Lost in a World of Abuse and Trafficking – My Story
by J. A. Elam
Here are the stats:
According to the United Nations, human trafficking is a $32-billion a year business. There are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today, and that number is growing exponentially.
In the United States, the Department of Justice estimates up to 300,000 children are at risk annually of being trafficked. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the average lifespan of a trafficked child is seven years.
Human trafficking is second only to the drug trade as the fastest growing criminal enterprise. According to the United Nations, human trafficking generates $9.5 billion yearly in the United States. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that the average age of a trafficked child is 13-14 years old. According to Polaris Project, a pimp makes $150,000-$250,000 per child a year; each pimp has an average of four to six children; and the average victim of sex trafficking is forced to have sex between 20-48 times a day. According to the Justice Department, a human trafficker will approach one in three teens within 48 hours of their leaving home.
For seven long years, beginning at the age of five, I was trapped in a hell no one deserves. I was nothing more than a shell of a human being, enduring suffering and torture at the hands of psychopaths and sociopaths, as the world looked on.
My mother married a man, who showered me, at first, with affection and gifts. But soon, his hugs turned into something darker, as he began to molest and use me for child pornography. Before long, I became the property of the pedophile ring of which he was a member. My silence was secured by threats of violence against my mother and myself, and, from the outside, I appeared to be a “normal child.” I was being trafficked in plain sight and often pulled out of school to “service” clients. After school, holidays and weekends were all just a never-ending nightmare for me. All of the signs were there, but no one cared enough to look or had the training or education to realize my bruises and lengthy illnesses were all red flags for a child suffering endless abuse.
My escape from the world of child sex trafficking came only with an unimaginable sacrifice on my part. At the age of 12, I stood in my mother’s rose garden, a bottle of sleeping pills in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. In the distance, wisps of smoke escaped from my parent’s house as the filing cabinets that contained my stepfather’s collection of child pornography burned. My last act had been to pour vodka over the evil vault of my stepfather’s depravity and then set them on fire. As the pills and vodka swirled down my throat, I laid down among the roses my mother so desperately treasured. The warmth of the ground began to carry me away, and soon I felt a peace I had never felt before.
A familiar voice spoke to me that resonated not only in my mind but also in the depths of my soul. It spoke to me as a long-lost friend, and I immediately realized it was Steve, my friend who had died at the hands of the sex traffickers who had enslaved us. “This is not your time, and your pain in this world will no longer define you. It will guide you to who you were meant to be, and you will find a purpose in your life that will not only wash away the pain of your own life but that of others who have suffered under the evil that lurks in the world,” the voice said.
I awoke in a hospital emergency room as wide-eyed doctors stood over me. They had pronounced me dead three minutes ago, and a priest was entering the room. That day I escaped the grip of the pedophile ring, as I was placed in the custody of the county. Close supervision by county officials -- that the ring had been able to control despite consistent efforts -- caused them to label me a risk. The members of the ring, however, kept a close watch on me, and I was eventually returned home several months later after my stepfather’s influence prevailed.
After my return, the abuse by my stepfather changed from sexual to physical as he began to lose interest in me. The threat of violence that remained from the pedophile ring against my mother secured my silence, and, in return, I was left alone.
According to Ryan C. W. Hall, MD, and Richard C. W. Hall, MD, PA, in their publication A Profile of Pedophilia, federal statistics for all reported sexual assaults show that 34 percent of sexually abused children were younger than 12 years, and 33 percent were between the ages of 12-17 years.
A bimodal age distribution was found for the age of the abused child for all sexual assaults, with peaks occurring at 5 and 14 years of age. In all cases, except for rape, more than half of those abused were younger than 12 years. Females were the most commonly abused, with the percentage of abused females increasing with age.
There are so many who suffered alongside me, bound by the chains of fear, and their faces will always haunt my dreams. So many did not survive the world that so ruthlessly fed on a child’s innocence, as the drugs, alcohol and abusive lifestyle took their toll on the fragile nature of its innocent victims. There are so many stories of bravery and defiance, but there is one that will always remain, both in my heart and in my mind.
In the early hours of a Wednesday morning in the late summer of my 14th year, I decided to escape my toxic environment in search of something better. I tried to be quiet as I dabbed iodine across the cut under my eye and groaned in pain at the ache of my bruised ribs. The memory of the encounter with my intoxicated stepfather the night before was still playing in my mind like a bad sitcom.
With the determination to leave behind the madness of my situation, I prepared to depart. My thoughts were that this time I would make it; I would disappear; and they would never find me. I had no plan other than to lose myself somewhere they could not follow, and, for this, I had chosen to go to California. I would find someplace near Mexico, so if I found myself backed into a corner, I could make a run for the border.
I slung my backpack and sleeping bag over my shoulder, and, with $50 in my pocket, I began to put the world that had held me prisoner far behind me. I walked and hitched rides with people until, after a month of sleeping in doorways and begging for food, I arrived on the outskirts of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. My trip had become sidetracked for several reasons, the main reason being you seldom find someone who is going exactly where you want to go. I had also worked for a few days here and there.
When kind souls offered a hot meal and a place to sleep, I trusted my intuition and accepted those offers that seemed genuine. Outside Milwaukee, I found an abandoned cabin that provided shelter from a fast-approaching winter. I was running low on cash, so I decided to explore the surrounding area the next day to look for odd jobs.
