A Criminal Commodity
Behind the Growth of Human Trafficking are its Many Victims
Melissa was in her early 20s and had already been abusing drugs for nearly a decade. For a few years, she was even homeless. She did have a car, one of her few possessions. “I never had money to pay for gas,” she says. “I would let drug dealers use my car and pay me with drugs.” One day, a drug dealer picked up two girls in her car intending to sell them crack cocaine. “For some reason, I decided to kick that drug dealer out of my car and [go with] these two women. I guess I was really naive to trafficking and prostitution,” says Melissa, who isn’t using her real name for this story. “They told me they had someone who put them in a hotel for free and had all the free drugs and alcohol you could imagine. For me, that was enough to get me to go to this hotel. I went and he had all the drugs that I had ever wanted.”
The man turned out to be a pimp and, four or five days into Melissa’s “free” drug-and-alcohol binge at the hotel, he told her she owed him a large amount of money and needed to work for him. It was a debt she could never pay off.
Human trafficking—for sex or labor—is a crime that happens in a shroud of secrecy. Survivors often don’t self-identify and many in the community simply don’t accept the crime occurs in their area. “We need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that it doesn’t happen here,” says Inga James, president and executive director of Heartly House, the Frederick County nonprofit organization that provides services to victims and survivors of sexual and domestic violence. “It certainly does and the police are seeing it more and more.”
Jeanne Allert, founder and executive director for The Samaritan Women, a national Christian organization based in Baltimore providing restorative care to survivors, says trafficking is a migrating crime that follows the money. “We’ve had girls who were flown out to Vegas and they were moved back to Northern Virginia because the money is better in Northern Virginia than it is in Vegas,” she says. “… At the end of the day, it’s about economics. It’s a crime about money.”
Maryland State Police Cpl. Chris Heid of the Child Recovery Unit says there is definitely trafficking taking place in Frederick County, thanks to its proximity to major highways and metropolitan areas. “We get girls coming from all over the country that come to Maryland, not just Baltimore, but Maryland in general,” Heid says. “They say they can make so much more money in Maryland than they do out in California. We get a ton of girls from California. We get a ton of girls from Nevada.”
“A drug dealer sells you heroin,” he says. “Well, now [he has] to go out and buy more heroin. With a girl, [he] can use that girl to have sex with a guy and just reuses the same girl. [He doesn’t] have to go out and replenish the product. It’s still there.”
Heid will often ask the pimps why they got into trafficking. Many used to be drug dealers but moved to trafficking because they see it as an easier crime with better money. “A drug dealer sells you heroin,” he says. “Well, now [he has] to go out and buy more heroin. With a girl, [he] can use that girl to have sex with a guy and just reuses the same girl. [He doesn’t] have to go out and replenish the product. It’s still there.”
The best gauge of trafficking in an area, according to Heid, is looking at free classified adult online ads. Going onto one site and typing in Frederick, Heid usually finds about 15 to 20 ads. Sometimes, the same ads will be posted in multiple cities, noting prostitutes are just a short drive away.
CRIME OF MANIPULATION
Heid joined the Child Recovery Unit in 2011 when trafficking was mainly seen as people brought into the United States from other countries for free or cheap labor, but in reality most of the cases he sees involve prostitution, involving both children and adults. The unit has been traveling across the state conducting educational training for law enforcement agencies and other organizations about trafficking. The goal is to raise awareness on how to help survivors by recognizing them more as victims than suspects in a crime.
Unit members schedule as many “dates” with victims as they can with three goals in mind: recover juveniles, help as many women as they can and arrest pimps. “In that order,” Heid says. “… We will try our best to offer assistance. A lot of times it is really difficult because [the victims] are resistant. I would say at least eight out of 10 maybe nine out of 10 girls have a pimp or have had one, so there is a wall we have to break through. Until they close that door behind us when we leave, they still think they are getting arrested. That is just the way police have always treated them. These girls are scared to report crimes.”
