Sex trafficking in the USA hits close to home
by Yamiche Alcindor, USA TODAY Updated 6d 19h ago
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H. Darr Beiser, USA TODAY
Asia Graves, 24, is a survivor of human trafficking. She works for Fair Girls, a non-profit that helps human trafficking victims.
WASHINGTON -- Asia Graves looks straight ahead as she calmly recalls the night a man paid $200 on a Boston street to have sex with her.
She was 16, homeless, and desperate for food, shelter and stability. He was the first of dozens of men who would buy her thin cashew-colored body from a human trafficker who exploited her vulnerabilities and made her a prisoner for years.
"If we didn't call him daddy, he would slap us, beat us, choke us," said Graves, 24, of the man who organized the deals. "It's about love and thinking you're part of a family and a team. I couldn't leave because I thought he would kill me."
By day, she was a school girl who saw her family occasionally. At night, she became a slave to men who said they loved her and convinced her to trade her beauty for quick cash that they pocketed. Sold from Boston to Miami and back, Graves was one of thousands of young girls sexually exploited across the United States, often in plain sight.
A plague more commonly associated with other countries has been taking young victims in the United States, one by one. Though the scope of the problem remains uncertain -- no national statistics for the number of U.S. victims exist -- the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says at least 100,000 children across the country are trafficked each year.
On Tuesday, President Obama announced several new initiatives aimed at ending trafficking nationwide, including the first-ever assessment of the problem in this country and a $6 million grant to build solutions.
"When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family, or girls my daughters' ages run away from home and are lured -- that's slavery," Obama said in an address to the Clinton Global Initiative. "It's barbaric, it's evil, and it has no place in a civilized world."
Schools in at least six states and the District of Columbia have turned their focus to human trafficking, launching all-day workshops for staff members, classroom lessons for students and outreach campaigns to speak with parents about the dangers American children face.
The efforts by high school and middle-school officials in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Connecticut, Oregon, Wisconsin, California and Florida come as experts say criminals have turned to classrooms and social media sites to recruit students into forced domestic sex and labor rings.
"They are as horrific and brutal and vile as any criminal cases we see," said Neil MacBride, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "If it can happen in affluent Fairfax County, it can happen anywhere."
Across the nation, the stories arrive with varying imprints of the callousness and depravity of the sex traffickers. One girl was sold during a sleepover, handed over by her classmate's father. Another slept with clients during her school lunch breaks. A third was choked by her "boyfriend," then forced to have sex with 14 men in one night.
Young people at the fringes of school, runaways looking for someone to care and previously abused victims fall into the traps of traffickers who often pretend to love them.
The perpetrators -- increasingly younger -- can be other students or gang members who manipulate victims' weaknesses during recess or after school, law enforcement officials say. They often bait victims by telling them they will be beautiful strippers or escorts but later ply them with drugs -- ecstasy pills, cocaine, marijuana and the like -- and force them into sex schemes.
'Too pretty to stay outside'
For Graves, who grew up in inner city Boston, her troubles began early in life. Her mother was addicted to drugs, and a dealer molested Graves as a little girl. She bounced between living with an aunt, grandparents, an alcoholic father and a sometimes-recovering mother.
At 16, Graves was homeless and had been wearing the same clothes for months when a group of girls who had dropped out of school took her in and cleaned her up. "They said they were escorts and that they made $2,000 a night," she recalled. "I figured if I go out one night, I'll never have to do it again."
She followed the girls to the "track," a term used for streets where prostitutes gather. When a terrified Graves only brought back $40 from begging, the girls abandoned her. The next night, she says she was alone on a corner in Boston during a snowstorm when her first trafficker picked her up.
"He said I was too pretty to stay outside, so I ended up going home with him because he offered me a place to sleep and clothes to put on," she said.
The man said he wanted to take care of her but that she would have to earn her keep. "He showed me the ropes," she said. "How much to charge for sex" and other sex acts.
Then came the violence. Her attempts to leave were met with brute force. "He punched me," she said. "He stripped me down naked and beat me."
In one incident, her captor took a potato peeler to her face then raped her as she bled. Years later, the light scar remains just below her left eye. Other violent episodes left her with eight broken teeth, two broken ankles and a V-shaped stab wound just below her belly button.
She stayed, however, and found comfort in other girls -- called "wife in-laws" -- who went to area schools, got their hair and nails done together and then worked the streets for the same man. "You think what you're doing is right when you're in that lifestyle," Graves said. "You drink alcohol to ease the stress. Red Bulls kept you awake, and cigarettes kept you from being hungry."
For two years, she was sold from tormentor to tormentor, forced to sleep with men in cities like New York, Atlanta; Philadelphia; Atlantic City; Miami. She posed for Craigslist and Backpage.com ads and set up "dates" six days a week for up to $2,500 a night.
A captive Graves did what experts say others have done: she recruited others. "We'd go to malls, schools, group homes, bus stations and look for girls who were by themselves or looked very vulnerable," she said.
For some of the time, Graves herself remained in high school, attending classes sporadically in boy shorts, small tank tops and worn heels.
"In the schools, they thought I just dressed provocatively," Graves said of the teachers and staff who missed chances to help her. "Now, people are actually understanding that these girls are victims."
