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Five Times Law Enforcement Could Have Intervened, But Didn’t … And What Could Have Been Done Differently

“Who were the professionals you had contact with during your time of exploitation, and what was your response to them when they offered help?”

Over the past four years, I have shared my story and trained several thousand community members and professionals in Colorado, and this is a common question I am asked.  Sadly, my answer is this:

“I don’t know what my response would have been – I was NEVER offered help.”

This seems to baffle most, because as I recount my story, it seems so very obvious that something was not right – I was clearly trapped in a web I could not untangle myself from.  But it’s true: I was never asked more detailed questions despite the clearly displayed red flag indicators that are now taught in introductory human trafficking trainings.

One of the community sectors I had consistent and repeated contact with throughout my five years of being sex trafficked was law enforcement.  In looking back over my journey, I can see five types of contact I had with law enforcement where officers most certainly could have intervened.  I’d like to share those with the hope that an officer out there will read these and maybe remember them if they encounter a similar situation while on duty in the future.

1.       Domestic Disturbance.  Police were dispatched to my residence three times.  Two times, I called 911.  One time a neighbor called.  All three times, my trafficker made horrifying threats of what he would do to my children if I said anything to the police once they arrived, so by the time they arrived, I was all smiles and apologetic for the misunderstanding.  All three times, my trafficker remained in the home until the police arrived, and sat stoically in front of me while the officers tried to question me. 

What could have been done differently: 

·         The officers could have separated us into different rooms in the house, or asked me to step outside.  It’s pretty scary to have the man who just threatened to kill your children glare at you over the shoulder of the officer questioning you.

·         I could have received information on resources for domestic violence, or been informed on what the process would be if I got to a point where I was able to reach out and take help.  Part of what kept me from disclosing the abuse was the fear of the unknown – what would happen to my abuser and how would law enforcement keep me safe from him if I reported him?

2.       Protection Order.  After escaping my trafficker in Denver for the final time, he put 7 bullets in my babysitter’s car, did a drive-by shooting at my best friend’s house.  He began calling, texting, emailing, and physically stalking me.  I filed for an emergency restraining order, and at the hearing for the permanent order, he arrived in a suit, and filled the benches in the small courtroom with his mother, father, brother, pastor of his church, and two other women who were being trafficked by him.  No one came with me, except the court appointed victim’s advocate.  When I spoke to the judge about why I was requesting the order, I explained he was an ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t leave me alone, and that I just wanted my children to feel safe and to be able to move on with my life.  When it was his turn to dispute the requested order, he brought up each of the people he had with him to testify against me, and even went so far as to bring out the Backpage ads he had taught me how to post, accusing me of prostituting behind his back and that’s why our relationship ended.  While the protection order was granted, I still wonder with all the red flags waving wildly in that courtroom why no one questioned the situation further.

What could have been done differently:

·         The moment the Backpage ad came out, the entire situation should have taken a proactive shift.  The judge could have seized that opportunity to ask some follow up questions about the origin of the Backpage ad.  The victim’s advocate could have taken a few moments following the proceedings to talk with me outside the courtroom.

·         Once the protection order was granted, the stalking and harassment did not stop, in fact they intensified.  Of those five reports made following the order, two or three were taken by the same officer, who I began to develop a very small level of trust with.  I know that the same officer can’t always respond to the same location for the same situation every time, but some of what he told me actually led to breaking some of the mental bondage my trafficker held over me.  All it took was that repeated contact, and spending an extra five minutes of genuine conversation each time he came out.

3.       Arrest.  Between October 2011 and May 2012, I was arrested in Las Vegas casinos eight times for prostitution, solicitation, and trespassing charges, and once for a bench warrant.  Those nine arrests consisted of contact with casino security, Vegas Vice undercover detectives, and the officers at Clark County Detention Center that did intake and processing.  In the spring of 2012, I was temporarily detained in Watford City, ND, along with two of my “wifeys,” in an undercover operation.  The officers there said they recognized all three of us by our individual Backpage ads, and knew we came out to North Dakota together every other week.  On December 1st, 2012, I was arrested for the 10th time in Vail, Colorado during an undercover operation after complaints were made by out-of-town tourists that were being robbed by the women they were hiring off Backpage to entertain them on their ski vacations.  That final arrest involved standing half-dressed in a hotel room while a handful of male officers pointed loaded weapons and stun guns at me, inappropriate (or at the very least, confusing) physical contact by a female officer, being placed in solitary confinement and held for 10 hours without charges.