In his six years in the unit, he says he can probably count on one hand the number of females who actually wanted to be involved in trafficking. “She’s got a nice car out front. She’s got a nice purse. All these things that money buys,” he says. “[But] 99 times out of 100, that is not the case. These girls have nothing. It is very clear when you go in these girls are making money for another man.”
Traffickers often target young girls or women they perceive with low self-esteem. Most don’t use physical violence but manipulation as their main weapon of control. Allert says starvation is the number-one form of coercion she sees. “It’s an incredibly effective strategy for gaining compliance and it is cheap,” she says. “It is very expensive to keep her in heroin but it is very easy and very inexpensive to just starve her. What that means is that when she comes into our environment [at The Samaritan Women], she is so acclimated to food instability that one of the things that we have to focus on in the beginning is letting her know, ‘You will eat every day. You will eat three times a day. There is always something here.’ Most of our women have a lot of food acting-out behaviors because they don’t trust that. They don’t trust that they will be able to eat. I think that that so speaks into under-standing the trauma and understanding how the industry works and then creating an environment so that at no time does she feel as though that is going to be a manipulation.”
In most cases handled by Heid, the girls think their pimps are their boyfriend and they have to traffic in order to stay with him. “Every single girl is different, obviously, but they all have that same denominator where they don’t think they are pretty and this guy pays attention to them,” Heid says.
A typical conversation between Heid and a trafficking survivor goes like this:
Heid: Where is your money?
Victim: My boyfriend has it. He buys me whatever I want. If I want my hair done, I get my hair done, my nails, whatever. He will do all that.
Heid: OK, but what is his job? How is he making money to buy you this stuff?
Trafficking was a part of Melissa’s life for about nine to 10 months—a relatively short time compared to other survivors, but a period she says was long enough. Constantly being on the move was common, changing hotel rooms almost every 24 hours. “I was medicated on drugs, so I didn’t realize how scared I was,” she recalls. “It was very scary.”
“I was medicated on drugs, so I didn’t realize how scared I was,” she recalls. “It was very scary.”
She wound up leaving her first pimp for a new one who “rescued” her from him. “I truly believed that the new pimp cared for me and loved me and wanted the best for me,” she says. Sixty percent of the money Melissa earned went to her pimp while she got to keep the rest, which went straight to fueling her drug addiction. “I was choosing drugs over food,” she recalls. Melissa was down to 92 pounds with half of her hair falling out due to malnourishment.
Over the months, police arrested her numerous times for various offenses. One night, she made a date with an undercover FBI agent and Heid. Instead of arresting Melissa, they talked to her. They tried to send her to a shelter, but she wanted no part of it. She told them she had been kicked out of her parents’ home, so they told her to go back. They even followed her there. She doesn’t know what they said to her mom, whom she had not seen in months. It didn’t matter because she had no plans to stay. Because the seasons were changing, she grabbed some old clothes from a closet and left.
Melissa would be arrested a few more times. Four days before Christmas 2015, it finally clicked what she was doing to herself. “I looked in the mirror as I was smoking crack cocaine and for some reason it was like clouds just separated and I really could see myself for what I looked like and for who I had become and I called my mom asking if I could come home,” she says. “I went to rehab the next day.”
NO TWO CASES THE SAME
Allert was working in outreach to women involved in prostitution on the streets of Baltimore more than a decade ago when she first heard about trafficking. Through her interactions, she would hear their stories and begin to understand their trajectories. “I started to just get angry about it and say, ‘Where is help for these girls? Who is doing anything about this?’ And kept coming up empty-handed.”
In 2007, she quit her job and started The Samaritan Women. Referrals come from authorities from 20 states across the country. Once accepted, the survivor enters a 90-day period of stabilization in a structured, undisclosed location. A second phase is a restorative program in Baltimore, which can last up to two years where survivors focus on academic, vocational, social and rebuilding skills. The nonprofit recently added a two-year graduate program for supportive independent living. “The ultimate goal is social entry with healthy relationship and decision making,” Allert says. “Certainly we want them to be able to be as self-sufficient as they are able, but that is so subjective from person to person. … I think one of the myths about this is that you are just going to somehow make them better and then they are just going to jump into ‘normal life’ and really it is more a matter of living a lifetime of recovery. For each woman it is going to look a little different.”