I had spotted lights in the distance as I had entered the cabin the night before, so I set off early to explore the possibility of at least one meal for that day. A clearing loomed in the distance, and beyond, I could hear the sound of cows, marking the location of a dairy farm.
I decided to approach the barn, where I could see someone just beyond the doorway, and it was then that I met the woman who would haunt my dreams from that day forward.
Her name was Cheyenne. She was Native American, and the most beautiful woman I had ever laid eyes on. Her long black hair shone against her olive skin as her dark brown eyes met mine. She was 14 at the time, and she had fled South Dakota at the age of 12 to escape an abusive father. She was searching for something better.
The farm belonged to an elderly couple who had lost their son in Vietnam, and their hearts longed to heal from that loss. Providing shelter to runaways gave them a temporary solace. They gave us both a warm place to sleep and kept the questions to a minimum, and for a while, I thought the past would never find me.
Cheyenne and I grew close, and, after three months, she began to tell me the secret behind the scars that marked her body, and the ones she kept hidden inside.
After leaving South Dakota , she was sleeping in an abandoned car on the outskirts of Denver, when she was grabbed by three men and thrown into the trunk of a car. She had been knocked unconscious by a blow to the head, and when she woke up, she was in a warehouse locked in a small room with 20 other women. From that point on, Cheyenne tried to escape the sex traffickers who had grabbed her, but routine beatings and forced drug use had left her too weak to break free.
For almost a year, Cheyenne was imprisoned in that warehouse somewhere near downtown Chicago. One day a fight broke out between the men who held her captive. A nearby gas stove overturned, and a fire started. In the chaos of the burning building, Cheyenne escaped. She ran until her feet could no longer carry her, and, after sleeping in the woods for days, had come upon the same dairy farm where we had both found refuge. Cheyenne cried as she told me her story, and as I held her in my arms, we fell asleep together.
For the first time in years I cried. I wept not only for Cheyenne and the suffering she endured, but also for the child inside me that had suffered so much.
As the months and the seasons progressed, Cheyenne and I grew incredibly close, and I could feel myself falling for her. I felt as if I could almost touch my dreams of happiness. I think back to that moment and wish I could once again lose myself in the innocence of that time, because soon after, forces intervened that brought an end to our paradise.
We had both tried so hard to hide from the darkness of our past, but, in the end, it finally caught up to Cheyenne, and both of our lives were forever changed.
The elderly couple who became our benefactors often journeyed into the suburbs of Milwaukee to sell the vegetables they grew at a farmers’ market. As we returned from these occasional trips, we often stopped at the same restaurant near the interstate to have lunch. Late Saturday morning one spring day, we drove back from a successful trip to the farmers’ market. When we made our regular stop for lunch, Cheyenne and I were excited as our conversation focused on the prospect of spending the money we had earned to see a movie later that night. We finished our lunch and exited the restaurant with Cheyenne in the lead. Suddenly four men wearing masks emerged from a nearby van and ran toward us, heading straight for Cheyenne. The sex traffickers who had held her prisoner for almost a year had finally tracked her down.
I could see the fear in Cheyenne‘s eyes, and I immediately inserted myself between her and the men. Although I fought with all my might, two of them grabbed her and began dragging her toward the van. I made one last attempt, but one of the men picked up a broken bottle and swung it at me. It struck my arm, and I began to bleed profusely, but I would not let this deter my momentum. Suddenly everything went dark as I was struck from behind with a lead pipe.
When I woke up, I was in a hospital, and Cheyenne was gone. I could see the elderly couple standing outside the room talking to police. I quickly found my clothes, and, discovering I was on the first floor, I dressed and slipped out an open window.
I searched for Cheyenne and eventually found the warehouse in Chicago that was now burned to the ground.
Sometime later, the police picked me up as I attempted to track the sex traffickers who took Cheyenne away. I was returned home and eventually graduated from high school and joined the United States Marine Corps.
With the help of individuals with whom I made contact while serving in the military, I was able to see the organization dismantled that first enslaved me, but that is, as they say, a story for another day.
I have never stopped looking for Cheyenne, and I think of her often. I still bear the scar of the stab wound from the broken bottle, as I left before it could be properly stitched up. It reminds me that the evil in this world must be fought with all our strength. As I stare at the faces of the missing, I see Cheyenne in each one of them.
In my dreams, Cheyenne is still on that dairy farm in Wisconsin. I see her lying beside me on the warm grass, where, as we watch the clouds drift by, we had found happiness for the first time in our lives.
I sincerely believe it is through God’s intervention that I am here today as a survivor of human trafficking and not a casualty. I stand here today not only as a survivor, but as a living testament that there is always hope and a light inside all of us that no one can extinguish. My prayer is that I will see Cheyenne again one day and that she will have found the peace and happiness I have, and she will know that a part of her will always remain deep inside me, forever in my heart.
Learn the signs of human trafficking, and call the human trafficking hotline at 1-888-3737-888 if you suspect someone is being trafficked. To learn more about the signs of human trafficking, visit the Truckers Against Trafficking website http://www.truckersagainsttrafficking.org or the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign http://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign/indicators-human-trafficking
I hope you will join me in the search for missing and exploited children and help to rescue the next Cheyenne before the evil in this world extinguishes the light in their eyes. Although these children may be missing, they will never be lost, as long as we keep them in our hearts and remember the hope that tomorrow will find them in our arms once again.