Children and Sex Trafficking: One Girl’s Story

Due to the graphic nature of this story, sensitive individuals should take caution. The truth is sometimes painful, but this story must be told.
January was Human Trafficking Awareness Month. For the first time in Mississippi, citizens were able to attend a seminar hosted by the state-wide organization, Advocates For Freedom. The main topic of this seminar was trafficking in minors. Guest speakers included Audrey Roofeh of the Polaris Project; Heather Wagner, Special Assistant to the MS Attorney General, and Ellaine Carr, a local Immigration Attorney. One day after the conference, a local woman stepped up to tell her story. She was a child victim of sex trafficking in South Mississippi.
There are two main types of trafficking: labor and sex. There is no doubt that Mississippi has seen its share of labor trafficking incidents. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed a lawsuit in 2011 against Signal International in Pascagoula. The lawsuit alleges that the company housed foreign workers in unsanitary cramped quarters with an inadequate supply of food, and withheld their documentation so that the workers could not leave without violating their H-2B Visas.
Also last year, a labor trafficking ring was discovered at Keesler Air Force Base. Three local contractors, Randall Weitzel, Edwood Brodtmann, Jr., and Agustin Arcadia pled guilty to the crime. It was then discovered that these men also used slave labor on the Dan M. Russell, Jr., U.S. Courthouse and Annex in Gulfport. The victims were housed at a rural plot of land owned by one of the contractors. When they were arrested, they abandoned the victims by leaving them with no transportation or documentation. He then began to use slave labor owned by one of his associates.
In September 2011, Michael V. Lombardi was indicted for the trafficking of foreign nationals at the Beau Rivage Casino, Aramark Corporation, Five Star Forestry of Hattiesburg, Southern Mississippi Pine Straw of Purvis, Royal Hospitality Services and US Opportunities LLC. The 3 count indictment states that the workers were recruited under false pretenses. The workers’ passports were confiscated, and some were forced to work for less than $3 per hour with unreasonably high production quotas, and many were made to live in a run-down trailer with no running water.
What many Mississippians may not be aware of, is the sex trade, especially the trafficking of children. With child pornography on the rise, and numerous arrests in the past few years, it’s important to recognize that children of all ages are the commodity bought and sold by pornographers. The state’s law states that children under the age of 16 cannot give consent to engage in sexual activity with an adult.
According to the US Department of State, it is estimated that nearly one million children are lured into prostitution every year in the United States. The average age of these children at the time they enter the illegal sex trade is twelve. Many come from broken homes while many are from loving and caring families. The statistics also show that the average child molester can have upwards of 400 victims over his/her lifetime.
The ugly truth is that American children are being exploited and abused in the most egregious manner, and unscrupulous people profit from their misery. Trafficking in children is only second to drug and weapons trafficking when it comes to the money being made. And unlike drugs or weapons, a child can be bought and sold several times. The children may be forced to have sex with as many as 20 customers a day.
The January seminar held at Steps Coalition in Biloxi painted a picture for attendees of the seriousness of minor sex trafficking. One young woman who came forward the day after the conference to share her story, can attest to the process by which a child is groomed and then exploited for sexual purposes. For this story, we will call this woman “April.” She was born and raised on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
By the age of seven, April had spent the better part of her childhood locked in a closet by her drug-addicted mother. She was permitted to leave the closet if she did housework and other errands. “She would send me back to the closet telling me how useless I was,” April said. At seven years old, things began to change. Her mother had a live-in boyfriend who was also her drug supplier. Aiming to please, April’s mother told the boyfriend she could use her daughter for handy work, “or whatever,” she said. “When mom passed out after taking some drugs, her boyfriend would sneak me out and give me candy and take me places.” This is called “grooming” by trafficking advocates. The trafficker shows affection to a vulnerable child to build trust. Groomers are very good at choosing likely victims – Children who have been neglected or abused, runaways, and teens seeking attention, father figures, and employment opportunities are the most targeted. April grew to look forward to those times when her mother’s boyfriend and she could share a piece of pizza or a milk shake. “I used to wish sometimes that he would let me call him ‘Daddy’,” she said.
After several weeks, the relationship between April and the man changed when he brought over a few of his friends. As usual, the boyfriend gave her mother her dose of drugs, and while she lay in a stupor, the men began to pass her around, taking turns holding her in their laps. They tickled her and hugged her. “No one had ever hugged me so much in my life,” April said. “Then one day, he asked if it I wanted to go eat ice cream with one his friends, and of course I jumped at the chance to get out of going back to that closet.” The man took April to another house where he fondled her and asked her if it felt good. She said yes, even though she said, “it really kinda made me nervous, and I didn’t know why.” As the days turned into weeks, April was being taken to the homes of the men who molested her, they took pictures of her, fed her, then returned her home just before her mother would awaken. “It was months before my mom knew that these guys were taking me out every day.” April said she heard them outside her closet door shouting, an d then it became quiet. The closet door opened. “My mom said, ‘finally, you’re good for something!’ and she closed the door right back up.” It would be a year later when April discovered exactly what her mother meant. “She sold me to those guys for free drugs,” she said with her eyes turned downward. “I think it was that night or soon after when her boyfriend took it to the next level.” He had intercourse with her.
For the next eight years, April was sold as a slave to men who sexually assaulted her, and then rewarded her with toys, food and clothing. They would often leave money or drugs on the table for her mother who, according to April, was relieved to have her out of the house so much. By the age of 9, April was allowed to sleep in a bedroom as long as her mother didn’t have a boyfriend staying overnight. It was during one of those times she was allowed sleep in a bed when she heard another ruckus between her mother and her now ex-boyfriend. “She was yelling that he was making too much money off of me, and she wanted a bigger cut of the action. I heard her say, ‘she’s MY kid! I should be getting more than you!” For several weeks, no men came to pick up April. Her mother’s physical abuse worsened. She was badly beaten one night, a broken ocular bone and multiple cuts, but her mother kept her locked in the closet while she healed. “The ex-boyfriend came to visit one day while I was healing,” April recounted. “He saw me all banged up like that and he beat my mother to an inch of her life. I think now it was because the busted eye socket ruined my looks.” Shortly thereafter, her mother stopped the physical abuse. She also started bringing customers to the house herself. April was allowed to sleep in a room all the time. She was given more food and she was bathed regularly to be presentable to the pedophiles who visited their house every day. Her mother threw parties where April was the entertainment. At sixteen, April was a savvy teen who had known no other life. She had never attended school, and her limited language and slight speech impediment were the result.
“Then one night, I saw my mom laying on the couch,” April said. “I thought she was dead, and something, I think it was God, told me, ‘here’s your chance to get out,’ and that’s what I did. I left my mom’s dead body on the couch, and I packed up a few clothes and some crackers and ran as fast as I could down the street.” She chuckles then added, “But I had no idea where I thought I was headed!” April took refuge with a young woman in Mobile, Alabama. She became promiscuous, as many child trafficking victims do, and then began to sell her body for drugs. April was well into her twenties when she again heard God’s voice telling her to get out. “The only place I could think of to go to God was a church, and I just showed up in my skimpy clothes. They took me in and got me into a Christian rehab program. My life was changed forever.”
April is now in her 30’s. Her weathered appearance makes her look older than she is. She works odd jobs to pay her bills, and volunteers on the streets of local cities looking for girls in trouble. She is an active member of her church. She has been clean and free for more than eight years now. April has no idea where her mother is today, nor does she know anything about the fate of those who trafficked and abused her in her childhood. “It’s over now,” she said. “They ain’t a part of this life. I’m a new creation.” April smiled.

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