“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.