Getting Out Is the Easy Part
By: Beth Jacobs
I was told I’d get a ride home, but, instead, I was taken to a truck stop, raped, and brought to Chicago against my will to be prostituted by a man who was really a pimp. I was sex trafficked for six years of my life, beginning at age 16.
During the grooming process I was told not to trust the police. I was told they were just going to arrest me, and it was true. I was arrested hundreds of times. Most of these arrests were for disorderly conduct, but they were still arrests. While this was happening to me, I was afraid. I didn’t ask for help because of that fear. My trafficker told me these wicked people in the suits wanted to put me in the system and never let me out. If they ever learned I was a minor, I was done; they would keep me forever. I was being deceived, but, at that time, I believed it. It seemed like every grown up I knew wanted something from me, and none of them would ever help me. My parents put out a missing person’s report, and I was being arrested almost daily at one point. I often wonder how that was possible … I mean how one police entity could be looking for me while another had me in and out of custody like a revolving door. How did that happen? We need to fix our system, because it is broken.
The last time I was arrested was my ticket out of the life. I was running from a serial killer who was focusing on prostituted women. My trafficker sent me and another prostituted woman to Minnesota to wait out the killer. We were the bottoms, and the traffickers didn’t want us to die by someone else’s hands. He was saving that privilege for himself. I went to jail on a $50 warrant. My trafficker wanted to leave me in jail overnight. But I wanted out, so I had a “regular” wire the money to a bondsman, and I was freed.
When I got out, I didn’t know what to do. I always say “getting out was the easy part.” This was so true. I didn’t know who to call or who to ask for help. I didn’t want to tell anyone. Because of the shame and fear, I lived in a hotel, barely leaving the room for four months. I went out to prostitute myself from 9-11 a.m., just long enough to pay my hotel rent and eat that day. My self-esteem was gone. When people get out of a human trafficking situation, we think, “Oh, good, another one ‘rescued.’ ” And we start to look for the next person in trouble. That is as far from the truth as you can imagine.
I had issues … serious issues … enormous issues. I was afraid, ashamed, and didn’t know how to put my life back together. The first issue I had was ID; I had no ID. Where was I going to go without ID.? People need ID to secure housing, get a job, get formal IDs … the list goes on and on. In many states, you need a birth certificate to get ID, and you need ID to get the birth certificate. This is a vicious cycle. It reminds me of the chicken and the egg … which comes first, and which one will be accepted to get the other. In Arizona, you need a Social Security card to get the ID, but you need the ID to get the Social Security card.
I’m a survivor who is lucky to work at an organization that listens to survivors’ needs. I am grateful to work for Truckers Against Trafficking (TAT), because they’re willing to fight for us and create change where survivors really need change to happen. TAT has begun taking on the monstrous issue of ID. We have participated in a webinar with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), trying to reduce this roadblock by training DMV workers. Many were not aware of this issue. AAMVA works with all of the Driver Motor Vehicle departments (DMV) throughout the country. From this training, we have continued the conversation and met others trying to help victims get ID.
We have had one success to date. A detective with the Phoenix police department has been trying to get ID for a young lady who just turned 18 for over a year. The detective has this girl’s birth certificate in evidence. She has taken it out to attempt to get this ID a few times but has not been able to get her Social Security number. TAT was able to connect the detective with the right person at the DMV, and now this young lady has ID. For the entire year the detective was trying to get her ID, she was forced to stay in the life and be prostituted. She had no other way to eat and have a place to sleep. We don’t think about the consequences of not having ID. Most of us take this for granted. This becomes an issue that re-victimizes many of those who have escaped their traffickers. Keeping ID is a tactic used by most traffickers to keep the person under control. Some are forced to go back to their trafficker, because they have no other options. I get to present at AAMVA’s conference about this issue on Aug. 16, 2016. I’m looking forward to training about this issue. We need a representative in each state that will help survivors of human trafficking obtain their IDs. I hope we all work together to change the policy around needing ID to get ID. Once a survivor gets ID, he/she can begin to pull the rest of his/her life together.
Safe housing is another vast need. We are failing our victims who need safe housing. Escaping from your trafficker is very scary. Victims need a safe place to lay their heads. According to a survey Polaris Project did in 2012, the United States only had 529 beds specifically for human trafficking victims and 1115 other beds in shelters that have a “human trafficking program.” (It’s important to note that these are not vetted programs.) This is a grand total of 1644 beds. This is nowhere near enough. According to aspca.org there are 13,600 shelters for animals, and each of these have a lot more than just one bed. Something to think about ...
