boundaries. And when you grow up in a family where your parent tells you you have to hug Uncle Joe that you’ve never met, he lives in a in another state. That’s a wrong message. And it takes away personal power from a child. And it’s really important for them to know when someone is bumping up against their boundaries and then how to handle, how to respond to that, so that you’re not responding with the I’m going to run away. But you are when you’re with someone who you feel uncomfortable, you need to come and stand near me. I’ll make sure that you’re OK. You need to let me know that someone asks you to hug them and you don’t want to. And I’ll make sure that doesn’t happen the next time we’re at that relative’s house. And those kinds of things teach children that they have the right to say no.

Elizabeth [00:21:54] And I think saying no is so important because like you, I mean, I was the oldest daughter. And even to this day, I have a hard time saying no. The amount of things I get pulled into because I feel like it might help someone, it might make it like–

Sandie [00:22:12] Lis this podcast Elizabeth?

Elizabeth [00:22:14] Not this podcast. No, this is an honor to be on. But things like halfway through, or as soon as I get there I’m thinking I really don’t want to be here. I really don’t want to be doing this right now. Why did I say yes? And it’s because I still struggle with saying no all the time. I’m working on becoming better, but frankly, it’s something I still struggle with. And I look at my, as I mentioned, I have my my two girls and I have a little boy in between them. And they don’t have a problem saying no to me. I wish they would say yes to me a little more often and no to other people a little bit more often. But I think you’re absolutely right on stressing the importance of really helping them to understand that no is an answer, is an acceptable answer, and that it’ll be respected.

Sandie [00:23:02] That’s so good. I have two more questions for you. My first question is about the challenge, and it must be the same for most parents, of how do I be protective and not overprotective? How do you balance that?

Elizabeth [00:23:22] Oh, that is, I think I constantly struggle with that. Which is why I am so grateful for my husband, because he balances me in a very good way, in a very positive way. So for me, I’ll just take something like swimming, for instance. There is so many things in life that I cannot protect my children from. I mean, whether I like it or not, one day they probably, not probably, they will move out of my house, whether it’s when they decide to go to college or they take a job far away or they get married or whatever it is, one day they will probably leave. And I want to give them as many tools as I can to help prepare them for life as I can. I mean, my kids have been in swimming lessons from the time they were eighteen months old. Simply because I recognize the fact that drowning is a risk, it’s a good skill to have. It’s something I can give my kids to help serve them throughout their life. This is one thing I can minimize. Now swimming lessons will not guarantee they won’t drown. It won’t guarantee they don’t go to the ocean and get pulled out into a rip current and the something unthinkable happens. But I try to give them that foundation. I try to give them that tool so that then when they go out into the world, that’s a little bit less stress for me, knowing that they can swim. If they fell in a lake, they can swim. If they fell in a pool, they can swim. And that’s maybe a pretty simple thing that I do. But I mean, then, of course, going back to what we already talked about, you know, I have the conversations with them about what’s OK, what’s not OK, who is a safe person? How do you know a safe person from someone who’s not safe? What is a stranger? Just because you’ve met someone five times, does that mean that they’re not a stranger? Just because, you know, just because they’re your friend’s parent, does that automatically make them a safe person? Just because your friends nice, does that mean you can trust your friend’s older brother? So having those kinds of conversations.

Sandie [00:25:43] Those are such good questions. I’m having flashbacks to when my oldest started kindergarten and I got called in for a parent teacher conference because she failed the stranger danger test with red light green light. Her answer was, if you meet someone who’s a red light person, ask them their name so they can be a green light person. I was like, oh my gosh, I had a lot of catching up to do to make sure my daughter was safe. I want to encourage people to go to your website. But first of all, my last question. I think that bystanders have so much opportunity to when they feel something isn’t quite right, not to be afraid, to make sure to at least alert someone. And I’d like to know, because that’s such an important piece of your bio for you to include when an observant and courageous bystander took action. Do you have a word for our listeners? They’re not raising kids, but they’re out in the community and they can be eyes and ears.

Elizabeth [00:27:00] You will never regret calling the police to double check. You will never regret it. In fact, you might save a life. But if you don’t, if you think, well, if something truly wrong is happening, you know, I’m sure someone else knows more about it and can make a more informed phone call. You might regret that. Because if we all think that, then the situation may never be resolved and it could end in loss of life. It could end in sexual violence, rape, trafficking, kidnaping, abuse. So if you see something that seems wrong or gives you a red flag, just call the police. That’s what they’re there for. I’m sure they’d much rather go check out someone who’s potentially a predator then, I don’t know, hiding around the corner waiting for you to speed by or roll a stop sign.

Sandie [00:27:58] I agree with you. And just for those who don’t know, if it’s right now you see danger, you call 911. If you know your local police number, you can call your local police. If you think there’s something suspicious that should be followed up on. Or you can call the National Human Trafficking Hotline, which is 888 3737 888. Elizabeth, do you have any final remarks?

Elizabeth [00:28:27] Just that it’s been an absolute pleasure speaking with both of you today. And just if whoever you are, wherever you’re at, if you’re listening, if you’re struggling, don’t give up, because every single one of us has a story. Sandie has a story. I have a story. Dave, I’m sure he has a story. We all have stories in life and they certainly can affect us, but they don’t define us. And it doesn’t mean that we can never be happy again. So don’t give up, believe in yourself, believe in happiness, and know that it’s real and that you can have it.

Sandie [00:29:03] Wow. Thank you.

David [00:29:05] Thank you, Elizabeth. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us. And we’re inviting you all to take the next step. Perhaps you’ve heard something today that would motivate you to want to take that next step in your own journey, your own story. I hope you’ll visit Elizabeth’s website and check out what her foundation’s doing. We’re going to have all the links in the episode notes and the very best place to go, not only for the links for this episode, but every episode is endinghumantrafficking.org. We’d also invite you while you’re there to take the first step and download a copy of Sandie’s guide, The Five Things You Must Know: A QuickStart Guide to Ending Human Trafficking. It’s a free resource. It’ll teach you the five critical things that Sandie has identified in her work that you should know before you join the fight against human trafficking. You can get access to it again by going over to endinghumantrafficking.org. And perhaps today’s conversation has spurred a question for you, a comment we’d love to hear from you. The best way to reach us is to go to feedback@endinghumantrafficking.org. That’s our email address, or again, endinghumantrafficking.org the website. Reminder that our next Ensure Justice conference is coming up in March 2022, March 4th and 5th. Details at ensurejustice.com. And we will be back in two weeks for our next conversation. Thanks, Sandie. Always a pleasure to speak with you.

Sandie [00:30:23] Thanks, Dave.

David [00:30:25] Take care everybody.

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