I have to tell my story to survive.
I’ve told my story to more people than I can remember: my mother, boyfriend, daughter, best friend, my cousin Cicely, my boyfriend’s mother, attorneys, the principal at my children’s school, my boss at American Transportation, my attorneys, detectives, a few judges, several prison inmates, and my children’s godmother.
After telling pieces of my story to John Morgan, my arresting officer, who is one of the lead detectives for human trafficking in Cuyahoga County, he recommended I make contact with the Renee Jones Empowerment Center for victims of human trafficking (RJEC). Then I told my story to Renee Jones, the center’s founder, and I met other victims and survivors with similar stories.
Before then, I had never looked at or thought of myself as a victim. Around that same time, my then friend and now boyfriend asked me if I was a victim. I decided to look the definition of “victim” up in the dictionary. Before I read the definition, I still believed that I wasn’t a victim. I didn’t believe that I was being mistreated, used and abused.
The word victim means: “One who has been acted on and adversely affected by action or force or agent. Destroyed, sacrificed under any various conditions, subjected to oppression, hardship mistreatment, tricked or duped by a con man.” Tears came down my eyes. I was now able to forgive myself. I finally had hope that I would receive help, if not from others, from God. I remembered that God will help those like me. That was the moment I chose to no longer be the victim and to become a survivor, which is an everyday battle and constant goal in my life.
As a child, I was sexually molested and taken advantage of by a much older family member. Sometimes, I was even physically abused. These incidents were never fully addressed by the adults in my family in a positive way and were swept under the rug like it never happened. I started masturbating at eight years old. It ended up becoming a way to relieve stress. I was very promiscuous once I became a teen. My mom was on drugs, and my stepdad was always out of town for business.
At the age of 18, I was taking college courses and working in the mall when I met a 21-year-old man. He was very charming and funny. He had a three-year-old daughter who lived with him, and I admired that because my biological father was never in my life. We became intimate; I called him my boyfriend. Six months later, I was pregnant with our daughter. He left town when she was two and went to Vegas to be a pimp. He came back when she was five and convinced me to prostitute for him. I agreed because I wanted my daughter to have her dad in her life. I had low self-esteem, and I didn’t know my worth. He started by teaching me how to post escort ads online; at the time, I was still living in my parents’ house. When I was pregnant with our son, I thought that getting married would make things better. I moved out of my parents’ home. Shortly after I gave birth, the beatings started. He made me call him “Daddy” and addressed me as “Bitch.” I had to give him all my money and was forced to live with other women who were also his victims.
Asking me to marry him was another way to control me. I worked the hardest and made the most money. One day, he put a gun to my head and threatened to kill me. I asked him, “Do you want me to be your hoe or your wife?” and he said his hoe. I was tired.
I got on my hands and knees that day and prayed, asking God to remove him out of my life, crying, expressing to Jesus that I no longer want to live that lifestyle or be a prostitute. Less than a week later, I got a job as a cab driver. He allowed me to work. He had a new victim, and he was going out of town with her. I felt close to freedom.
The night before he was leaving, he was arrested with two of his victims and was charged with human trafficking. Now he only could rely on me. Because he was my kids’ father and my husband, I felt obligated to help when I should have run. God intervened, and I was arrested too. My mother, who is now sober, flew from California to Ohio, got the children and took them back with her.
I was given a $500,000 bond and charged with eight felonies, including human trafficking. My dad died while I was locked up in county jail. That was when I decided to testify for the prosecution. It was time to save my life, one of the hardest and most liberating things I could do. He couldn’t save me. He was the reason I was in jail, facing up to twenty years as his co-defendant.
Prison was the best thing that could have happened for me. While I felt like I was losing everything, I gained myself, self-worth, love, hope and a more intimate relationship with my Creator. With my freedom gone, I was no longer in slavery. In the most horrible situation, I became my best self.
Learn more. Attend our community conversation from 3:00-5:00 PM on August 27, featuring the locally produced film KNOW Human Trafficking. Donations will be accepted in support of the work of Renee Jones Empowerment Center. Register here.
Believe in second chances. I hope that someone who hears my story gets a glimpse of hope that things can and will get better, if you believe and never give up. I also want to encourage those in a position to help victims, to give them the support and the means to have a fulfilling life. I will keep telling my story to remind myself of where I used to be, so that I will never go back.
Know the signs. Human trafficking takes place in every community. Warning signs include fearful or overly submissive behavior, no personal identification, a young person with chronic or untreated health problems such as HIV, AIDS, STDs, physical abuse, accompanied by a controlling person who does all the talking, language or cultural barriers.
Know the right questions to ask. Can you come and go as you please? Do you owe your boss money? Do you need to ask permission to eat/sleep/go to the bathroom? Did someone take your license or ID? Do you get mail?
Know what to do. Gain the person’s trust. If the person is with a dominant or controlling personality, find a way to speak with them privately before asking questions.
Report it to the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or make a referral to the Renee Jones Empowerment Center.