Emilia was born in 2000 in Everett, Washington a blue-collar coastal town on the Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. Her father left her family when she was still an infant and left her mother with very little options other than to move from Seattle back into her childhood home in Everett. Emilia’s mother was abused physically, emotionally, and sexually by her own father for as long as she could remember. To cope with this trauma, Emilia’s mother sedated herself with drugs and developed a physical addiction that she could not kick. She was clean enough throughout her pregnancy that Emilia did not suffer lasting effects, but her addiction would play a significant role a few years later as the cycle of abuse was regenerated, and she would allow men to have sex with Emilia to get money for drugs or be given drugs in exchange for sex with her daughter. This cycle of sexual abuse started when Emilia was eleven years old.
Child Protective Services eventually got involved in the case and removed Emilia from her mother’s care and placed her with her grandparents. By this time, Emilia’s grandfather was old and largely bed ridden so his sexual perversion did not extend to her. However, he was never loving in a normal way and continued to be verbally abusive, sexually suggestive, demeaning and controlling throughout the years she stayed in their home.
Emilia ran away from home every few weeks and had a few “houses” she could stay at. Her “fee” to stay at these houses included sexual favors and petty theft to “pay” her way. She successfully avoided drug use for a few years, seeing what it did to her mother, but eventually succumbed to the anesthetizing effects of opioids when she was fifteen years old.
Like her mother, she was able to stay clean throughout a pregnancy that resulted in her giving birth to a healthy girl when she was sixteen. Seeking some security for her daughter, she moved back in with her grandparents, withstanding the constant verbal abuse from both until her grandfather died after a few months of her living there. It looked like things were changing for the better. Both Emilia and her grandmother felt a huge sense of relief when he died and really committed to each other with good intentions of raising this new baby girl in an environment that neither of them had ever been afforded.
But then her mother reappeared in the picture and a steady flow of addicts, “boyfriends”, perverts, and pimps regularly flowed through the house.
ASSESMENT and RECRUITMENT
One of Emelia’s mother’s boyfriends was kind to her and he really stood out from the rest. His name was Ramone. He stuck up for her when other people in the house were denigrating her. He told her she was pretty. He bought her some inexpensive jewelry and other small gifts. He told her she was special. When she had arguments with her mother or grandmother, Ramone would let her stay at his place. They would watch movies together. He would change her daughter’s diapers. He would even babysit sometimes. Slowly over time, she spent more time at his place than her own. This became a divisive factor between Emilia and her mom. They would argue about it passionately. Emilia did not see the big deal. Ramone was her mom’s boyfriend, there was nothing inappropriate going on between the two of them. Emilia felt that her mom was being irrationally jealous. Eventually this tension burst and in a screaming fit Emilia’s mother gave Ramone an ultimatum- it was her or Emilia, he could not have both. To Emilia’s astonishment, Ramone chose her and that night she moved into his house, and brought her daughter. Her mother threw everything that belonged to Emilia out of the house and Ramone came alone the next day to recover everything for her.
For just about the first time her life, Emilia felt safe. She felt wanted. She felt protected. She felt desired and not just for her body.
GROOMING and BREAKING
This feeling lasted less than two weeks. Ramone didn’t seem to have a typical job. He said that he owned an entertainment company that also organized parties and events for clients. One day he came home, and he was really upset and depressed. He said that he had lost an account that he had already spent a bunch of money on. He was really distressed and even started to cry. Emilia felt proud to be able to comfort him and that night they slept together for the first time. It was gentle and loving and felt special to her. The next morning, he thanked her for being so kind and considerate and apologized for having sex with her the previous night. He headed out and told her he was determined to fix this problem and would come back with some answers.
He disappeared for five days with no contact, no phone call, email or text. The house was bare of food and Emilia went back to her grandmothers to stay until she could get word from Ramone. Emilia was worried. This was the first time that she’d felt loved and safe, and she didn’t want to lose Ramone. She didn’t know if she had done something wrong, but was ready to do anything for him. She needed to keep her daughter in a safe and loving home, and away from abusive men like her grandfather. Ramone was her only chance at the life she wanted. No one knew where Emilia’s mother was for this time period so the stay with her grandmother seemed ok. Finally, Ramone called her and said that he was in Las Vegas and had found a way for them to not only recoup the money he had lost but make it big. He said that he would return in a few days and lay out the plan. He offered to send her some money in the meantime, but she declined it feeling stable for the moment with her grandmother, and not wanting to burden him when he already had a lot on his plate.
