Today I met with a 17 year old victim of sex trafficking. I’ve known her for several months now, having rescued her from a metro area hotel room on a snowy night. This young woman has had a tough go. Her mother and father were largely absent, having moved to another city. At 16 years old, left with friends, she was literally left on her own. And she did what anyone who is on their own does: She found a way to survive.
She fell into the world of sex trafficking out of desperation, and a deep desire for connection to someone who would care about and for her. Over a period of several months, she was exploited by 5 different traffickers, both men and women. Among them were some of the most notorious pimps in the Minneapolis metro area.
Drug use was common for her, as was physical and sexual assault at the hands of her traffickers. But so were more insidious forms of control. The man we rescued her from was a drug dealer who would return to the hotel room to collect money, and then leave again, expecting her to make more. I would later read text messages between them and see the despicable fullness of his manipulation and control of her. He professed his love for her often, telling her how special, unique and beautiful she was, and talk of a future for them together with his children. He would strategically bait her with “dates” and evenings out when she worked hard and made money, saying he wanted to spend time with her and her alone.
It was, of course, a lie. He lived with the mother of his children and would spend time with her at the hotel as a means to control and manipulate her to make more money. In his arms, however briefly, she would later relate that she felt loved and protected—a feeling she had not experienced before. Imagine, if you will, that you are 16 and have been denied the life sustaining love and support of your family for as long as you can remember. You are abandoned, rejected and left with nothing. You’ve been sold, beaten, raped, exploited and ridiculed over and over. The world is a hostile place where words like trust, belonging and even friendship mean nothing. Even the word “love” is reserved for those lucky few, if it exists at all.
Then one day, you meet a man. He’s much older, but for some reason, he choses you and you alone. In a room full of people, he sees only you, and he speaks of a love for you that you imagined was only a fantasy. He dates you, takes you to dinners at nice restaurants and buys you things. He puts you in hotels and pays for everything. You meet his children, and he tells you later that they speak of how much they like you. You are perfect in his eyes.
He shares things with you and tells you about his challenges, hopes and dreams. He depends upon you. One day he tells you that he was robbed and has no money; his kids need food and he can’t afford to buy it. He asks you to put an add on the internet. “Just do massage” he says. I’ll protect you and we really need the money. You agree to do it, because, after all, he loves you and needs you.
Soon, massages don’t make enough. Men expect more and are willing to pay for it. If you engaged in sex acts you’d make a lot more, he says. He promises he won’t judge you, because he loves you. And he will protect you. You will only have to do it until you make enough money.
But the need for money never stops. One “favor” becomes another, and soon everyday is spent in hotel rooms answering phone calls from men you don’t know. Alcohol and drugs become a necessary respite, and you see the love of your life less and less. At one point you tell him you are done, and you try to leave. He grabs your hair and chokes you nearly to unconsciousness. He’ll apologize later, but you know where the limits are now. You know better than to betray this man that has given you so much, and besides, he loves you.
That was the context of her life the day I rescued her from the hotel room. She thought I was another “trick” when I knocked on the door that evening. She soon realized I was someone else, when she saw my badge, my partner and the two uniformed officers with us.
I spoke to her in a gentle voice and assured her she going to be safe. I told her she wasn’t in trouble, and that we were there for her. “Its going to be alright.”
She was angry that night, and let me know. From her point of view, we were taking away from her the very thing that gave her the only independence she had every known. She protected her trafficker, and refused to implicate him in the ongoing prostitution activity.
Fortunately, we were able to recover enough evidence from the room, and through the course of the investigation to arrest and charge him.
The young lady was secured in placement as home was not a viable option. In her various placements she shined. She was gifted then, and still is with a charm and charisma that are truly disarming. Her smile can melt the hardest of hearts and when speaking with you, she maintains eye contact—actually more of a devoted gaze—responding as if she hangs on your every word. It’s impossible not to truly love this kid.
Over the past 9 months we’ve met several times. She calls, she writes, and she hugs when I see her. She seems truly happy and secure. Today I was there to give her bad news, and I knew she would take it hard.
In her post rescue life she had come across a man she had known from the string of endless hotel rooms. He had been a customer, as it were. Seeing him again was bad enough, but what made it worse was that her placement made it impossible to avoid him.
At first, she said nothing, not wanting to create problems for him. Eventually, as her own healing progressed, the presence of the man—though he said nothing to her—would become an unbearable weight on her shoulders and she disclosed.
A criminal investigation was opened, evidence collected, interviews taken and all our best efforts focused on obtaining for her a measure of justice. We were tenacious in our pursuit of the suspect, and drew upon all of the creativity and experience we could manage. We were devoted to the arrest, charging and prosecution of this individual.
But I had another obligation. As a lawman, I am obligated to a duty which requires stringent adherence to the Constitution, and to the protection of individual rights. Those rights are sacred, and the very fabric of our lives and freedom depend upon rigid protection and respect of the process designed to protect them.
In the end, enough time had elapsed since the crime that no other evidence could be found. All phone data had been deleted, witnesses remembered nothing, and the suspect, not unexpectedly denied everything. But we had her statement. It was all we had, and it was not compelling enough on its own to allow charges to be filed.
She took the news hard, as I expected. I assured her that I believed her, but that was little solace by comparison to the reality that she had done everything right, everything we had asked. She told the truth, and yet justice would not be realized. She called it a “slap in the face.”
After anger and tears were shared, I apologized and she said no apology was necessary. She again smiled that disarming smile, and drew us back in with her charms. She really is one in a million.
Before we left, I asked what she thought of the color of my shirt. I was wearing a lime green polo, Levi’s and blue Sperry deck shoes with no laces. My shirt was bright green, so much so that if I stood on a street corner for too long, I’d expect someone to hand me a hardhat and a sign with “stop” on one side and “slow “ on the other. For some reason, it appealed to me, and since I showed up for work wearing the shirt I’d been repeatedly harassed.
She seemed thoughtful for a moment, then said, “It’s good. You’ve got SWAG today.” Seriously! SWAG? I made her repeat the comment so I could record it to play for my children who would absolutely not agree.
SWAG. We laughed, joked and hugged, and too soon went our separate ways. On the drive back, I wondered at our relationship. We were a world apart, then and now. In the eyes of world we would pass each other on the street and not even notice or acknowledge. Convention demands it. If you put her and I together in a mall we would look like the most unlikely pairing ever, even with no understanding about our backgrounds. She is a 17 year old African American girl from the inner city, and I’m a 51 year old white guy from the suburbs. Our likes and dislikes, language, mannerisms, music, predilections and affinities predispose us to be forever unknown to each other.
Still, here we were, bonded and drawn to one another. Sharing tears, expectations and hope. I tell this story because it was a profound reminder of the hand of God in the connections we make. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve spoken with that feel painfully unable to connect across the vast sea of differences that separate us from those of other generations, cultures, skin colors, or lifestyles. I often share these concerns, but I’m blessed since my current job requires me to daily attempt to find ways to the other shore. Sometimes I swim. It’s painful, challenging and arduous.
Sometimes during that swim, I look and see that God has built a bridge. I was just too stubborn, or prideful, or hung up on my own excuses to see it. But then along comes a little girl–a child who has lived a life that would bring most of us to our knees. And in the midst of her own pain, and discouragement she looks across the room and doesn’t see a fat, 51 year old white guy. She sees a connection and a friend.
Telling me I had SWAG was her christening me into her world, defining me in her terms. It was an invitation to share a kinship with her that crosses that vast sea, and celebrates the bond God has given us. Sometimes I guess it takes a child.
She’s heroic. And I love her for it.