What could have been done differently:

·         Instead of taunting and arresting us victims, Vice could have used that time to question each of us privately and to work to establish rapport.

·         Instead of sitting for 6-12 hours with up to 30 other pimp-control sex trafficking victims in a holding cell, CCDC could have been more strategic in their holding cell usage, decreasing the amount of time victims have to recruit one another from one bad situation to the next, and reinforce social norms common within Game culture.

·         We could have been allowed to wear the CCDC-issued pants and shirts that were stacked up in baskets in the processing area, and made available to individuals arrested for other crimes.  The officers doing the printing and processing could have refrained from comments such as “If you’re cold, maybe don’t dress like that,” and “If you don’t want to go to jail, stop prostituting, it’s that simple.”  Instead they could have asked when we last ate or slept, and if we were warm enough.

·         In North Dakota, the officers could have questioned the three of us separately.  I’m positive our stories wouldn’t have lined up.

·         In Vail, the officers could have received prior training to be better prepared for undercover prostitution stings.  A SWAT team-like entry was totally unnecessary and completing terrifying.  A female officer could have quickly made sure that I was adequately covered, it was humiliating to stand half-dressed and handcuffed while male officers searched the room.  Officers could also be more mindful of trafficking victim’s inability to discern healthy versus unhealthy physical contact, and be respectful of our skewed perception of physical boundaries.  Lastly, I could have been offered food while in the holding cell, or an officer could have used that time to talk with me one-on-one to figure out what was going on in my life at the time.

·         Finally, when it comes to arrest, law enforcement could just NOT arrest victims of commercial sexual exploitation.  The idea that “if we arrest them enough, they’ll get tired of it and leave our jurisdiction,” or “they’ll eventually break down and tell us who their pimp is” is insane (yes, Vegas Vice officers told me both of these things when I asked them why I was continuing to be arrested when I wasn’t the one hurting anyone).  Instead, law enforcement could focus on demand reduction and arresting our exploiters, because they are the true criminals and the ones that are wreaking havoc in vulnerable people’s lives.

4.       Robbery.  In early 2011, after escaping my first trafficker, he sent two fellow gang members to force their way into my home, hold my children, my friend, and myself hostage, and rob me.  They took $6,000 in cash, our wallets and cell phones, and a safe with my children’s and my identification documents.  I used a neighbor’s phone to call the police, and a report was made, but there was little that could be done at that point as cash is untraceable, and protecting my identity had to be done over the next week by filing loads of paperwork and requesting copies of all documents, reporting stolen cell phones and bank cards, etc.  The robbery happened just two days after I was held for 12 hours in my trafficker’s bedroom at his house and beaten with a belt.  The fingerprint bruises on my wrists and arms, and the belt marks across the backs of my legs were clearly visible.

What could have been done differently:

·         When I told the officers that I had $6000 in cash because I was “a stripper,” and that my ex-boyfriend had arranged this robbery, the officers could have spent more time digging into just what exactly that relationship really was.

·         When the officers took statements from my children who witness the robbery, they could have asked them more questions about what was going on in the home, and what they knew about my relationship with my “boyfriend,” if they’d ever witnessed violence, or seen drugs or weapons in the home.

·         Instead of telling me what a huge pain it would be to go arrest my trafficker that evening who was currently living in the next county over, even though they had PC due to the bruises, and even though they knew who he was because he was a twice-convicted felon drug-dealer and known gang member, the officers could have arrested him.  I was ready in that moment to tell the full truth, had any officer bothered to ask more detailed questions.  If I had known that my children and I would be safe even just for that night, I would have disclosed everything.

5.       Welfare Checks.  From October 2011 to May 2012, my ex-husband and father of my two children, received a notification each time I was arrested in Vegas.  And each time he would call the police and ask them to do a welfare check at my house.  Each time, either my “nanny” (my trafficker’s family member who lived in my house, and monitored and reported back to him my every move) or myself would answer the door and let the officers in.  They would stand in the front entry and see that this was a sparsely furnished home in a gated community, but it was clean, the children were clean, dressed, and fed, and they would leave.  After the second or third welfare check, the officers barely came up the driveway, they’d jokingly roll their eyes and say that it was my ex-husband requesting the welfare check again and they were required to stop by, and they’d leave.