Emilia’s mother returned late one night, and, in a rage, she woke Emilia and her daughter and kicked them out of the house. It was late, dark, and cold. Emilia texted Ramone and he said that he was actually almost back to Everett and could pick her up in less than an hour. Emilia was hugely relieved and sat on her grandparent’s neighbor’s stoop until he arrived, trying to keep her daughter warm enough to sleep.
Ramone showed up in a brand-new car and was dressed up like he had just come from a party. She commented on his new car and his clothes and he told her it was all part of their new future. They drove back to his place and she was a little confused when she got there because the fridge was full, there was a new flat screen television, and a new bedroom set in their room. But what really knocked her off balance was that there were two other women there that she had never met before. Ramone introduced both girls as his business associates from Las Vegas. They were beautiful older women, about eight years older than Emilia. They welcomed her, hugged her, and excitedly told her about how they were all going to become rich. They fussed over Emilia’s baby daughter and that night they all got high. Emilia slept with Ramone. He was gentle and welcoming, and she was glad he was back even though many things in the house appeared as if he had never left. She didn’t want to ruin it by questioning anything.
The next morning, all the girls went to get their hair and nails done and went shopping for sexy clothes in preparation for a big night. Emilia was caught up in the excitement. Her daughter was passed between each girl throughout the day and they all felt like one big family. As the evening grew closer, Ramone explained to Emilia what the big night was all about. There were some big wigs from Las Vegas coming in to party with all of them and the girls needed to make them feel special. Ramone said that the girls did not have to have sex with the men but flirting, rubbing, and massages were going to be part of it. The girls got ready, Emilia put her daughter to bed; they all got a little stoned, and then four men showed up.
One of the men took an immediate liking to Emelia and latched onto her almost immediately. In no time, he wanted to go to a bedroom and have sex. Emilia quietly protested to Ramone but he cajoled her to just go in there and have a good time. Touch him, make him feel good, that was it. Ramone gave her some pills to “take the edge off” and the rest of the night was a blur.
She awoke by getting violently ill and feeling terrible. Her body ached. Her private parts were bruised and painful to the touch. She had flashback images of numerous men violating her throughout the night. In her nightmarish episodes, she saw Ramone in the room encouraging the men and the other girls from the house at times taking pictures. She was very confused. She was in a room alone, naked. It was a room that she did not even recognize. She could barely get up and walk straight but grabbed her clothes off the floor, they were torn, and made her way to the door and peered out into a hallway. There were men talking in another room. She walked out to the room that the men were in and asked them what was going on. She did not recognize either of them.
One of the men said to her, “You belong to me now, you work for me now.”
Emilia did not understand but over the course of the next few hours she began to.
She was the property of this man and he expected her to make money for him. She needed to work off a debt that Ramone owed him. The debt was $20,000 and she would not be returned to Ramone, or her daughter, until she earned the money.
The next several weeks were a hellish, drug induced haze for Emilia. She was mostly confined to the house she was in. Men would come and go having sex with her all hours of the day. She would see the outside world only when she was driven to various hotels where more men would show up to have sex with her. She eventually realized that she was in Sacramento, California. She couldn’t run for fear of losing her baby daughter. They told her if she would cooperate, everything would be fine. If she tried to run, they would start by killing her grandmother, then her mother, and finish with her daughter. She didn’t know what drugs they were feeding her, they were mostly pills but after a few weeks they would shoot something into her arms too. She was equally scared of the strange men raping her, and her controllers, and was terrified of the drugs too. They made the days and nights bearable in a way, but she began to lose control of her mind. Time and space began to blur, and she just existed in a strange space between existence and invisibility.
MAINTAINING CONTROL and AUTOMATIC
One night began like normal; she was put into a car and they drove a long way on back roads and stopped at a hotel. She sat in a hotel room alone, not exactly sure of what would happen next but expecting the usual. Some man would come to her door, she would greet him, pretend that she was excited to see him and have the opportunity to please him and they would proceed. She learned all of this the hard way. If she did not exhibit enough “excitement” or totally please her buyer, she was beaten. Emilia was a quick learner and a survivor, she adapted to the demands place on her quickly.
