Upon first meeting her, sensing the shame, self-doubt and self-esteem issues doesn't require a degree in counseling. Sitting in jeans and a t-shirt -- not the provocative dress and stilettos so often associated with prostitution -- the young woman doesn't want to talk about what she's been doing, either from fear or denial. Brainwashed to tell her pimp's version of reality, trust is the first thing that needs to be built.
Constance Rossiter has served as the Social Responsibility Director of the YMCA's Trafficked Persons Assistance Program for four years. The 8-year-old program has assisted more than 200 women coming out of human trafficking. The victims' details differ slightly but Rossiter says the storyline is the same:
Prior to becoming a victim, the young woman is living in a village, many times in Central America. She already has a child, no education, and resides with a family member, usually a grandmother , in tremendous poverty. A handsome man arrives wearing the right clothes and saying the right things. "You're beautiful .... I care for you .... We'll go to the U.S. and you'll work in a job in a restaurant that I know about .... We'll get married." She gets pregnant and he says that they can leave the baby with his mother while they come to the states and make money. Then they will return and be a family.
In Houston, they get an apartment but he suddenly has trouble finding a job and her promised restaurant position never materializes. The rent is due. He tells her that if she sleeps with his friend -- just one time -- they will have money for the rent. Then there's a next time, and a next time, and when she complains, she is beaten and told, "Your child is with my family. I know where you family is. I can harm any of them anytime I want."
Or ... If it's a matter of domestic human trafficking, the vulnerable teen -- boy or girl -- has already suffered abuse, probably sexual and runs away.
Within a short period of time, he is approached by a pimp who is an expert at knowing the vulnerabilities of youth. If it's clear the girl came from poverty, he will talk about travel. If the boy complains about rules, the pimp says, "We'll make our own rules, our own decisions."
Talking the language of whatever the child needs, the pimp will easily speak of love. After convincing the youth that what they are feeling is love, the sex becomes rougher. Sex is used as a reward for good behavior. Drugs are used to control and manipulate. Prostitution is next.
"Before I came to this position, I didn't know what human trafficking was," said Rossiter who worked with victims of sexual assault and domestic violence as well as children at risk before taking on the YMCA role. "The violence and sexual assault is familiar but there's something more going on with these victims. They've been sold, treated like goods, a commodity. There's a total disregard for their humanity."
Rossiter sees the women and youth during the intake assessment. She says that sometimes the wounds are obvious -- they are beaten, anxious, jumpy -- and they initially share the story as the pimp has convinced them to tell it. They have accepted the pimp's "reality of life" as the rule.
"If they are going to fall apart, they do so in our offices," she noted. "They have to trust us. We meet them where they are and if they need therapy, we connect them. Most importantly, we listen to them and just let them be safe."
While the women or youth are being processed into the system -- the international victims can apply for a T-visa and remain in the country -- they are connected to the YMCA's program. Rossiter helps facilitate case management. For the victims who are attempting to bring family to the U.S., the reunification process with a spouse or child can take years. Rossiter maintains contact throughout the process.
Ginger Smith, executive director of the Mission Centers of Houston, also grapples with the realities of human trafficking in the neighborhood in which she serves. All three of the Centers are located in areas often patrolled because of suspicions of trafficking. "My dream would be to have a women's center in our neighborhood that combines Christian Women's Job Corps and life skills coaching for women coming out of human trafficking," said Ginger.
"I'm not sure the women in our neighborhoods are coming out of human trafficking, but I know they're in it," said Smith.
The boldness of the traffickers still causes Smith to pause.
Last year a youth pastor with a group from north Texas assisting at the Centers went to local grocery store for supplies. While he was there, an elderly woman approached him and tried to sell him a girl.
In the past year, one preteen girl told the Mission Centers' staff that "If you want to sell drugs, weapons, or girls you have to register at this house."
"A preteen showed us the house," Smith underscored. "The house was just blocks away from one of our Centers."
On another occasion, a man offered to sell a girl for $10 to a Center staff member. The Center staff called the human trafficking local hotline 713-222-8477. (The number is programmed into Smith's cell.)
In an unusual twist, one of the agents sent to investigate the situation was a success story from the Center's long-term and ongoing after school program. When he was a youth and dangerously toying with life's options, a volunteer told him he had the build of a cop. Initially, he ignored the comment, but eventually heeded the "prophecy" and became a police officer who now does contract work with the FBI to investigate human trafficking.
Since human trafficking is a known activity in the areas around the Centers, the majority of Centers' staff has gone through awareness training offered through Houston Rescue and Restore, a local coalition that provides training for law enforcement agents, health care professionals, school counselors, and staff at Child Protective Services.
"At the Centers, we see need every day and we have ways to respond. But there are days that challenge us. For instance, we have programs that provide food but it's different when I encounter a kid who hasn't eaten in three days. I feel the same way about when we encounter people being sold.
"Our first and, probably natural reaction, is to immediately go to that vigilante place in each of us," acknowledged Smith regarding what happens when they discover a new human trafficking situation in the community. "I want to go take care of it. But my staff and I are committed to going through due process with law enforcement. "
One of the Centers' goals is to educate the surrounding community regarding human trafficking. Recently, the Centers hosted a concert and awareness event and they keep posters in the neighborhood that include information (in English and Spanish) as well as the hotline number.
Kate Ambrose has recently joined the staff to develop the Centers' anti-human trafficking program, developing partnerships that could lead to on-site ministries and working with public schools to do prevention programs.
One of the first things on her agenda is a needs assessment to identify the level of awareness in the community regarding human trafficking and the knowledge level of how to report suspected activity.
"What's really disturbing is the boldness of people - you can sell a girl in the middle of a grocery store," Smith reiterated. "It's like what we've seen with drug sales through the years. There was a time when they hid it and now you drive down the street and see it. I'm afraid that same complacency is where we're going with human trafficking."
Photos in this story are illustrative and do not depict actual trafficking victims or locations.
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