What could have been done differently:

·         The officers were aware of my arrests that spurred my ex-husband’s calls.  They could have taken this time to come into the home for a few minutes at each welfare check to build rapport with me and my children. 

·         Thinking of my children specifically, I’d venture to guess that had the officers asked my children anything about their current living situation, they probably would have gotten some really concerning, straightforward answers.

·         The officers could have talked more with my ex-husband to get a better idea of what he believed was going on in the home his children lived in to see if he may have observed any red flag indicators that this was potentially a trafficking situation.  He would have gladly told the officers any and everything he knew about me in an effort to hurt and control me.

In looking over all these instances, there were over 25 instances of direct contact with law enforcement over my nearly five years of trafficking, and every single one of those instances involved at least two individual officers that I interacted with directly.  I had 25 potential opportunities just with law enforcement to be identified as a trafficking victim, to be offered services, to be given a chance at escape.  That’s over 50 police officers that could have spotted the signs, asked more specific questions, or devoted five more minutes of their shift to establishing trust with me. 

What I see are several common themes in existing law enforcement procedure that could be changed to increase the effectiveness of these points of contact:

1.       Making sure the victim and the abuser are physically separated during domestic disturbance calls.  This can remove some of the intimidation the victim may be feeling and help increase a momentary feeling of safety, which can lead to a more detailed disclosure.

2.       Whenever possible, have the same officer(s) report to the residence when a pattern of behavior is noticed.  This can help with establishing rapport.  Most trafficking victims have been taught (through instruction and experience) to not trust law enforcement as a whole.  Consistent contact with individual officers begins to break down this barrier.

3.       ANY and I mean ANY indicator of commercial sex work – legal or illegal – should be means for additional questions.  A very common misconception is that because I was over the age of 18, prostituting was my choice.  More often than not, women in the “adult entertainment industry” would not be there if they had the viable option to be anywhere else.

4.       It is quite often that there is a basic need that has not been met recently – sleep, food, a hot shower, appropriate clothing.  It doesn’t take much to meet a basic need, and this in turn furthers the rapport an individual officer can develop with a suspected trafficking victim.

5.       Whenever possible, separate suspected victims during questioning, arrest, and in detainment.  This can help with detecting inconsistencies in stories, but it also disables a lot of our group-think mentality that we have been conditioned with.

6.       Let us know what options are out there for us.  Most of us have been programmed to believe that being sex trafficked was our own choice, and we therefore believe we don’t need help.  Most of us also know that there really is little help out there for us, we were often recruited due to vulnerabilities caused by cracks in the existing societal support systems.  Leaving The Game on our own means going back to where we were fighting to escape from to begin with.  As officers, keep advocating for additional services for survivors of sex trafficking, so that you do have resources to refer us to.

7.       Have a jurisdiction-wide response protocol so that when we are able to say, “I want out now,” you know where to take us and how to protect us.  Know that sometimes being able to say, “I want out now” is not going to be the same thing as “I’m ready to implicate my trafficker.”  You should be ready to walk alongside us in our journey to freedom whether it leads to an investigation and arrest of our abuser or not – we trusted you enough to know we could ask you for help, please lead us to places that can.

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8 Myths about Trafficking Victims and Survivors that Society Believes

 

1.  We chose this life.

No little girl comes to career day in elementary school and announces to her teacher and classmates that she wants to grow up to be a prostituted woman – to be raped, beaten, robbed, and exploited.   No little girl looks forward to the day she will be touched by men old enough to be her father.  Rather, a series of events in our life removed all other options until prostitution was the lesser of two evils, or the only option left.  Also understand that life is not a series of individual events, but rather a cyclical flow, meaning that until you see the entire picture, you won’t understand the decisions we had to make.

 

2.  We are just waiting to be “rescued”.

If we’ve been prostituted for a long time, chances are we don’t identify as a “trafficking victim”, or a victim at all – in fact, we’ve started to identify with our abusers (Stockholm syndrome).  Finding our freedom has to be on our terms, and it is not a singular event – it is a process that can take a minimum of 3 years to deprogram and re-integrate into society.

