WASHINGTON, September 20, 2014 — It was August of 1970 and the heat of a summer’s day in the Deep South refused to relinquish its grip as night descended like a dark curtain. The sweat had pooled in the middle of my back and my hair lay tangled and matted across my damp forehead as I lay face down on the small couch.
The hollow thud of the camper door being slammed shut pulled me temporarily back into realty. The couch I was laying on creaked and groaned as the bald and overweight man stood fastening his belt. The drug-induced haze of cocaine mixed with alcohol had a strong grip on me, but there were times I could almost taste the dust and grit of the world outside.
Since the age of five I had been trafficked sexually by a pedophile ring. It was now three years later and I was a well known and popular “date” for the sexual predators that my “owners” sold me to on a regular basis.
Suddenly the loud roar of an engine boomed outside. It was a bookmark for my life because I knew exactly how the night would unfold. That night I was being trafficked along the amateur stock car racing circuit and customers had traveled great distances to satisfy their twisted sexual appetites.
My life had fallen into a dark abyss early on as domestic violence; alcoholism, childhood sexual abuse and divorce dominated my world.
Following my mother’s divorce from my biological father, her life began a downward spiral that left me abandoned and alone, vulnerable to those who prey upon the innocent. My mother’s world existed at the bottom of a bottle and when she met a man named Neale who began to molest me, alcohol facilitated her complete escape from the reality of what was happening to me. Before long Neale shared me with the pedophile ring he belonged to. Soon I was being trafficked sexually, trapped by threats of violence against my mother and forced to take cocaine and alcohol.
For seven long years I was trapped in a hell no one deserves. I was nothing more than a shell of a human being enduring suffering and torture at the hands of psychopaths and sociopaths as the world looked on. I attended school, and from the outside appeared to be a “normal child” but I was being trafficked in plain sight. I was often pulled out of school to “service” clients and after school, holidays and weekends were all just a never-ending nightmare for me. All of the signs were there but no one cared enough to look or had the training or education to realize my bruises and lengthy illnesses were all red flags for a child suffering endless abuse.
The Department of Justice estimates that between 100,000 and 300,000 children are at risk of being trafficked in this country right now. Human trafficking is a $9.5 billion a year business in the U.S. according to the United Nations and within the first forty-eight hours of leaving home, a runaway child will be approached by a human trafficker. Human trafficking is second only to the drug trade as the largest criminal enterprise according to the Justice Department. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) reports that pimps can make from $150,000 to $200,000 per year for each child. The NCMEC also reports a pimp has an average of four children and the Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking non profit, reports the average victim of sex trafficking is forced to have sex 20-48 times a day.
These numbers are shocking and part of a tragedy that is actively swallowing America’s children. The life of a child being trafficked is brutal. Drugs, alcohol, beatings and death threats are used as tools to keep innocent children as slaves to the depths of depravity. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reports the average life span of a child being trafficked is seven years. The drugs, alcohol and abusive lifestyle wither the fragile spirit of a child leaving them to die in the shadow of hope.
Our children are being thrown into the darkest abyss of humanity and some have been lost in a broken system. In 2010, Los Angeles officials reported that 59 percent of juveniles arrested for prostitution were in the foster care system. In addition, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reported that of the children who are reported missing, who are also likely sex trafficking victims, 60 percent were in foster care or group homes when they ran away.
In July of 2013, the FBI rescued 105 children who were forced into prostitution in the United States, and arrested 150 pimps in a series of raids in 76 American cities. The campaign, known as “Operation Cross Country,” was the largest of its type and conducted under the FBI’s “Innocence Lost” initiative. It all took place in just 72 hours. The youngest victim recovered was just 9 years old. (Reuters).
Historically, women have been identified as the overwhelming majority of victims of human trafficking but recent studies have shown male victims of trafficking have been severely overlooked. In a 2008 study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, of those who were sexually exploited in New York, fifty percent of victims were found to be boys from the United States, being trafficked domestically. Until now anti-trafficking organizations have been focused on female victims but that tide is now starting to turn. A 2013 study by the organization ECPAT discovered males are more likely to be arrested for shoplifting or other petty crimes even though they are being trafficked sexually.
One of the great myths about male victims of sex trafficking is that they are predominantly homosexual. The truth is the majority of trafficked youths are not gay, according to Steven Pricopio from the organization Surviving Our Struggle, a center for young male trafficking victims. Most are trapped in a life of sexual servitude through threats of violence against their families or themselves. “They don’t see them as victims … It’s not an issue of sexual orientation, it’s an issue of right circumstances which bring you to exploitation or the vulnerability that brings you into being sexually exploited.” Pricopio says.
Also included in the John Jay study was the fact that forty percent of male victims were forced to service female clients. The lens through which we currently view human trafficking has to change and we need acknowledge that this scourge defies gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Instead of viewing victims of trafficking as either a male or female problem we have to now examine the expanse of its scope and treat it as a human problem.
The path to becoming a victim of sex trafficking is similar for both males and females. Income is not the sole determining factor in assessing the vulnerability of children. Traffickers have no limitations on the methods they will use to lure victims into an inescapable trap. Human trafficking has also infiltrated our schools.
Traffickers will hand pick a child to be a recruiter, typically one who has formed a trauma bond with their trafficker and place them in a school. The recruiter will wear nice clothes and jewelry and drive a nice car. When the other kids compliment the recruiter on their clothes or car the recruiter will say, “I can show you how to have all this and more.” It doesn’t take long before the trafficker has the new child trapped with threats of violence against their family and friends.
There are factors that do make a child more vulnerable, and one of the most common risk factors among victims is a dysfunctional family environment. Alcoholism, drug abuse, domestic violence and childhood sexual abuse all create a chasm in the self-esteem of a child. Traffickers actively target these children and soon they are lost to the darkness few survive.
My escape from the world of human trafficking came at a high cost. I had tried to tell at least ten people that I was being trafficked and my reward for this was among other things having three of my ribs broken. My life had become an abyss of worthlessness and pain and at the age of twelve, I stood in my mother’s rose garden, a bottle of sleeping pills in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. As the agents of my demise tumbled down my throat chased by the warmth of the vodka, I felt a sense of peace wash over me. I felt a peace I had never felt before. I had finally escaped the nightmare and I was no longer afraid.
Suddenly, I awoke in the emergency room to a group of wide-eyed doctors who had witnessed me depart this world for a total of three minutes. God, it seems, had other plans for me and I was finally freed from my nightmare as the horrified doctors noticed the bruises that formed a tapestry across my body chronicling the abuse I suffered. I sincerely believe it is through God’s intervention that I am here today as a survivor of human trafficking and not a casualty. I stand here today not only as a survivor but as a living testament that there is always hope and a light inside all of us that no one can extinguish.
Please join me in the fight to end human trafficking and save the next child before they are sentenced to a vandalized childhood with a lifetime of broken hopes and dreams. Learn the signs of human trafficking and call the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-3737-888 if you suspect someone is being trafficked. To learn more about the signs of human trafficking visit the Polaris Project website: http://www.polarisproject.org/human-trafficking/recognizing-the-signs or the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/indicators-human-trafficking.