Sometimes, it takes a kid: A reflection on having SWAG at 51

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.

All In: Thoughts on my personal fight against human trafficking

For me, human trafficking, and in particular commercial sexual exploitation (CSE) represents among the greatest human rights challenges of our time.  Here, I will share mainly my observations and thoughts as they pertain to the exploitation of minors in the United States, what we in law enforcment would call Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking.

As this great storm gathers in the distance, we stand witness to a crisis that threatens the very essence of childhood.  CSE is, quite clearly, the commodification of our children for the purposes of sexual commerce.  It exists because someone makes money.  It threatens not only their innocence, but our cultural innocence as well.  Make no mistake, we stand witness to among the greatest human rights crises of our time, and we lack a cohesive, societal response.

CSE is particularly insidious by targeting the most vulnerable and destitute among our children.   It happens all around us and is closer than most people think.  Look to the street corners, the alleys, or the internet for the marketplace where these young victims are bought and sold.  The victims are pulled from the vast ranks of runaways on our streets, and the patrons come from the very neighborhoods where we live.  With nearly 1800 runaways per year in Minneapolis, and another 1000 in St.Paul the streets in the Mpls/St. Paul metro are literally filled with kids that have no way to adequately provide for themselves.  With nothing to eat, nowhere to sleep and no one to rely upon, their body becomes their only currency.  And with no shortage of predators waiting to exploit this harsh reality, these children become easy targets.  And let me be clear that they kids can come from any street, in any community, in any city across this country.

We know from our experience as law enforcement, advocates, and citizens that CSE affects everyone.  No one is untouched as the direct and collateral damage from this crisis disperses through families, through churches, through communities.  Victims who are exploited face a potential lifetime of negative impacts from their experience.  The luckiest among them will be rescued or escape their exploitation only to find lasting struggles for acceptance and wholeness in their recovery from such horrifying trauma.  Others lost in the process are never rescued and go into adulthood with crippling drug and alcohol dependencies, and physical, emotional and mental injuries that prevent them from ever finding respite from their suffering.

To put it in perspective, think about what we know about the significance a single event of sexual assault in the life of a woman.  Imagine the life changing trauma of that one event, and the role it plays in her self image, relationships and future.  Now multiply that by 10, by 50, by 200 and you have an idea about the experience of a child exploited in sex trafficking.

And the ranks of men who surf the internet, or drive the streets of St. Paul and Minneapolis looking for a human outlet for their debased sexual desires leave destruction in their path.  From the victims whom they pay and possess, to their own families left at home, to their own psyche and soul, the damage is substantial, lasting and tragic.

Children embedded in a life of sexual exploitation learn that the world is a hostile place.  Over 90 percent of the time it begins with abuse or sexual assault in childhood.  Let the insidious nature of that sink in for a minute:  Those obligated to protect and defend them are instead the harbingers of unimaginable betrayal.  As a result, too often, the victims find a brief solace in the arms of a trafficker who promises love, caring, even freedom from their pain. All they have to do is charge money for what has been taken from them for free.   It’s easy to see how a vulnerable child, indigent and alone would succumb to such treacherous promises.

One little girl named Amanda found that by trading one abuse for another, she recaptured some small sense of freedom from her pain.  In fact, the story of my own fight against commercial sexual exploitation begins with her.

I first met Amanda on a summer night in 2000.  A street crimes officer in North Minneapolis, I had conducted an investigation into gang related crack activity on a particular block and we ended up serving a search warrant at a residence where crack was being sold.  Now drug warrants are loud, invasive and violent.  Whether you are on the side of the target of the warrant, or on that of the police serving the warrant, anxiety runs very high and the experience leaves everyone, even the officers as recipients of the trauma.

After the scene was secure, I found Amanda in a makeshift bedroom in the basement.  She wore only a soiled white tee shirt. Her face, arms and legs were dirty and scraped skin hinted to her abuse.  She was emaciated, having had nothing to eat, and little to drink in days.  Four different drugs remained in her bloodstream, and a broken crack pipe lay next to the mattress.  And Amanda was for sale.

At that time, Amanda wasn’t our priority.  She wasn’t the reason we were there.  In fact, we took 3 guns, a substantial amount of crack cocaine and were able to ultimately build effective cases against a number of gang members plaguing that neighborhood.  In the boasting that followed, Amanda wasn’t even an afterthought.  She was collateral damage to the inner city drug problem, and her status as victim was even in question as she had come there by her  own volition.