 

3.  We are lazy.

Just because we haven’t worked a “9-to-5” job doesn’t mean we are lazy – in fact most of us have be made to work 12-18 hour days for years, with no vacations or down time.  On top of that, complete indoctrination into “The Game” means that we have undergone repeated trauma and intense brainwashing, both of which physically alter the brain.  So when we say we want to leave our abuser and the lifestyle, but you don’t see action (or the action YOU want to see!), please understand that these changes can manifest as anxiety and/or depression, obsessive thoughts, and protective behaviors that appear as aggressiveness or pride.  Our culture believes strongly in self-improvement, and so seeing us acting in these ways is misinterpreted as “just not wanting to try”.  Oftentimes we appear to be entrenched in our belief system, and we are – but it is rooted in our biological brain composition.

4.  We are uneducated.

Sure, a lack of education and opportunities might have increased our vulnerabilities.  But a recent study conducted by the Justice Department and the Urban Institute shows that a lack of basic education is not something that is lacking.  And book smarts aside, we are incredibly “street smart”, observant and driven.  We are oftentimes incredible entrepreneurs who have unfortunately been mislead, and giving us the opportunity to show you how intelligent we are restores our faith in ourselves.

 

5.  We are permanently damaged goods.

This is an outright lie!  As survivors, we are wonderful mothers, supportive partners, and successful professionals.  We matter, and we do not deserve to be ignored or discriminated against by our family, friends, employers, health care professionals or within the justice system.  Trauma-informed resources can help us find freedom from our traffickers, and our vulnerable circumstances that led us to be victimized to begin with.  With the right guidance, therapy, and support network, we are able to go on to do amazing things.

 

6.  With enough jail and consequences, we can fix our problem.

There’s a big difference between sending us to prison where we are not able to be sold, and we have limited contact with our trafficker, and finding lasting solutions to and healing from our vulnerabilities.  It’s easy to “stay clean” while being locked up, but if we aren’t given the tools and resources we need, we will find ourselves right back in the places and relationships that got us in trouble to begin with.  Unlike other illegal activities, prostitution is often our only option to put a roof over our heads and food on our table for our families, so we often have high rates of recidivism when we are not accurately identified and helped.

 

7.    We just don’t have access to government assistance.

Food, healthcare, housing, child care, and transportation are all top priorities when we first find our freedom – but long-term government dependence is NOT a solution to the problem.  In fact, many of us were on assistance either before or during our time of being exploited, and if anything, it only added to our vulnerabilities.  On top of that, being told that our best option is depending on “handouts” reinforces the belief that we are damaged goods who will never amount to anything.  We want to work hard, and we need to be empowered and encouraged to pursue our dreams and accomplish our goals.  We need to know that we are capable of doing these things on our own.  And we need YOU to walk alongside us as we find our freedom, heal from our traumas, and build a bright future.

 

8.  We must have done something to be where we are.

A lot of times, you are looking for a reason that will help you understand how we ended up being trafficked, or maybe to reassure yourself that you or your children are not going to end up being trafficked.  Being sexually abused as a child did cause us to be trafficked.  Working in a gentleman’s club did not cause us to be trafficked.  Growing up in a divorced home did not cause us to be trafficked.  Nothing we did “made” us be trafficked, nor does it excuse the abuser!  Stop the victim-blaming.  It is not our fault.

 

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Glorification and Acceptance of “The Life”

Pop culture has exposed us to so much of the pimp culture that we are now completely desensitized to its destructive powers.  The music, movies, social media trends, fashion and our language have slowly adapted to accepting a glorified version of what pimps and sex workers’ roles are that we think nothing of our children listening to their lyrics at school dances, or dressing the way their favorite artists do.  Little do we know that with these small gestures, we are condoning the continued exploitation of our women and children.

Chris Brown Caught with a Prostitute?

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Reducing Demand

From the legal perspective, reducing the demand for sex workers translates into a reduction in the number of women and children supplied by traffickers.  Harsher consequences for those soliciting the services of these women, and for those supplying them, will absolutely have an impact, as those who may have previously considered taking part will be deterred as the level of risk rises to an uncomfortable level.  Reducing demand from this end can be done through a variety of ways – everything from posting mugshots on billboards of those convicted of soliciting a prostitute, to capital punishment for those convicted of exploiting a child.

