From sex trafficking to a life of healing and hope: One woman shares her story

From sex trafficking to a life of healing and hope: One woman shares her story

Key takeaways:

  • Sex trafficking can happen in any town and typically involves young girls or women.
  • Traffickers often use a combination of emotional manipulation, threats and drugs to coerce their victims into compliance.
  • International Women’s Day empowers women with the goal of seeking prompt positive change.

[3 MIN READ]

Jen is a survivor of sex trafficking. Her story is not uncommon, but the details are not what you might expect from someone who escaped from being trafficked for several years.

Jen grew up in a “normal” home. She did well in school. No one in her immediate family used drugs or had substance addiction issues. She was not abused. Like many other teenage girls, Jen felt insecure when she was younger. She didn’t get along well with her mom. She felt a lack of love and support, and at age 16 years she left home to search for what she thought she was missing. What she found was an abuser who forced her into a life of sex trade and drugs.

Jen spoke with Paula Newman-Skomski, ARNP Forensic Nurse Examiner at Providence, about sex trafficking and what it took for her to break free. Paula founded Peoria Home, a nonprofit organization that provides support services for women with a history of sex trafficking, prostitution and chemical dependency. Services include long-term housing, counseling, educational opportunities, job training, addiction treatment, medical care and legal services. Jen now volunteers at Peoria Home, sharing her story with the women she meets, supporting them through their recovery and offering hope and compassion.

“They need to know that there’s help. And there’s hope. If you can see these women as human beings, for who they are and not just someone off the street, you’ll see they need love, kindness and support,” says Jen.

Coerced with food and roses

Sex trafficking is a form of human slavery and a serious public health problem. It happens when a trafficker uses force, coercion or fraud to make someone age 18 and older perform sex for money, which is called commercial sex.

“For me, I did not have a choice,” says Jen. “What I knew was, what I was doing was getting me the food, the drugs I was addicted to and a place to sleep. It’s not a choice—it’s a way of surviving.”

It’s a common misconception that sex trafficking always involves kidnapping. In reality, most traffickers use emotional manipulation, drugs, threats and isolation to control their victims.

It’s a common misconception that sex trafficking always involves kidnapping or physically preventing someone from leaving. In reality, most traffickers use emotional manipulation, drugs, threats and isolation to control their victims, who are most often female.

“I was working at a donut shop and a white Cadillac pulled up. And the guy got out and he offered me the world. And he turned out to be my pimp for the next eight years,” says Jen. “I was looking for some security. I was looking for love in all the wrong places. I was coerced to get into the car with food and roses.”

Recognize the red flags

The warning signs of human trafficking are not always easy to recognize—even when you’re the victim. "A lot of times, people involved in this don't even realize that they're being victimized or the control that other people have over them," says Paula in the podcast.

A lot of times, people involved in this don't even realize that they're being victimized or the control that other people have over them.

Anyone can be vulnerable to trafficking, but experts say people of color, immigrants (based on the promise of having a better life) and LGBTQ+ people are targeted more frequently than other demographic groups. According to the US Department of Health and Human Services, if a girl or woman shows several of the following signs, she may currently be in a trafficking situation:

  • Appears fearful, depressed, submissive, tense, anxious or paranoid
  • Refuses eye contact
  • Seems very afraid of law enforcement
  • Shows signs of physical abuse such as bruising, cuts or restraint marks
  • Owns few to no personal belongings
  • Cannot say where she is living or list a home address
  • Does not know what county, state, town or city she is in
  • Has no sense of time, date or season
  • Is very underweight
  • Has someone in control who insists on being present at all times

You want to look for signs of a change of attitude. Changing grades if they’re still in school, the people they’re spending their time with.

“You want to look for signs of a change of attitude. Changing grades if they’re still in school, the people they’re spending their time with. In my case, I was with a man that was 10 years older than me. I mean that was a big red flag,” says Jen.

Learn more about the signs and red flags to watch out for, and how Peoria House is offering a safe place for trafficking victims.

Offering help safely

If you think you recognize the signs of trafficking in someone’s life, proceed with caution before attempting to intervene. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, when communicating with someone in a potentially dangerous trafficking situation you should:

  • Recognize that the person in the situation best understands their circumstances. Honor their requests before initiating any actions that could put them or you in danger.
  • Remain open and non-judgmental. Let them know you are available if they need you.
  • Try to speak face-to-face if possible when outlining your concerns.
  • If personal contact is not possible, try contact by phone. Ask yes and no questions until they indicate it’s safe to continue with greater detail.
  • Establish code and safety words to aid communication efforts.
  • Ask about their needs concerning issues such as shelter, counseling and legal services. Respect their preferences.

National Human Trafficking Hotline

If you are a victim of sex trafficking or think you know someone who is, help is a phone call or text away with the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

If you are a victim of sex trafficking or think you know someone who is, help is a phone call or text away with the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888.

Hotline staff members are available by phone at 888-373-7888. You can also text HELP to BeFree (233733). The hotline connects victims and survivors of sex trafficking with the services and support system they need to escape their situation. The hotline does not provide services directly. Instead, it connects survivors and victims with vetted services and programs proven to be a reliable source of assistance.

All services are confidential. You can request assistance or report your concerns anonymously.

International Women’s Day

In March, we celebrate International Women’s Day that highlights the social, economic, political and cultural achievements of women everywhere. International Women’s Day provides a platform to help forge positive change. This year’s campaign is Choose to Challenge.

Leaders of International Women’s Day say their efforts are powered by the collective efforts of all. Leaders at Providence agree.

87% of human trafficking survivors say the only contact they had with professionals while enslaved was healthcare professionals. Providence is taking steps to ensure no one seeking help falls through the cracks.

Research shows that 87% of human trafficking survivors say the only contact they had with professionals while enslaved was healthcare professionals. Providence is taking steps to ensure no one seeking help falls through the cracks. It’s part of our mission to care for the most vulnerable in our community and empower them by offering safe and equitable healthcare. Caregivers in the emergency department and labor and delivery unit have undergone special training to identify people involved in human trafficking. In addition, we partner with community leaders and organizations to expand access and availability to much-needed resources.

“You know, life happened out there. And this can happen to anybody. This can happen to any family member—not the poor or the rich or the middle—it can happen to anybody,” says Jen.

People are blown away to learn that this is happening in their front yard. They think it's happening in Thailand or some other third-world country.

"People are blown away to learn that this is happening in their front yard," says Paula. "Most of the time, when I talk to people about trafficking, they think it's happening in Thailand or some other third-world country, not in downtown Everett, Bellevue or Seattle. But it's happening everywhere."

If you or someone you know needs help to #BeFree, text the word HELP to BeFree (233733) where volunteers with the National Human Trafficking Hotline are on hand to help.

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