Escape from slavery

| December 14, 2010 | 2 Comments

Minnesota girl’s plight highlights problem of human trafficking

An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 American children become victims of sex trafficking every year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Photo illustration

Kayla thought she was going to a church service. She couldn’t have been more wrong.

The 10-year-old asked her grandmother, Lauren, if she would drive her and her friend Jasmine to a house in the suburbs where the service was to take place.

An hour later, when the girls emerged from the house, Jasmine had her arm draped around Kayla, who was crying. Lauren asked what was wrong. Not to worry, Jasmine replied, Kayla had just fallen.

What Lauren didn’t realize then was that, inside that house in the suburbs, her granddaughter had indeed fallen — into the shadowy underworld of human trafficking.

Human trafficking is the illegal trade in human beings for commercial sexual exploitation or forced labor. It is modern-day slavery.

An estimated 100,000 to 300,000 American children are sold for sex annually, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Minnesota ranks as one of the top 10 states for sex trafficking, experts say. It is the portal to the “Minnesota Pipeline,” a series of states through which victims are channeled to New York. Under federal law, however, trafficking, despite connotations, does not require movement of victims.

A person can be a victim of sex trafficking without ever leaving home.

“Human trafficking is a horrific crime against the basic dignity and rights of the human person. All efforts must be expended to end it,” the U.S. bishops said in their 2007 statement “On Human Trafficking.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has played a key role in providing education, advocacy and services for survivors of human trafficking.

Since 2002, the USCCB has assisted more than 2,600 trafficking victims and their families. It also founded the Coalition of Catholic Organizations Against Human Trafficking.

“In the end,” the bishops said, “we must work together — church, state and community — to eliminate the root causes and markets that permit traffickers to flourish; to make whole the survivors of this crime; and to ensure that, one day soon, trafficking in human persons vanishes from the face of the earth.”

Kayla’s story

At her home on a quiet, tree-lined street in the Twin Cities, Lauren told the story of Kayla, now 13, whom she is raising along with the girl’s 6-month-old baby. She said she hopes her story will help other parents keep their children safe from predators.

To protect the victim’s identity, all names in this article have been changed.

Kayla’s story began in 2006, when Jasmine, who is four years older than Kayla, befriended her at church. The girls’ age difference concerned Lauren, she said, but she didn’t interfere because the friendship was “under a spiritual guar­dianship, so to speak.”

Before long, however, Lauren noticed disturbing changes in Kayla’s behavior.

“[Jasmine] dressed in a real sexual way, and I noticed [Kayla] started picking this up too,” Lauren said.

That wasn’t all. “Her language started changing, she started using more slang and swear words, talking street lingo. And she started being defiant towards me and rude,” Lauren said. “She’d go into rages, she’d throw things, she’d beat on walls. I couldn’t understand where these rages were coming from.”

Kayla’s life hadn’t been perfect. Her father was absent. Her mother, who died when Kayla was 12, was a drug addict. At times Kayla rebelled, but never before had she been violent, Lauren said.

One day, Kayla told Lauren that Jasmine wanted her to steal thong underwear from a Target store. “And she said I have to have sex, too,” the 10-year-old disclosed to her grandmother.

“I was just shocked,” Lauren said. When she asked Kayla how Jasmine had tried to convince her to do things that Lauren had taught her were wrong, Kayla replied: “She said it’s OK to steal because the grown-ups in this society have stolen our future anyway. . . . And, she said that most girls have already had sex by the time they’re my age.”

‘The game’

The average age at which girls first become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14, according to a 2001 national study. But many traffickers begin “grooming,” or gaining the trust of, their victims when they are even younger.

Instructional books that teach aspiring traffickers how to successfully groom a child for commercial sexual exploitation — referred to as “the game” — are widely available for purchase on the Internet.

In one such book, a pimp with a criminal record writes: “You’ll start to dress her, think for her, own her. If you and your victim are sexually active, slow it down. After sex, take her shopping for one item. Hair and/or nails is fine. She’ll develop a feeling of accomplishment. The shopping after a month will be replaced with cash. The love making turns into raw sex. She’ll start to crave the intimacy and be willing to get back into your good graces. After you have broken her spirit, she has no sense of self value.

“Now pimp, put a price tag on the item you have manufactured,” he adds.

Pimps target their victims at schools, recreation centers, parks, churches, shopping malls, on the Internet — anywhere children can be found.

Often it happens in communities where there is a lot of trust. Or, the trafficker is a family member or acquaintance of the child.

“Gradually,” Lauren explained, “they start teaching the children: ‘The adults in your life are your enemies; you shouldn’t listen to them. This is your new family.’”

Traffickers train older girls — like Jasmine, who was trafficked herself — to groom younger girls.

“The girls that are doing this grooming — and it usually is girls — are trying to get them into this life, saying it’s a great life,” Lauren said. “They work on them gradually, kind of like a pedo­phile does. And they don’t just groom the children; they groom the whole community” by presenting themselves in a positive light.

“Once you’re groomed, you’re blood in the water,” Lauren said. “You’re easy prey.”

Downward spiral

Lauren decided that Kayla wasn’t going to see Jas­mine anymore. She also began home schooling Kayla and taking her to a counselor. Despite Lauren’s efforts, however, Kayla continued to spiral out of control.

Lauren had no idea why her granddaughter remained so troubled — until one day she blurted out that she had been sexually assaulted at the house in the suburbs where she and Jasmine had gone for the children’s prayer service.

Kayla had believed she was attending a prayer service that day, she told her grandmother. But as soon as the girls stepped foot into the house, Jasmine snatched Kayla’s prayer book and tossed it over her shoulder.