Raising 'the compassion bar'
Graves' journey eventually led her to work for Fair Girls, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C. One of several organizations working to educate schools and students about the issue, Fair Girls has designed a four-hour lesson plan called "Tell Your Friends" for high school and middle-school students.
"I want to raise the compassion bar so that any girl who becomes a victim is never seen as a girl who asked for it," said Andrea Powell, executive director of Fair Girls, which launched the curriculum in 2008.
The model reaches more than a 1,000 students a year at a dozen schools in Washington, as well as young people in homeless shelters and foster homes.
Polaris Project, a non-profit that runs the national human trafficking hotline, has received 58,911 calls since December 2007. At least 2,081 callers have identified themselves as a student and 341 callers identified as school staff members.
Globally, the International Labor Organization estimates that about 20.9 million people are trafficked and that 22% of them are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
The growing number of human trafficking cases handled by U.S. Attorney MacBride's office -- 14 in the last 18 months -- reflects the domestic trend, experts say.
In one case this year, Justin Strom, 26, a gang member in Fairfax County, Va., was sentenced to 40 years in prison for forcing girls from local high schools and a juvenile detention center to work as prostitutes.
The familiar echo of these crimes reaches the other side of the country, too, says Alessandra Serano, an Assistant United States Attorney for the Southern District of California.
"You can sell drugs once," she said. "You can sell a girl thousands of times."
A search of Backpage.com's adult section reveals thousands of ads for young women claiming to be escorts, strippers and massage therapists. The women in suggestive poses and little clothing offer good times for a price. "Multiple Females Multiple Hours." "Sexy White Chocolate." "Delicious Petite Blonde Barbie."
Advocates such as Powell say such websites depict modern-day slavery. She scrolls through them often looking for new girls to help. Fair Girls works directly with victims to find them jobs, housing, lawyers and medical resources. They've gone from serving 20 girls in 2011 to 50 this year -- all with a limited budget.
"We just don't have the resources for all these girls," Powell said. "But we can't turn them away."
In classroom lessons, staffers define trafficking, show a video about experiences and ask students to react. As 50 Cent's "P-I-M-P" song thumps in the background, students are asked what they think traffickers and victims look like. They then talk about abusive relationships and how to avoid them, and they are presented with resources they can use if they are being exploited.
A few weeks ago, at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, nine girls sat around a long wooden table talking about trafficking with Graves, who teaches at 12 public high schools in the District of Columbia.
"If you want attention and you see that you're getting it, you just follow your feelings," senior Araceli Figueroa, 17, said. "It's sad."
Graves knows. She can still see the face of a fellow victim whose body she identified. The girl's body had been discarded in an Atlantic City drain pipe.
In Connecticut, Love146, another non-profit focused on trafficking, teaches Fair Girls' "Tell Your Friends" curriculum in 11 schools, said Nicole von Oy, the group's training and outreach coordinator. They've talked to more than 4,000 students in schools, shelters and other places using that curriculum and other initiatives.
Others hope to spread the message to more students.
Since 2006, the U.S. Department of Education has focused on the problem and worked on training with several schools, said Eve Birge, who works for the agency's Office of Safe and Healthy Students.
In doing so, they collaborate with the White House, the FBI, the Departments of State and Justice as well as other agencies.
"For a lot of these kids, school can be the only safe place they have," Birge said.
With their help, schools tell teachers, social workers, counselors and others to look for the signs of a possible victim:
-- Multiple unexplained absences from school.
-- A repeated tendency to run away from home.
-- Frequent travel to other cities.
-- Older boyfriends or girlfriends.
-- A sudden ability to have expensive items.
-- Appearing depressed or suffering physical injuries.
Escaping the 'invisible chains'
For Katariina Rosenblatt, who spoke at a recent training session for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the issue is personal.
Twenty-seven years ago, traffickers in Miami tried to sell her virginity for $505. She was only 13. She ran from them then but fell victim six months later when a classmate's father sold her during a sleepover.
From ages 14 to 17, she says she was drugged, abused, raped and trafficked by several people including that father's friends, a neighbor who ran a trafficking house, and man who offered her a role in a movie.
Rosenblatt, now an adjunct professor at Trinity International University, runs a non-profit called There Is H.O.P.E. For Me.
"They give you money, drugs and a fun time, but in the end they want your dignity and your self-respect," she said. "It's invisible chains that these kids are tied with."
Graves understands. At Fair Girls, she works directly with victims and unwinds her long, painful story with the hope that it will lift these tortured souls.
After she suffered a miscarriage during a beating in July 2005, Graves finally went to police and worked with the FBI and state attorneys to get six men charged with human trafficking. All pleaded guilty or were convicted of conspiracy or sex trafficking. They were sentenced to four to 25 years in prison.
The agencies helped her get housing, and officers even today check on the now poised young professional. She's earning a political science degree and says she wants to start a non-profit much like Fair Girls.
One recent afternoon, her low hazel eyes pierced through a busy Washington street and focused on a young woman's face she recognized from Backpage.com. She paused.
Graves sees trafficking when no one else can.
"My main priority is making sure no child has to go through what I went through," she said. "If I can save one girl from not going into it or one girl who has already been in from going back, then I'm already doing more than enough."
(Polaris Project's national trafficking hotline number: 1-888-373-7888 )