Kim, whose real name has also been changed, was 24 when she came to The Samaritan Women. She had gotten into a lot of trouble in high school and her parents were fed up. They sent her to a program to straighten up but she walked out and got into a relationship with a guy who offered her a place to stay and work. “It was OK for a while, but one day he told me that now I had to start bringing in some real money,” she says. He took her to a club and told her she would have to dance. “I didn’t have much of a choice,” Kim says. “He was my boyfriend. My place to stay. He said it wasn’t going to be any big deal. I guess I believed him at the time.”
Eventually she became an escort. Trafficking, mostly along the West Coast, was a part of her life for six years. Her trafficking ended when her boyfriend beat her so badly she required a hospital stay. “The detective that came said I was about dead and so he got me to a safe house.” She was later sent to The Samaritan Women. “The biggest thing was to get me out of where I was and to get me in a place where people really do care about me. I’ve been able to go to college, go to church, get a job and even get my relationship with my parents back.”
“It was just normal to me. Us kids kinda ran the streets. I met my pimp when I was 13. I got pregnant and that pretty much meant I was with him.”
Rachel’s story is very different because she grew up in trafficking. “My mom was turning tricks in the house since as long as I can remember,” says Rachel, also a pseudonym. “It was just normal to me. Us kids kinda ran the streets. I met my pimp when I was 13. I got pregnant and that pretty much meant I was with him.”
They traveled all the time. “We were never not moving,” she says. “I think I’ve been in every state in the country but most of the time I wasn’t sure where I was. He just told us we were moving and so we moved.” Trafficking ended for her when her pimp went to jail. “There I was with nothing. I didn’t have any skills. I never had [a] real job. … What was I going to do? He did everything. We were like his robots or something.”
Rachel went to rehab and they contacted The Samaritan Women. “I think most people can’t understand that I don’t even know what ‘normal’ is,” she says. The Samaritan Women “has helped me in a lot of ways, mostly being patient with me as I learn who I am. I never did that as a kid. Now I’m almost 30 and I have to figure out how to do me.”
Allert says she is driven to help by her faith. “I’ve wanted to quit a million times,” she says. “It’s just incredibly hard and discouraging. [Faith] is my anchor for sure. I think seeing the injustice [that] here are girls that are in the wealthiest free nation in the world and they are enslaved. The basic injustice of that is what has fueled me the whole time.”
She chose to make her nonprofit faith-based because it helps to better understand how these women are truly wounded. Allert says 96 percent of the women her organization serves are also childhood sexual assault victims. Spirituality comes into play because the assaults are about betrayal—someone who was supposed to protect them didn’t. “What we see is we see a lot of shame,” she says. “The way we even look at the issue of prostitution is very shaming. We blame the prostitute instead of looking at the perpe-trator. I think part of a spiritual healing that needs to happen is, ‘How do you deal with shame?’ Many of them feel an unworthiness. I hear all the time,‘How could I ever imagine having what normal people have? A marriage? Children? Who would ever want me? I’m damaged.’”
HELP IN FREDERICK
Trafficking has become such a local concern that Heartly House hired Heather Moreno as its human trafficking outreach coordinator earlier this year. “We saw a need,” James says.
“We have had individuals who we believe to have been trafficked come to use our services and we realized that we didn’t have the expertise we needed, so we hired someone with that expertise.”
A licensed social worker, Moreno spent a year in Thailand working with inter-national service agencies helping trafficking survivors. Four years after coming back to Frederick, she took on the part-time role at Heartly House and is involved with the human trafficking task force created by the Frederick County Council last year to better understand the scope of the issue and assess how organizations respond to survivor needs. Already the group is discovering a need for more training for first-responders and others who may come into contact with a survivor, including being able to look for indicators of trafficking. Some of the questions they now ask possible victims include: Do you have a debt that you can’t pay off? Are you keeping the wages that you earn or are they going to somebody else? Are you forced to work or do something you don’t want to do?