Jasmine disappeared with an older boy into a bedroom. Another boy attempted to rape Kayla while shoving a pillow over her face to muffle her screams.

Lauren reported the incident to the police; however, no arrest was made in the case, she said. Often it can be difficult for police to gather enough evidence to arrest “johns” because victims are unwilling to cooperate in investigations. Fed­eral and state laws actually make it easier for police to arrest prostitutes, who are usually victims of sex traffickers.

Around the time Kayla revealed that she had been sexually assaulted, Lauren also discovered that she secretly had maintained contact with Jasmine, despite having lost her cell phone privileges. Kayla would sneak off to a nearby community center to call Jasmine on a pay phone, Lauren said. “It was like she had to check in with her.”

Missing child

At age 11, Kayla began attending her old school again. One day she didn’t come home.

“I went through the streets looking for her,” Lauren said. “I just went through hell.”

Six days later, police officers found her at a community center.

Kayla said a classmate had beaten her up, and then taken her home, where the girl’s mother forced her to sell drugs and have sex with strangers.

Other young girls were being prostituted there too, Kayla said.

After police, acting on a tip, questioned the woman, she arranged for her daughter to leave Kayla at the community center.

Movies and television tend to portray pimps as black men sporting flashy jewelry, driving fancy cars and hanging out on street corners. But in reality anyone can be a pimp. Often they’re women.

“Times have changed,” said Sgt. John Bandemer of the St. Paul Police Depart­ment. “There are way more female pimps right now than male pimps.”

Another time, Kayla took her dog for a walk and didn’t come home for five days.

Again, Lauren reported to police that she was missing. Eventually, Kayla called to ask Lauren to pick her up on a street corner several miles from their home.

Kayla had been with a girl she met when she had been kidnapped before. The girl’s mother, another trafficker, drove Kayla around to several houses, where she was repeatedly raped. One of the men who raped Kayla during that time is the father of her baby, Lauren said.

“[Kayla] was so violent after that,” Lauren added. “She had been totally reprogrammed. She was talking to police officers about the ‘great family’ she was with.”

Traumatic bonding

Traffickers apply a potent mix of loving care alternated with violence, threats and dehumanizing behavior to control victims like Kayla.

They offer a false sense of security and love to establish a “trauma bond” with victims, according to Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization in Washington state that works to prevent sex trafficking.

Trauma bonds are similar to Stockholm Syndrome, a psychological response where hostages become attached to the perpetrators and later defend them, a report from the organization explains.

One expert declared traffickers “the most brilliant child psychologists on the planet.”

When Kayla was seven months pregnant, she disappeared again. “I just had this horrible feeling,” Lauren said.

The next day, Kayla asked Lauren to pick her up at an apartment building. During the drive home, Kayla told Lauren she had been with “a bunch of pimps.” One of them wanted to be her boyfriend, she added. She said he had taken her shopping and bought her lingerie from Victoria’s Secret.

Then Kayla told Lauren she was going to move in with him.

At home, when Lauren blocked the door to prevent Kayla from leaving, she yanked Lauren’s hair, hurling her to the floor. Lauren raced to a neighbor’s house to call the police, who arrested Kayla for assault. “It might have saved her life,” Lauren said.

Later, Lauren learned that the pimp who wanted to be Kayla’s “boyfriend” controlled a massive interstate trafficking network.

Pimps often pose as a child’s “boy­friend,” building a romantic relationship to secure the child’s trust and allegiance, even after the relationship changes into one of violence, torture and abuse, according to Shared Hope International.

All children are at risk

To many, Kayla’s story might seem extraordinary. But it’s a story that plays out day after day in cities and suburbs throughout the United States. And it can happen to any child, regardless of socio-economic background or ethnicity, said Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society. The St. Paul organization provides legal and other assistance to sex trafficking victims, including Kay­la.

“I’ve read a lot that these girls come from bad homes and they’re runaways,” Lauren said. “This isn’t a bad home. [Kayla] has had some issues in her life, her mother was a drug addict, but she’s been given nothing but love from me. I wasn’t a bad parent.”

Despite the trauma and abuse Kayla has experienced, Miller said she holds hope for Kayla’s future. Since October, Kayla has been receiving treatment at a residential center for girls with emotional and behavioral problems.

Parents need to educate children about the dangers of sex trafficking before it’s too late, Joy Friedman of the St. Paul organization Breaking Free said at a June forum on human trafficking. Friedman herself was a sex trafficking victim.

“We need parents to get involved,” Friedman said. “We need you to speak up and say you want [sex trafficking education] in your school so your kids can learn the facts that suburban life is not this shelter box. You do not get exempt because you live out in the suburbs and your mom drives a Mercedes and you have a wealthy background and you were raised right and you went to church. . . .

“Traffickers don’t care who you are,” she added. “Like they say: ‘8 to 80, blind, crippled or crazy, you’re still sellable. Because all we need are your parts.’”

Warning signs of child sex trafficking» Truancy
» Declining grades
» Delinquency
» Curfew violations
» Running away from home
» Signs of violence and/or psychological trauma
» Underage drinking or drug use
» Unaccounted for time
» Unusual or secretive cell phone or computer usage

Look beneath the surface when a child experiences any of these indicators. Closely monitor computer usage, get to know the child’s friends, and beware of gifts from strangers.

Tips provided by Linda Miller, executive director of Civil Society. Civil Society is a St. Paul organization that provides legal and other services to victims of human trafficking.

For information, visit To report a possible case of human trafficking, call (651) 291-8810.

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