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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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Awareness

#BeTheKey: Of Additional Interest

This information was gathered from our survey of 300 prostituted women through our social network outreach program.  Every couple days over the month of August, we are adding a new stat from our findings to help you better understand the women we are working with.  Read the whole series right here on the Free Our Girls blog.

After identifying specific categories under which Free Our Girls planned to observe various information shared on social media by the women currently involved in the commercial sex industry, we also observed a number of interesting facts that did not fall into any pre-defined categories, but we found worth acknowledging.

  • 1 survivor of the “Craigslist killer”
  • 1 transgendered
  • 4 openly talk about being recruited under the age of 18
  • 1 military veteran
  • 2 openly talk about having been married and divorced previous to their initial recruitment
  • 1 has just started running an escort service as her way out of performing services herself
  • 1 is a confirmed recovering drug addict, whose pimp was the one who “saved” her and helped her get clean
  • 16 have left the sex industry within the last 3 years, yet remain connected through social media to the life and people they once surrounded themselves with

What can this information tell us about the women vulnerable to commercial sexual exploitation?  That vulnerabilities exist in a wide array of lifestyles and backgrounds.  That oftentimes the abuse and exploitation these women currently experience at the hands of their trafficker is STILL a better life than the one they came from.  And that the psychological conditioning and emotional bonds built with others while a part of this life are not easily broken, even years after walking away from taking an active part in it.

Grooming refers to the process of identifying the potential to exploit an individual, and making oneself a person of authority and trust within the potential victim's life. Once that step has been accomplished, it is easy for a trafficker to manipulate their victim into believing their lies, and learning to follow an order of expectations. Because the psychological manipulation is often incredibly severe, many women who experience this process find themselves brainwashed (Stockholm's syndrome), as they then accept this way of life as one that they chose for themselves.

Grooming refers to the process of identifying the potential to exploit an individual, and making oneself a person of authority and trust within the potential victim’s life. Once that step has been accomplished, it is easy for a trafficker to manipulate their victim into believing their lies, and learning to follow an order of expectations. Because the psychological manipulation is often incredibly severe, many women who experience this process find themselves brainwashed (Stockholm’s syndrome), as they then accept this way of life as one that they chose for themselves.

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Awareness

#BeTheKey: Being a Mother

This information was gathered from our survey of 300 prostituted women through our social network outreach program.  Every couple days over the month of August, we are adding a new stat from our findings to help you better understand the women we are working with.  Read the whole series right here on the Free Our Girls blog.

At least 40% of the women that Free Our Girls networks with have children.  With 64% of those having just one child, 20% having two children, and 9 women are currently pregnant, these women are not only responsible for themselves, but a family as well.

What can this tell us about women involved in commercial sex work?  That motherhood makes women incredibly vulnerable, both emotionally and financially, to being exploited due to their need to provide for their children, and the hope of giving them a better life than they would otherwise have been able to offer.  Some of these women had children prior to entering the sex industry, and some have since had children with their trafficker, as this is often one method a trafficker uses to keep his victim under his control.  For this population of women, leaving sex work can be even more difficult as they do not just have themselves to support.  If a woman has had a child with her trafficker, her emotional connection with the father of her child only increases the number of obstacles she must overcome to truly be freed.

Additionally, it is important to note that not all women chose to share the fact that they have children on their social media profiles.  They may do this for a number of reasons, but two of the most common reasons are (1) not wanting to share this personal and intimate part of their world with unknown viewers, and (2) not having custody of their children and therefore limited interactions with them.  For these reasons, it is believed that the actual percentage of women in the sex industry with children is even larger than what was observed in our study.

Having children increases the emotional and financial vulnerability of thousands of young women currently engaged in sex work. This lifestyle affects not only the women, but their children as well.

Having children increases the emotional and financial vulnerability of thousands of young women currently engaged in sex work. This lifestyle affects not only the women, but their children as well.

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Awareness

#BeTheKey: The Age of Exploitation

This information was gathered from our survey of 300 prostituted women through our social network outreach program.  Every couple days over the month of August, we are adding a new stat from our findings to help you better understand the women we are working with.  Read the whole series right here on the Free Our Girls blog.

Of the women observed in Free Our Girls’ social media study, 71% were between the ages of 18 and 29.  Approximately 28% were in their 30’s.  And only 1 woman was in her 40’s.

