Leah's story: A Brooklyn teen's story of falling victim to and then escaping sex trafficking
In 2019, life for Brooklyn native Leah Robinson-Smith was rough. She had dropped out of New York City public school and was regularly running away from home. The darkness culminated when she became one of 288 confirmed trafficking victims in New York state that year. That number jumped to 340 in 2023.
“It was just supposed to be a hang-out moment, just a chill-out moment,” Robinson-Smith told News 12 New York.
Leah, 17, had run away from home yet again and was invited to a friend’s house to decompress.
“It turned out to be that other people, another person was there who had other plans and that is what resulted in me being locked in a room,” she said.
And the door opened, and the door closed. Men had their way with Leah for 4 1/2 months. She was beaten daily. Leah says her faith gave her the strength to go on.
“When there is no other power, there’s the higher power,” she said. “I took that bond that I had with faith ... and I allowed that to let my mind to continue to be my mind. And if I didn’t allow my mind to continue to be my mind, the front door wouldn’t really have been an option for me.”
She’s talking about the front door to the house. She ran for her life when her trafficker got distracted.
“I’m going to die getting out or I’m going to die staying here ... my biggest thing was if I’m going to die, everyone’s going to see it, so I had to get out the front door,” she said.
Tonya turner is the CEO and president of Unitas, an international anti-human trafficking organization. She says escapes like Leah’s are rare and that victims usually end up dying. Experts say New York City is the fourth-largest hub for sex trafficking in the country. Turner says sex trafficking is nothing new.
“What’s been increasing is the capabilities of recognizing it,” Turner told News 12 New York.
She says sex trafficking happens all over the city and that a common location is at fast food restaurants. And you know those kids selling candy on the subway for their basketball trip to Rome, Italy? Turner says some of them are likely being trafficked, too.
“If you have a youth and you’re going to give them money to buy that bar of candy, ask them the question, 'Hey, what position do you play, where’s your school, oh that’s in Queens, why are you in Manhattan?'” she said.
She says there’s not much you can do in a case like that besides call the NYPD since their trafficker is likely keeping close watch. As for Leah’s trafficker, he was nabbed by police and sentenced to time in prison. In an effort to heal, this is the first time Leah is going public with her story. She wants people to know that the signs of trafficking may not be as sensationalized as what you see on TV.
“For New York, I just want us to stop expecting to see the extremes ... you can get in the middle, you can break it, but you have to be able to notice before you do that,” she said.
Unitas says those more subtle signs of a youth being sex trafficked could be truancy, having multiple phones, the presence of older romantic partners and tattoos. They say if you suspect a child is being trafficked to call the NYPD Human Trafficking Hotline at 646-610-7272.