HOUSTON – Years after a teenage human trafficking survivor escaped a life of abuse and bondage, she is still plagued with images and nightmares that reflect her past. Even though her captor is behind bars, she is still in a state of fear. She goes by the name "Danielle." At an early age she was in and out of different foster homes, and often neglected. "I just remember wanting to escape," she said.
"I was 15 when I was taken, and put in a house," said Danielle. The next few years of her life were a blur. She was kept in a house against her will.
"I was beaten, starved sometimes. I was put in a room where he would look through I little window. I was a sex slave, and I had to do whatever he told me to do with different people. I didn't say no, there was no saying no. I didn't have a voice," she said.
Human trafficking is defined as a form of modern day slavery, and involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to exploit human beings for some type of labor or commercial sex purpose. Victims are often lured with false promises of well-paying jobs or are manipulated by people they trust and forced or coerced into prostitution or labor. Danielle says she was not coerced, she had no other choice.
Property Value: Branded for a Trade
Her wounds would eventually heal, but their was one mark on her body that remained permanent. While inside of her kidnapper's house she was forced to get a tattoo. "They put it on when they said I was his, that I belonged to him," she said. Even though she has been free for several years, the tattoo, which was put on her neck, has become a stumbling block and daily reminder of the turmoil she went through. "I'm always trying to cover it up. I don't look in the mirror often, because every time I see it, it brings back fear. I'm always scared that when I'm out somebody will see it that knows him and automatically know who I am because of the tattoo," she said.
"Branding and tattooing, is very common in this arena," said Special Agent Patrick Fransen who has worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigation since 1998. Most recently Fransen has been heavily involved with investigation concerning violent crimes in the Innocence Lost Task Force. "A lot of these girls, when we get them out of the life, they make huge strides to improve their life but they always have that tattoo left on their bodies. We've seen tattoos not just in visible areas, but in private areas with dollar signs, which just emphasizes the fact that this is property and that part of her body is making money and that is all the pimp or trafficker cares about. " said Fransen.
The tattoo becomes an advertisement for the trafficker. "The tattoo is used for many reasons, for that pimp to show off amongst his friends, to show that she is his property, and to tell her that she is not a human being. He is tagging her as his property, just like a barcode. Another reason a pimp would brand his victim is for psychological control, and every time she sees his name or his logo on her body it tells her that she belongs to him," said Fransen.
According to a recent FBI report, human sex trafficking is the most common form of modern-day slavery.
"There is a continuity between the slave trade of the past and human trafficking of the present," said Rice Professor and Historian Caleb McDaniel. "There are similarities there. To legally abolish the institution doesn't necessarily mean that the practices that are associated with it have gone away," said McDaniel.
To prevent slavery, is to protect those who are most vulnerable. Children, and those who are pushed toward the margins of our society are targets.
"Slavery rather than going away entirely finds new ways to adapt to new environments that it is in. Within an American context slavery and the history of slavery was brutal and inhumane. On a fundamental level, slavery was a legal institution meant the ownership of people, the procession of people as legal property. People were bought and sold, trafficked, and moved around across various boundaries," said McDaniel.
Violence was a strong tactic used by American slave holders, along with specific methods of dehumanization.
"Slaves were renamed, forced to wear different clothes, families were torn apart, there was extreme violence and punishment by ways of whipping which would leave scares on their bodies. All of that were ways to dominate people and to really exploit their humanity," said McDaniel.
"In the 19th century when the abolitionist movement was first getting organized in the north, one of the things they called attention to were runaway slave advertisements that they found in southern newspapers in which slave holders would say forthrightly they were looking for somebody who had a particular marking on their face or on their back." said McDaniel.
In 2014 victims of trafficking experience fear, violence, and the bondage of psychological chains. "In some regards it can be even worse than being locked away. These children are chained in their minds and they have no other alternatives. The pimp or trafficker has told them they have no were else to go, and no one will except you now, you're a prostitute so who would want that," said Fransen.
Our State, Our City, Our Children
The average age of a trafficking victim is 12 years old. Domestic sex trafficking is wide spread in Houston. To see how the state of Texas fares head to this website: http://sharedhope.org/what-we-do/bring-justice/reportcards/. According to Harris County Prosecutors boys and girls who are vulnerable, such as run-aways or children who have been abused can be easily harmed and highly influenced. According to Special Agent Fransen, "pimps are now casting a wide net." The predators are targeting any minor that they can lure in.
"This is not just an international issue. We've recovered children and adults from every walk of life, from every race from every religion and ever socioeconomic group. It doesn't matter where the girl is from. If you have a daughter build up her self-esteem. Let her know that she is beautiful, she is wonderful, and she is a perfect person in her own way," said Fransen.
"I want people to know that this is everywhere in America. When you hear of human trafficking its not just in foreign countries, it happens here," said Danielle. She is in the process of getting her tattoo removed, and discovering her voice and sense of self. "I have personality, a lot of personality that I didn't know I had before," she said.
If you would like to know more about human trafficking and the efforts made to combat the issue head to these websites:
To Report a Crime: Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-3737-888
FBI/ Awareness and Initiatives: http://www.fbi.gov/about-us/investigate/civilrights/human_trafficking
Redeemed Ministries: http://www.redeemedministries.com/
Historians Against Slavery: http://www.historiansagainstslavery.org/main/
Elijah Rising: http://elijahrising.org/
Houston Rescue and Restore: http://www.houstonrr.org/
Polaris Project: http://www.polarisproject.org/
A21 Campaign: http://www.thea21campaign.org/
We've Been There Done That: http://wevebeentheredonethat.org/
Free the Captives: http://www.freethecaptiveshouston.com/