Healthcare is often overlooked. When a person is in a safe place, he/she can begin self-care. Many survivors I have worked with struggle with mental health needs. We can’t get mental healthcare. We are entitled to 10 sessions with a therapist through VINE (Victim Information and Notification) for victims of human trafficking. Because of the amount of trauma we undergo, we might start trusting the therapist between sessions six and eight. We definitely need changes to happen here. Victims need therapy coupled with educational/support groups to begin their journey of recovery. We are all different, and so are our stories. Our recovery will be individual too. There is no “recipe for success.” Be open to a variety of healing techniques.
Human trafficking programs should employ survivors. It’s vital that victims see others who have been in their shoes, have made it and are recognized as valid professionals and employees. Most large anti-trafficking agencies do not have survivors as employees. In my opinion, this needs to change. If you say you support and empower victims of human trafficking, then demonstrate that in practical ways. It would be great if government funds gave incentives for agencies that employ survivors. We need a skill set to help us be self-sufficient. We also need to feel there is hope for us, that we can get a second chance and make it. What does it say about survivors if no human trafficking focused agencies hire them?
As many of you know, vacating convictions for human trafficking survivors is important to me. I feel this issue down to my soul. It is a need that must be met and an issue that has become part of me. It keeps a passion and a drive within myself to continue to promote change. I have worked very hard on this issue locally and federally. People often ask me why this is so important to me, and why I always bring it up. This was my experience.
I was called for jury duty 15 years after I escaped. I thought, “Hey, this is great! Jury duty! I have officially made it to the other side. I am not a criminal anymore.” I had a college degree, a real job, and I was called for my patriotic duty. I was so excited. This was a major feat for me. I arrived early and was dressed for success. I was prepared to be there for at least two weeks. I felt proud as I was ushered into the court room to carry out my duties as a citizen of the United States. We were all sworn in. All of a sudden I hear, “Raise your hand if you have ever been arrested.” I thought, “What? Arrested? You want me to stand up and tell this group of 45 people that I had been arrested countless times for prostitution? In front of everyone?” I didn’t raise my hand; I couldn’t disclose that. My heart sank; I was being defined and excluded for being trafficked again. It didn’t matter what I did in life; I would always be judged and would never be good enough.
I called the sheriff aside so I could tell him I was arrested. I didn’t want to disclose in front of all the potential jurors what I had been arrested for. He went to talk to the judge. In a bellowing voice the judge told everyone to leave the court room … except for me. The jury was instructed to stand in the hallway. The door was left wide open, and the attorneys began to grill me about my arrests. I felt like I was the one on trial. I couldn’t hold back the tears. I was mortified, ashamed, and felt so defeated. Every person standing in that hallway knew exactly what I was arrested for. The judge tried to talk to me. I don’t remember what he said. I was too traumatized to think or talk; all I could do was cry. I went downstairs to the jury pool room. An assistant asked me what happened. I couldn’t stop crying. To me this meant no matter what, I would never, ever, ever be accepted on the other side. I told the woman I would not get picked to be a juror because of my criminal history. I would be put on trial during each voir dire, so she excused me from jury duty. I tell you this as an example of one of the reasons it is so important to be allowed to vacate criminal charges a victim collected while being trafficked. It becomes a way our society can re-victimize us. Criminal backgrounds often exclude us from employment and safe housing too. How can we prevent this? By creating legislation that implements state and federal vacating laws.
I am working hard on vacating laws both locally and federally. I was able to get a law passed in Arizona last year … the state’s first vacating law. House Bill 2553 was written into law in March 2015. I learned a lot about legislation last year. It’s amazing what can be done if you just put your mind to it and try. I am also advocating for New York Senator Gillebrand’s new legislation in 2016 for a federal vacating bill to help those who have been prosecuted under federal charges. This is very important to them, as many have had to register as sex offenders. These victims are hardly sex offenders. They, too, were trafficked and are being re-victimized by our current laws.
Through my legislative work, I have found I enjoy doing public policy work. I can see the change from this work in my lifetime. When a law is passed, people must pay attention and begin to do things differently according to the law that I helped put into place. I also feel like one of the luckiest girls on the planet to work for an agency like Truckers Against Trafficking. They listen to survivors and give us a platform for our writing in this “In the Know” column. They are also trying to help us make changes where they can. We are working on a protocol for obtaining IDs, so people are not forced to prostitute themselves to have their basic needs met. Lastly, I get to train law enforcement and truckers all over the United States about why victims respond to them the way we do. This puts things into perspective for me. I have come full circle and am so thankful I get to work through my passion to make a living.
As Helen Keller so eloquently says, “None of us can do everything, but we can all do something.” What are you going to do to be the change you want to see?