“My life before I met you all was like a maze.”
–Lisa, sex trafficking survivor, referred to Rahab’s Daughters by the FBI.
A common myth about trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children is that “It doesn’t happen here.”
Like many children at her middle school, Lisa was an average student, working hard for her grades. Her favorite subjects centered around creative expression; she is a naturally gifted singer and poet.
The affluent Chicago suburb where she was born and raised is nicknamed “Paradise” because of its lakefront location, top-ranking university, and peaceful lifestyle, only minutes from Chicago’s bustle and culture.
Lisa’s idyllic surroundings, however, hid a less-than-perfect home life with mother and twin sister. Mom married men looking for a short cut to their green cards.
Husband number four raped Lisa.
Lisa was 13 years old.
When she told her mother, Lisa’s mom kicked her out of the house. “You’re messing with my money,” she dismissed her. Lisa knew nothing of the streets, but in less than 24 hours she had been raped, betrayed and made homeless, at 13.
According to this Chicago Fox News article, there were only 300 shelter beds for the 22,827 Chicago Public Schools students who were homeless, 2,622 of whom were alone, without family, in 2014. “When you’re homeless, there are only a few places where you can sleep on the street, and they’re always in the worst neighborhoods,” says Sam Wijeyakumar, founder of Rahab’s Daughters.
Alone and scared, she ended up living on a corner in front of a fast food chain restaurant. In one of Chicago’s most dangerous areas, Lisa was far from her suburban home. “[Traffickers] will have a spotter, in a mall or fast food places like Burger King and McDonald’s,” warns Detective Ludwik Bartkiewicz of Boston PD’s Human Trafficking Unit, in the documentary I Am Jane Doe.
A man in his late 30’s began buying Lisa food every day, slowly gaining her trust. “Let me buy you some clothes,” Robert offered. Then he took her to get her nails done. Little by little, Robert groomed her. Finally, he invited Lisa to live with him. “You’ll be safe,” Robert promised. “I’ll take care of you.”
An outsider watching Lisa’s story unfold might observe that if Robert truly had Lisa’s welfare at heart, he would have asked about her parents, or taken her to the police or a shelter. But Lisa’s “good Samaritan” did none of those things, and she picked up on none of the red flags.
Years ago, when I worked a brief stint as a bank teller, the trainer said matter-of-factly, “It’s not a matter of if your branch will be robbed, it’s when.” And then she said something I never forgot: “Desperate people do desperate things.”
Lisa was desperate. With no home to return to, abandoned by her mother, Lisa turned toward the only person who seemed to love her. She moved in with Robert.
“Watch out for the guy that’s talking about he’s gonna solve all your problems,” says Homer King in I Am Jane Doe. A former trafficker, King now counsels youth on when and of what to beware. Predators seduce their young victims through “love and charm,” King says. “And [he controls them with] violence. And fear.”
For the first couple months, Lisa lived with Robert without incident, even attending school. Then one day she came home to find the refrigerator padlocked.
“We have no food and I’ve run out of money. You’re going to have to pay me back for all I’ve done for you,” Robert insisted.
Lisa went into a tailspin. Afraid of losing her home and going hungry again, she also felt guilty. Robert had “saved” her, after all. To add to her confusion, Robert, once a father figure, had become her “boyfriend.” Lisa had grown to love and depend on her captor. “So, what do I do?” Lisa panicked.
“One of my friends is going to come over. Do whatever he says,” Robert instructed, “And he’ll give you money.” And that is how Robert turned the 13-year-old out.
Lisa’s story is not an uncommon one. Statistics have shown that housing instability, previous sexual assault or incest, and parental neglect or abuse, are all characteristics that increase the probability that a child will be sexually exploited.
In response to stories like Lisa’s, some people have objected, “She made a choice.”
Except: she’s a child, being expertly manipulated by a man 20+ years her senior for whom this is his full-time business.
Except: when a child lacks a stable family or strong community, she feels utterly alone and terrified.
Except: she was threatened with loss of home and food. Coerced.
To her 13-year-old mind, Lisa had no choice.
Like an animal trapped in a maze, she couldn’t see a way out.
Lisa’s story could have been prevented—and it’s far from over.
With education, children can learn how to spot, avoid, and repel predators. With support and community, they turn to someone safe in troubled times—and know that they’re never alone.
With the proper training, school staff, medical personnel and law enforcement can learn to watch for signs that a child is at risk—so they spot the most vulnerable children before the trafficker does.
With raised awareness, each one of us can learn to identify when trafficking is happening—and what to do to about it.
Rahab’s Daughters provides community outreach and training, and rescues, rehabilitates and reintegrates trafficked youth, as we are doing for Lisa and others like her.
You can help. Click here to choose between a one-time or monthly donation to take children like Lisa off the streets, keep them safe, and work to end trafficking once and for all.
Please note: As is the case with many rescued children, Lisa’s life and freedom remain in danger, so to protect her safety, names and identifying details have been changed.
p.s. Here’s the trailer for the documentary mentioned in today’s article, I Am Jane Doe, streaming now on Netflix or available for rent on YouTube.