We will continue, as a society, to see the exploitation and demand for sex workers as long as mis-education and the breakdown of the family unit exists.  Truly ending commercial sexual exploitation requires addressing the root causes that contribute to creating a vulnerable women or child, addressing domestic violence and poverty that lead to an over-exposure of violence and desperation, and addressing the messages that we send our youth about the value of their bodies, and the definition of success.  In addition to this, we need to address the mis-education and stereotypes that have saturated our society when it comes to sex workers and the truth behind what is referred to as “the Life.”

Utah Law Maker Wants Death Penalty for Sex Traffickers

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No Justice in the Justice System

Time for some cold, hard truth:

A handful of states have started to pass policies allowing trafficking victims to have their records related to the time they were trafficked sealed. This seems like an excellent step forward, and from the outside appears to give survivors a chance at a new life with a clean slate.

However …

1. Most victims have records in multiple states. To get a victim’s entire related record sealed, they must either travel to or hire representation in each state, and go through the proceedings in each state. (And remember, not all states have passed this legislation!)

2. The process is lengthy, and as there are few cases across the nation that have been successfully completed, there are multiple unexpected obstacles that can arise – one for example – here in Colorado while the new law exists, they do not yet have the court form to file! In addition, each case takes around a year, if not more, from start to finish. This requires multiple appearances in court, filing necessary documents, lawyer meetings and fees, etc.

3. There is an expectation that the victim provide some sort of proof that they were trafficked during the time of their arrests that they’d like sealed. More often than not, victims either do not have enough “proof”, or they do not want to bring evidence before a court that could later require them testifying in open court in front of their trafficker.

4. If there is no trafficking-related law in a particular state, or the victim cannot supply enough proof of being trafficked, many states allow for a record to be sealed after a certain amount of time, usually around three year. THREE YEARS!! What are they supposed to do in the meantime while their past continues to haunt them?

5. While the Equal Employment Opportunity laws here in the US prohibit discrimination based on criminal history, we all know that this does not necessarily mean potential employers comply every time. So while a victim is waiting patiently for their record to be sealed, how are they supposed to find employment/housing/college entrance?

While our nation is slowly making progress in legislation dealing with trafficking and helping victims and survivors better themselves, there is still no justice in the justice system for these women. For those coming out of a trafficking situation, the uphill battle can be harder than its worth (or at least it seems that way to her!), and for this reason many find themselves re-trafficked.

How can we as a community surround and empower these women despite these seemingly impossible obstacles as they try to reintegrate? And more importantly, how can we as a society strengthen at-risk populations so that they can avoid be trafficked to begin with?

One thing is for certain – we cannot wait for the court OR the welfare system to “help” them – we can all take a role in lifting these women up and supporting them!

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Resources for Survivors

Trafficked women are often tattooed with their pimp’s name, street name, gang, or phrase/logo.  This is a part of the bonding and grooming process, and it is something that is a permanent visual reminder of the abuse and exploitation a woman experienced, long after she has found freedom.  Tattoos can be found just below the hairline, on a victim’s chest or throat, their wrists or ankle, or above their pubic area.  Large tattoos with trafficker’s identifiers can be found down a victim’s leg or arm, along the side of their torso, and sometimes on the victim’s face, lip or eyelid.  Branding their product in this way is another form of dehumanization, and it is not uncommon for woman who has been trafficked for many years to have upwards of 8-10 names on her body.

The needs of a trafficking survivor are numerous and varied, from financial support, education and employment, counseling services, housing, transportation, and family networking.  But a little known need is being able to move on from being viewed as someone else’s product for sale.

Our Sex Traffickers Branded Us, But They Won’t Own Us Forever

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Training The Hotel Industry

When Wyndam announced they were donating $750,000 and 1 million reward points to human trafficking awareness and prevention efforts, it marked a new stage in education efforts.  As hotel chains become aware of the fact that abuse and exploitation are just as likely to occur in 5-star establishments as they are hourly motels off the highway, some are starting to take responsibility for training their staff on recognizing the potential signs.  Whether it is a red flag at check-in, or something housekeeping observes on daily cleaning rounds, a hotel’s staff can play a crucial role in responding to crime occurring on their property.  While some hotels keep a log book of local prostitute’s photos and online advertisements, and turn them away when they attempted to check in, awareness to the depth of the issue of human trafficking is creating a shift in how hotel staff respond to potential situations.

How to Spot a Sex Trafficking Victim at a Hotel

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