When Elizabeth Smart signed on earlier this year as a correspondent for Crime Watch Daily, she didn’t have any training as a reporter — though, as she tells PEOPLE, “I [had] tons of experience being the interviewee.”
She learned quickly though, “thanks to some very patient producers.”
And after a successful first season, Smart, 28, signed on for a second for a simple reason: “I decided to continue because sharing the stories of survivors is a way to keep their cases in the spotlight, and hopefully give them a better chance of bringing criminals to justice.”
The advocate for missing children knows firsthand how the spotlight can help change the course of a terrible crime: She was found safe nine months after being abducted at knifepoint from her bed in 2002 — thanks in part to the national attention on her disappearance. (Among other horrors, Smart was raped and starved in captivity.)
“The power of the media is so strong,” Smart says. “I know that in my own experience, if my parents hadn’t kept my story alive in the press, it might have been just another sad story that came and went. So the opportunity to talk to other victims and survivors means a lot to me and to them.
“Nobody should have to go through the aftermath of a terrible crime alone.”
She tells PEOPLE that “being on the other side is a shift, but I like it.”
“I’ve told my own story over and over and over again,” Smart says. “I’m enjoying helping somebody else to get their story out there.”
Now that she’s a mother — to 20-month-old daughter Chloe, with husband Matthew Gilmour — Smart says she can’t help but think of her daughter when interviewing the parents of children who have gone missing or survived kidnappings and sexual assaults.
“When I go back to my own situation, I almost think it was worse for my parents than for me,” she says, “because I knew that I was alive, but they didn’t know. I always knew how much they loved me, but until I had my own daughter I didn’t realize how all-consuming that is. The worst thing in the world would be if something happened to my little girl.”
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Smart’s New Cases: ‘It’s Very Similar to What Happened to Me’
Smart says she is filming a Crime Watch Daily episode in Indianapolis on Dr. David Cline, a fertility specialist who allegedly used his own sperm 50 times to impregnate patients.
When six of his former patients’ children confronted him after learning of their ancestry through DNA tests, Cline is alleged to have told them he used his own sperm whenever he didn’t have a donor sample available. Now retired, he is charged with two felony counts of obstruction of justice for statements he made to investigators. He has pleaded not guilty.
“It’s such an invasion of these womens’ bodies and lives,” Smart tells PEOPLE of the case. “As I sat there interviewing some of them for the show, I thought, ‘If that had happened to me, I would feel like I was virtually raped.’ What he did is unbelievable.”
Among the other recent cases she has reported is the frightening story of a serial child predator in Ohio, who is still on the loose after the attempted abduction of a 10-year-old girl in Elyria, Ohio, and a day-long abduction of a 6-year-old girl in Cleveland.
In the Cleveland case, the suspect allegedly entered a side window and scooped the girl off the living room sofa, dropping her off a few miles from her home 17 hours later.
Investigators are sifting through more than 300 leads and believe they have captured the suspect on tape. But so far they haven’t found the suspect himself.
“He walks with a very recognizable strut and is believed to stalk his victims beforehand,” says Smart, who interviewed parents of the children for her show, which aired on Oct. 13.
“It’s very similar to what happened to me. In fact, it’s almost frightening how similar it is,” Smart says. “To think that the guy is still out there is very scary. He’s dangerous — nobody is safe. So to me, it feels very good to be involved to bring some light and attention and hopefully get this guy.”
‘Hopefully I’ll Set an Example’
Although she hates leaving Chloe to go on location for the show, “what I’m doing is something that when she gets older, she’ll understand and be proud of me for doing,” Smart tells PEOPLE. “Hopefully, I’ll set an example for her and she’ll know she has a lot of options ahead of her, and she can do whatever she wants with her life.”
Now writing a book about the power of hope and how to move forward after sexual abuse, “I think the more we bring it to light, the more people realize this is something that does need to be talked about,” Smart says.
“I really appreciate the opportunity to be involved with this show and keep these messages out there. The very best thing we can do is share our stories.”