Human Trafficking 7

The Girls

By Kersley Fitzgerald

Human Trafficking: The Series

Statistics and Definitions
Labor Trafficking
Sex Trafficking
Selling Eve
Freedom for the Captives
The Church's Response
The Girls

Note: This series is on human trafficking, including sex trafficking. Terms are plain, although situations are not explicit. Still, reader discretion is advised.

Annie* is sixteen. She had it rough as a child, including being molested by her brother's friends. When she was twelve, Tony, the older brother of one of the friends, told them to stop. He was nineteen, and he was kind to her. He didn't treat her like a kid; he called her his girlfriend and gave her gifts. One day, he brought her to his apartment, and there was another guy waiting. Tony explained that he owed this guy money. If Annie would have sex with him, he'd cover Tony's debt with enough left over to buy Annie new clothes. She didn't really want to do it, but Tony had been so good to her that she agreed. She got the new clothes — a little skimpier than she would have worn — but the "dates" didn't stop. If she tried to refuse, Tony would yell at her. If she ran away, he'd meet her at her school with a present.

Annie's mom didn't like the new clothes or Tony. When Annie was thirteen and her mom found the condoms in her room, she kicked Annie out. Annie didn't have any other place to go, so she went to Tony's. He agreed to take her in, give her a place to live and food, but she couldn't complain anymore if he set up dates for her. By this time, Annie was numb. Sex had been a part of her life for so long — at least now it was like she was earning a living and providing for herself.

She did get picked up occasionally. Most of the cops were nice, but they didn't know what to do with her. They'd try to talk to her about getting out, but what were they going to do? The best they could manage was a night in jail or a stay in a mental hospital. A few called child services, but she'd always escape before the counselor got there. The only place she had to live was with Tony. All her stuff was at his apartment. And he wasn't that bad when he wasn't drunk or stressed. This was her life. She had a job. She had stomach aches, but she dealt with them. And when it got really bad, she just pretended she was somewhere else. Actually, it had gotten to the point where she was almost always somewhere else.

When another one of Tony's girls was found in a dumpster, Annie'd had enough. Child services didn't have room, so she went to a woman's shelter, but everyone looked down on her. These were all victims, blameless. None of them had ever been arrested. They treated her like dirt, and they were right to do so. She was just a prostitute. And she missed some of the other girls. Life with Tony was rough, but she was his top girl. Here, she's nothing. The director got her a social worker. Annie almost didn't go to the meeting. She didn't want to go back to juvvie or into foster care. What she wanted most was sleep.

A report put out by the Department of Health and Human Services listed the injuries a child taken out of sex trafficking may suffer: physical health problems associated with beatings and rapes; reproductive health problems including STDs, malnutrition, headaches, addiction. But the mental health issues are likely much worse. Extreme anxiety and fear, PTSD, inability to trust, self-destructive behaviors, shame and guilt, despair, and trauma-bond.

A "trauma-bond" or traumatic bond is common in trafficking cases. It's when the perpetrator manipulates the victim such that she actually bonds with him — similar to Stockholm syndrome. When abuse is the norm, the cessation of abuse can seem like kindness. The victim ignores the abuse, or dissociates from it, pretending it's happening to someone else. This "cognitive dissonance" can affect other areas of their lives. They lose touch with what is real. They can't imagine that an alternative is possible. Because, really, wouldn't it be better to convince yourself you were doing this voluntarily than that every single encounter was an act of extreme violence?

The report quotes, "These girls are in need of a new identity separate from 'The Life.' They also need to develop healthy attachments with peers, adults, and family members (whenever possible). Perhaps most important, these girls need to feel safe, both physically and emotionally." Sound familiar? That's exactly what the church was designed for.

It's been very difficult serving victims of sex trafficking, particularly child victims. The victims themselves often don't admit their situation. Until recently, authorities have assumed the lifestyle was a choice. (A 12-year old can choose this?) For a long time, authorities had a disconnect between international human trafficking — where foreigners are kidnapped and brought to America — and the American girl on the street. It's been difficult to admit it's the same thing. Finally, the government is not equipped to provide long term care. Shelters are designed for runaways. The foster system is meant for abuse and neglect cases. Detention facilities are for chosen criminal activities like theft. And traffickers often know where the shelters are, presenting a safety issue for the girls and their care-givers.

Annie is, by legal definition, a victim of child sex trafficking. At 12 or 16, she is not legally able to make the choice to sell sex. She is not a prostitute, she is a prostituted girl. Tony was not her boyfriend, he was her trafficker. Like all victims, Annie needs a safe place to come to terms with that and start her recovery.

*Annie is a fictional compilation.

Next up: Home: A clean, well-lighted place is hard to find.

Links to check out:

International Justice Mission
Restore Innocence
Transitions Global
Children's Hope Chest
Make Way Partners

What to do if you suspect someone is being trafficked:

If the situation is urgent, call 911.
If there is no immediate threat, call the non-emergency number, often 311.
Call your local anti-human trafficking organization.
Call the national hotline—1-888-3737-888.
(Hotlines will not necessarily be able to provide emergency assistance, but they will track activity to better aid the FBI and other law enforcement in determining where and how to act.)

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Published 8-23-11