Jen Spry stood in front of a crowd and asked a simple question.
“What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘child’?” she said.
One person in the audience raised their hand and said, “Innocent.”
Another said “vulnerable,” “precious,” “naive.”
Then she asked what came to their minds when they hear the word “prostitute.”
The answers included words such as desperate, homeless, drug user and pimp.
“Do these two things go together,” she asked. “No. This is what we call child prostitution. But there’s no such thing as a child prostitute.”
Spry is a registered nurse and a businesswoman. She’s spent the last few years fighting child sex trafficking — something she herself was a victim of.
Spry spoke to an audience of health workers and law enforcement officials at Frederick Memorial Hospital on Wednesday, educating them on prevention, identification and responses to victims of human trafficking.
“This is not just the troubled child that lives all the way over there,” she said. “This is your child. This is happening in your neighborhood.”
Pam Holtzinger, the hospital’s forensic nurse coordinator, said she invited Spry to speak after hearing her at a training session in June.
Once she heard Spry’s story, she said, she realized that Frederick County was not well-equipped to recognize victims of human trafficking.
Holtzinger said that almost immediately after her training, she identified three sex trafficking victims and found as many as 10 possible victims.
Holtzinger said she is developing a protocol for the hospital on how to react to trafficking victims. She hopes to begin training nurses in the coming months.
“There’s no question that there’s a lot of people we’ve likely missed. They don’t come in wearing a sign,” she said. “But this is so important, and I want to see us get it right.”
Signs of a trafficking victim include a person who comes into the hospital with no support, or with a boss or relative who seems to control when that person talks.
Because it’s largely a hidden epidemic, it is unclear how many trafficking victims exist. In Maryland, the FBI Child Exploitation Task Force has identified 46 victims of trafficking since 2013.
The state remains a hot spot for trafficking because of its central eastern location and access to interstate highways. It is close to airports and is popular with tourists. Common pickup points are truck stops and hotels.
When she was 8, Spry said she was playing with her cousin in a park near her Montgomery County home when a man approached them and asked for help searching for his dog. He said he was new to the neighborhood, and was afraid the dog wouldn’t be able to find his way home. He’d moved into the house four houses away from hers.
Spry said she reluctantly agreed to help the man, and the three walked around the neighborhood for hours to no avail. Afterward, as an offer of thanks, he invited them into his third-floor apartment for cookies and lemonade.
Upon entering the apartment, she saw video equipment and cameras, and on the dining room table sat hundreds of pictures of naked children. Aghast, she said she ran out through the apartment’s fire escape. Her cousin followed suit. The two kept the secret to themselves.
“We knew we saw something wrong,” she said. “We knew we needed to avoid that man.”
A few weeks later she said she was playing in the park again when the man stepped out of his fire escape with a box of toys. He yelled to her across the road, apologizing for frightening her before and offering her the toys as consolation. He walked down the escape and left them at the bottom of the stairs.
She took the toys, she said, and out of guilt, she developed a relationship with the man. Over two years, the man forced her to have sex with strangers and photographed her with men and other children.
He would sometimes grab her by the hair and drag her through the third-floor window, where men were lined up and waiting.
She made it home for dinner every night, and she never said a word to her mother. Her nightmare didn’t end until two years later, when she said the man mysteriously disappeared. She never saw him again. Spry said that there were several other children in the neighborhood who were involved.
Shortly afterward, she said she visited a doctor who missed the signs of child abuse.
“In my childlike mind that doctor was my last hope for intervention,” she said.
Today, she educates the public and provides training to professionals through the Maryland Anti-Trafficking Task Force, which was created by the state in 2007 to investigate and prosecute traffickers, and well as coordinate services for victims.
The task force created a medical protocol for how to identify victims in January earlier this year.
Spry said she’s led nearly 10 training sessions in Maryland this year.
“I don’t think we’re anywhere near where we need to be,” she said. “But I think we’re making progress.”