I would later learn that she had been trafficked in that basement for 4 days, given a hit or two of crack when she would “turn a trick”, and then more crack from time to time to keep her docile and cooperative.  Amanda never saw any of the money, but for $30, sometimes less, men there to buy crack could purchase her.  She was a supplementary source of income for this particular drug gang:  A perpetual commodity with very low overhead that provided a much desired service which cost them nothing.  From their point of view it was a no-brainer:  She was free and cost them nothing but made them $1000 to $2000 per day.

Amanda was 16 and from a Northern Minnesota town of less than 2000 people.  She was detoxed for two days, then returned home. Within days she had run again.  I would rescue Amanda 5 more times over the next two years.  Each time I saw her, the change to her was tragic and unsettling.  She seemed to grow older, harder, emptier.  One time I asked her why she keep running away, only to find her way to another crack house and more abuse, meaning I had to rescue her again.  She, in turn, asked me why I kept rescuing her and sending her home?  It seemed obvious and I was a bit smug with her in hindsight:  I can’t stand to see you violated and abused.  This is the only time I ever remember her making eye contact with me.  “Then stop sending me home” she said.

Tears still well up in my eyes and heart when I think about that today.  How horribly I had failed this child.  She was exactly why I had entered law enforcement in the first place.  She was the one that I had sworn to protect and serve, and had done exactly the opposite.

This experience, now 13 years in the past taught me some important lessons about myself, my place in this battle, and exposed the operational indifference that exists in most institutions designed to protect victims.  Among those lessons that shape my perspective are:

1.  True victims are hard to see

In fact they are often invisible.  This is absolutely true in the case of juvenile victims of sex trafficking.  They don’t often self-report, and most police and official contact is usually due to symptoms of the problem such as petty theft, fraud, truancy, absenting and drug use.  They are misidentified and we miss the important cues that should drive us to look harder and dig deeper.  For this reason, identification and rescue is and always will be the most important thing that we do in our official capacity.

2.   Even if they had some complicity in their current situation, they are still victims and need to be recognized and treated as such

Most of us will never have the experiential basis to understand the reality of these kids’ lives.  I can’t imagine and won’t pretend to understand what it means to be a sex trafficking victim.  I can’t imagine the need to escape an abuse home or relationship. Even if the outcome is very destructive, these kids are brave, resourceful and survival oriented.  They survive situations I could never imagine and would not handle as well.

3.  In order to effectively love and serve these victims, I first had to deal with the biases and judgments that affect my own attitudes

This is another one where I got a good slap in the face from the Gospel.  It’s clear that we are directed not to judge others, yet my own biases  and attitudes toward others stood in direct contravention of that command.  You’ve probably heard the monologue yourself, but mine included things like, “those are bad kids that shouldn’t have run away.”  “They need to stop smoking crack and do some of the work to get better for themselves.”  “No one is forcing them into it.”  Such foolish arrogance is embarrassing to admit, but if I truly wanted to be a tool for God to use to save these victims, and change their lives, I needed to first  deal with the dark side of my own ideologies. Now I share that transforming realization with everyone who will listen.

4.  This fight is too big for one person, one organization or one profession

Fortunately, and unfortunately this is a problem that has attracted a lot of attention, and funding.  Fortunately because sex trafficking is one hundred percent preventable and has a great many weak spots for us to attack.  As an investigator/detective I call them pressure points and they refer to the weak places in a criminal conspiracy where we can target to gain intelligence, exploit the weaknesses of those involved to bring it down.  Advocates similarly will recognize soft places to attack the problem, as will churches and treatment professionals.  One profession can’t do it alone and we truly need each other as the needs of the victims are so multi-dimensional and vast.  The unfortunate side of the attention afforded sex trafficking is that it draws a lot of different people and organizations into the fight, all well-intentioned, but often uninformed about what others are doing, to include their successes and failures.  Many lack preparation, training and focus.  In the end, we have plenty of well-meaning institutions and people fighting for recognition, funding and prominence when what we should have is true, Christian collaboration and inter-dependency.

Finally, several certainties accompany me as I walk into this battle each day:

  1. God hates human trafficking
  2. God alone gives me what I need to fight this battle, and do what I must
  3. This battle has many fronts and all of God’s followers are needed
  4. The most important tool I can have in this fight is love

I’l expand on these in the near future.  For now, I need a break.

God Bless You All