What does this tell us about the women currently facing exploitation?  First of all, Free Our Girls does NOT include any person who appear to be under the age of 18 in their social media outreach.  Any person who appears to be, or confirms through their posts, to be under the age of 18 and involved in commercial sex work is immediately reported to law enforcement.  For this reason, any social media accounts that appear to be/are under the age of 18 were not included in our study.  To date, over the last three years, two such accounts have been identified and reported.

Understanding the age demographics of this group of women is important because we see when our women are most commonly involved in commercial sex work, and therefore most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by traffickers.  Not only are young women in higher demand from paying clientele, but they are also more often to be naive, emotionally vulnerable and financially unstable as they strike out into the world on their own.

As women involved in the adult industry enter their 30’s, and even 40’s, they start looking to get away from this lifestyle, however they often find their legitimate work options severely lacking for reasons including: lack of work history and formal education (and the low wages that come with jobs they then quality for), addiction, housing instability, need for childcare, and reliable transportation.  In addition to these physical needs in order to be able to leave the sex industry, many women also face reintegration difficulties due to years of unpredictable environments, complex trauma and emotional damage, and having to cope in a world they have been socialized to stay detached from.

Many women desperately want to leave commercial sex work, however their desire to leave does not always necessarily line up with the ability to maintain the stability in their life to make a successful exit.

Most social media and adult entertainment sites have age warnings and restrictions, aimed at preventing minors from accessing adult content. However, posts like this one tell a much different story.

Most social media and adult entertainment sites have age warnings and restrictions, aimed at preventing minors from accessing adult content. However, posts like this one tell a much different story.

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Awareness

Traffickers Might Be Anywhere

The general image most people have of a sex trafficker is a dark, sinister underworld shadow of a criminal who has little contact with the general public, and lurks in dark alleys late at night.  While these do exist, there are many more that exist amongst us, who interact with us daily, and who have even taken an oath to protect us and our nation.  Almost equally horrifying is the fact that while civilians have been currently receiving 10-50 years in prison sentences depending on the case, this Navy sailor received only 5 years for trafficking a minor who was HIV positive.

Ex-Sailor Gets 5 Years for Sex Trafficking a Child

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Awareness

Understanding the Role of the “Bottom”

A pimp’s bottom is the girl he has put in charge of many responsibilities in the management of the other women under his control, from recruiting to training, to playing friend and counselor.  She has “earned” this title and role by being under his control the longest, by having the best behavior, and being his top earner.  This status is respected within the pimp culture, and it is often fought for amongst the women, with the belief that it will earn them additional love and respect from their abuser.  What it often means is that she will take the fall for the pimp should he be arrested, and she is expected to defend him in court, put money on his books and pay his lawyer, and report back to him on what is going on while he is detained.  She must raise any children they may have together on her own.  And while from the outside, the bottom often appears to be just as nasty and vicious as the pimp she works for, she is a victim nonetheless.  She has experienced the most abuse and degradation, been exploited the longest, and often has proven to be grateful for the least.  She is under her pimp’s complete control, and her loyalty is not swayed, even in the face of life sentences – her belief that her pimp is in the right remains firm.

Pimp Accused of Sex Trafficking Gets 37 Years

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After-Care

Giving Victims a New Foundation

Safe houses and transitional homes are popping up all over the US, some for minors, others for adults, and even one for men and boys exploited through sex trafficking.  This is one of a wide variety of resources needed for helping victims leave their situation and find the help and support they need to heal and start building their new life.  While many initially wondered if these houses would actually find victims to fill their beds, that has not been an issue in any of the houses across the US.  Unfortunately, in the last six months, two of these houses have shut down due to a lack of funding.  The number of beds available across the US specifically for victims of sex trafficking is depressingly few – less than a couple hundred total (consider 100,000+ children are at risk each year of falling victim, and there are currently 1 million adult female prostitutes in the US that studies suggest up to 90% of them have pimps).

General safe homes, transitional houses, homeless shelters and other such residential facilities have opened their doors to include survivors of sex trafficking, which is better than nothing.  However, women coming out of a sex trafficking situation experience PTSD at the same rates as soldiers coming home from war zones, and it takes the average woman a minimum of two years to completely extricate herself and find enough therapy and resources to permanently escape her situation.  Most residential facilities are not designed to shelter women and children for this length of time, which is why homes specifically for sex trafficking survivors are a crucial part of the resource network for them.  And while the costs involved in long-term housing and care for a survivor can be anywhere from $25,000 and up, that fresh start for that individual is priceless.

Boston Safe House for Sex Traffic Victims to Shut Down

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