“We are seeing more and more [trafficking survivors at Heartly House] and I think that the more training we get on how to ask the right questions, the more we are going to see because when people call into our hotline—they are not going to necessarily voluntarily offer that information,” James says. “We have to know the right questions to ask and we are in the process of getting that training right now.”
Frederick resident Brianna Geeslin was around 16 years old when she first heard of human trafficking after reading books by Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission. She had done aid trips to Nicaragua beginning at the age of 8 so she says she wasn’t the kid who lived in a bubble, but she was shocked by what she read. “I remember specifically thinking to myself, ‘Why was I, Brianna, born into such a different scenario than these girls I am reading about?’” she asks. “The only difference being the lottery of life and I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to make their voices and stories known.”
A graduate of fashion at the Academy of Art University, Geeslin came up with the idea in 2013 for Dashing Emancipation, a fashion show dedicated to raising awareness about human trafficking. “I wanted a way that I could combine my love for fashion and the arts with this grave injustice that daily pulled at my heart,” she says. “Fashion became this medium to bring light to a very heavy subject that, at the time, many people had never heard of.”
Anne Warnock, co-owner and manager of Sam Wong Salon, has volunteered with the event since its inception. She became dedicated to helping trafficking survivors after she moved to Frederick while researching products to use at her husband’s salon. “How could I represent an organic business and say I am eco-friendly and I care about the environment, but what about the communities I am taking all my
Warnock and Geeslin decided to join forces. “I was passionate about it,” Warnock says. “She was passionate about it. We were like, ‘Let’s get together and grow this awareness of what is happening in the country and in the world.’ It was two like-minded people brought together by a mutual friend.” The May fashion event, in its fifth year, has raised nearly $20,000 for Love146, a U.S.-based international human rights nonprofit organization that helps children who have been sold into sex trafficking and works in education and prevention. Geeslin says the fashion event has “made me very aware of the truly special place Frederick is and the community that calls this place home,” she says. “Dashing would be nothing without all these exceptional people coming together. Every event I am in awe. Truly.”
“I DIDN’T WANT TO GIVE UP”
Melissa did not get sober immediately after that phone call to her mom nearly two years ago. She went through four treatment centers, finally finding success in one program geared toward addressing trauma. She dug deep working on the trafficking, drugs and abuse. “I was really fortunate my family supported me at that time and never gave up on me,” she says.
“There was some sort of light at the end of the tunnel that I didn’t want to give up ’cause I knew that I would die,”
After treatment, she went to a sober-living house for women and later a 12-step fellowship while continuing to work on the traumas from her past. Yes, there were days she wanted to quit recovery, get high and reach out to her pimp, but one thing stopped her. “There was some sort of light at the end of the tunnel that I didn’t want to give up ’cause I knew that I would die,” she says. “At that point, I didn’t want to live but I didn’t want to die, so somehow I held on to that hope. … I just haven’t given up. Life is not all great but it is a lot better than it used to be.”
She still keeps in contact with Heid, even getting dinner together sometimes just to talk. “I consider him and the FBI agent as my guardian angels,” she says. “… They never gave up on me. They continued to try to save me from the situation I was in. They came to visit me in rehab, in jail. It almost brings me to tears how they never gave up on me.”
Melissa now has a job and is financially independent. She is renting a house, has a boyfriend and a dog. “I know my story is not very common,” she says. “It’s not very normal to get out of that situation.” Melissa wants other survivors to know that getting out of trafficking is possible. “I know for me I always thought people were lying when they said they were happy,” she says. “I thought they were on drugs. I thought my pimp and his right-hand man were always going to come get me but I just never gave up. I continued to fight and be honest. It is worth it. For women out there, you can get the help you need if you don’t give up.”