Under the stage lights in the San Juan Community Theatre, a survivor of sex trafficking told the audience her story for the first time. A resident of Orcas Island for the past 11 years, she was forced into the sex trade by members of her family from the time she was 3 until she was 23.
Eventually she was put in the victim witness protection program and legally changed her name. Now in her 50s and a mother of four, she has gone on to higher education, received therapy and been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, explaining that she hadn’t known what happened to her was defined as sex trafficking until after she had escaped.
“There are things that will always be incomprehensible to me,” she said. “My goal is to go beyond surviving, and there are times when I really am thriving.”
The woman spoke at Shared Hope International’s event on domestic minor sex trafficking June 24, to raise awareness of the issue. According to Detective Stephen Parker, there are no active cases in the San Juan Islands currently.
“The hope is that we’re giving people the preventative tools, so that it doesn’t happen here,” said Jo Lembo, Puget Sound regional growth strategist. Lembo and her husband Nick Lembo, who is on the board of directors, were previously pastors who now work full time with Shared Hope.
The event featured a 20 minute documentary by Shared Hope, Chosen, and a panel to take questions afterward from the audience. The film detailed two girls’ experiences in being drawn into sex trafficking, and how they were able to escape. One, an 18-year-old girl named Brianna, was chosen by a man who frequented the restaurant she worked in. Brianna was intercepted by Shared Hope before she was taken away to another state by her traffickers. The other, a 13-year-old girl named Lacy, was controlled by a gang for a number of years before she was able to get help.
Shared Hope offered a few ways that people can try to identify a victim of sex trafficking. Changes in behavior, such as absences from school or isolation, changes in lifestyle such as unexplainable money sources, expensive gifts and changes in peers such as different friend groups or much older boyfriends.
The Orcas Island woman spoke about looking for signs as well, noting that there were multiple people in her life during that time who knew something was wrong, since she often missed school, was moved around often and was very reserved. Still, she said, nothing was done when she reached out for help from adults at age 6 and 10, until her self-rescue as an adult.
According to Reuters, the U.S. Justice Department arrested 1,140 people in June on charges for sexually preying on children, often over the Internet. Parker commented at the panel that social media was a major way in which sex traffickers are able to target people and build a relationship with them, as well as a place to get information about them.