When a man she trusted began trafficking out Theresa Flores at hotels around Detroit, the 15-year-old could only focus on when it would all be over and she could wash off with soap and water.
“Many times we think of the girl as just a prostitute or someone on the street doing it for the drugs,” said Flores, of her experience with sex trafficking. “For many years I didn’t know what to call what happened to me, and I had a hard time healing.”
Having broken away from the industry, Flores is now working to raise awareness and prevent other women from being trafficked like she was.
On Saturday, Flores’ group Save Our Adolescents From Prostitution, packaged and distributed 130,000 bars of soap with the number for the trafficking awareness hotline on them to 70 hotels and motels in Metro Detroit ahead of the North American International Auto Show. Trafficking can get a boost from large-scale events where many out-of-towners come in to stay at hotels and motels, Flores said.
Flores said the group doesn’t call the hotels and motels before members arrive to avoid being rejected outright. The hotel-size bars of soap have a label attached that reads, “Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do? Have you you been threatened if you try to leave? Have you witnessed young girls being prostituted? If so, please call: 1-888-3737-888.”
Later this month the group will hold the same event in New Jersey, ahead of the Super Bowl, often cited as a prime time for sex trafficking and prostitution. The state has been planning ways to crack down on it in the weeks before and after the big game.
Nationally, leaders are starting to take notice of the problem of human trafficking.
President Barack Obama declared Saturday the National Human Trafficking Day of Awareness, which includes labor and sex trafficking.
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 2,515 incidents of human trafficking were recorded nationwide between January 2008 and June 2010.
The federal Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement Division cited 29 Michigan human trafficking cases in 2011. An FBI national sweep called “Operation Cross Country” in July recovered 10 children and made 18 arrests in Metro Detroit.
Attorney General Bill Schuette says he launched the Michigan Commission on Human Trafficking task force last March in an effort to get a better understanding of the extent of trafficking in Michigan and ways to improve laws, provide victim support and raise awareness of the signs of trafficking.
“I approach it this way: Even if it’s one young woman who is being held against her will in a situation of forced employment or, even worse, prostitution, if we can save one young woman’s life, I call that success,” said Schuette.
Victims are criminalized
It is impossible to get an accurate picture of the number of people being trafficked, says Bridgette Carr, a law professor and the director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan.
“Right now, we so often criminalize victims,” said Carr, whose clinic has been providing free legal aid to trafficked citizens and foreign nationals since 2009. “We can’t have a count of victims if we are arresting them and treating them as criminals.”
Carr says the law must change to allow victims to defend themselves and provide a “safe harbor” for those who are coerced into committing crimes or doing drugs or other illegal activities by their traffickers.
There are bills in the state Legislature to change laws related to trafficking, many of which were spearheaded by state Sen. Judy Emmons.
“It’s a human issue. It’s an issue regarding humanity, the right to choose and the right to dignity,” said the Ionia Republican.
There are 19 bills in the state Senate that deal with the “safe harbor” issue, as well as expanding housing for victims rescued from traffickers and toughening laws to make soliciting of minors by “johns” a five-year felony. House members also are working on legislation.
Issues go beyond the law
But human trafficking involves issues that go beyond the law, says Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force at Michigan State University. Victims “have hardly any support system. … They need to have some kind of long-term counseling available,” White said.
Angela Aufdemberge is the president and CEO of Vista Maria, a mental health treatment facility and residential program in Dearborn Heights for 11- to 18-year-old abuse victims.
Getting out of trafficking can be hard for girls, she says, particularly if they were introduced at a young age, because it’s all they know.
“You don’t understand what a healthy relationship looks and feels like,” said Aufdemberge. “When the victim tries to leave, (the pimps) tell them they will turn them in ... and that’s another form of coercion.”
There is also a stigma attached to those who are trafficked says Leslie King, who was victimized as a 15-year-old by a man she thought was her boyfriend.
“This guy picked me up, told me I was beautiful, wined and dined me,” she said. “He made me feel special, like his girlfriend. Only to take advantage of me. I owed him after that.”
King was involved in the sex trade even after she escaped from the man because she remained addicted to the drugs he had forced her to take. When she was 36, she tried to commit suicide.
“When God didn’t take me, I decided there had to be another way,” said the Grand Rapids resident.
King got sober and eventually founded Sacred Beginnings, a support center that has served more than 400 trafficked children since it was opened in 2005.
King, 49, says state officials can only do so much unless the public’sperception changes.
“These women, they’re human beings with feelings. These women are somebody’s mother, daughter, sister, friend,” she said. “The more you stigmatize these women, the further you push them into the darkness.
“You’re no better than the person who is putting them out on the corner.”