But on this particular night, when the knock on her door came, it was Ramone. He dropped to his knees in tears, repeatedly saying how sorry he was for getting her into this. They held each other and cried together for what seemed like an hour. He grabbed her things and hustled her out to his car. It was the same new car he had when she had seen him last. He drove her the rest of the way to Everett to be reunited with her daughter. They didn’t get there until the next evening and she collapsed in bed with her daughter and slept like she hadn’t in weeks.
The next day, Ramone brought her breakfast in bed and explained to her that they were only halfway there. He said he was so sorry but he still owed the men $10,000 but thankfully he had bargained with them to let him have Emilia back. She only had to make $2000 a week. The other girls were already in Las Vegas getting things ready for them as soon as their debt was paid off. If she could make $2000 a week, everything would be ok. She could take care of her daughter during the day, drop her with her grandmother in the evening and work through the night. Ramone would arrange everything and set up the dates for her.
Emilia had begun to feel the withdrawal effects of the drugs that she had been forced to take and asked Ramone to help her ween off the drugs. He agreed to help her but they needed to buy some first. This cost got added to the $10,000 he still owed.
Weeks went by. Emilia was sold for sex every night, but they never seemed to reach the magic number of $10,000. Something always went wrong. Ramone needed to make trips to Las Vegas to finish getting things ready for when they were free, and Emilia just continued to work. She realized that somehow, she was for sale on the internet and Ramone would control that from wherever he was. She just needed to show up at the right place and time that he directed and please the client.
Months went by. She celebrated her eighteenth birthday by servicing eight different men immediately following her birthday celebration with her daughter and grandmother.
INTERVENTION and RECOVERY
One day, Ramone texted Emilia and told her when and where to meet a client. It was late afternoon and it was an “out” call. She arrived at the hotel with a brief description of what the client expected, how much to charge, and a photo of the buyer. All of this came from Ramone, wherever he was. She knocked on the hotel room door and when it opened, she could see that this time it was something completely different. The man at the door greeted her by her real name and explained to her that he was a Police Officer and that they were not there to arrest her. They knew all about her story and wanted to give her a way out.
Another woman showed up within minutes, introduced herself as a Victim’s Advocate and said she was there to help her with anything she needed. Emilia was confused. The Police Officer and Victim’s Advocate tried to explain to Emilia that she was a victim of sex trafficking and they wanted to bring justice to her trafficker Ramone. This angered Emilia immensely. She wasn’t a trafficking victim, she was Ramone’s girlfriend. He was her boyfriend. He cared about her and took care of her. He didn’t make her do this, she wanted to help him. She was doing it for their future, for her daughter. It was her choice! They explained to her that because she was eighteen, she had the right to refuse their services, but they were scared for her. The men that were trafficking her were violent men.
She didn’t understand. What men? They showed her pictures of Ramone, she confirmed that he was her boyfriend. They showed her pictures of other men. The pictures made her want to vomit. She felt dizzy looking at them again. They were the men from Sacramento that had abused her. They were the men that Ramone owed money too. They asked her to please relax and take a deep breath. This next photo, they warned, would be painful to see.
It was a photo of Ramone and the men at a club in Seattle. It was dated the day prior. She didn’t understand. The Victim’s Advocate tried to explain to Emilia that Ramone was working with these men. It was all a set up. They were a trafficking ring that had a pattern of recruiting, grooming, and breaking girls into the sex industry. Emilia was not the first and unless she helped them, she would not be the last. They showed her a picture of another girl that looked quite young, that they suspected Ramone and his crew were grooming right now. But at this point they said, this young girl is still likely safe. They did not think that she had been raped and abused yet. But time was running out. They needed Emilia’s help. They said the girl in the picture was 14 years old.
Emilia could not comprehend all of this at once and simply froze. She completely shut down and could not answer any questions. They offered to take her to the hospital to get looked at. She was barely coherent and just sat in a daze. She felt invisible.
RESTORATION or RE-TRAFFICKING
Emilia was taken to a nearby building and brought in to a comfortable room with a couch. She grabbed one of the stuffed animals on the couch, laid down and tried to make sense of things. She slipped in and out of sleep. Her mind was racing but she was so tired.
Was Ramone behind all of this? He couldn’t be, could he? He loved her. It must all be a misunderstanding. What about her daughter? If Child Protective Services got wind of this, she would lose her daughter immediately wouldn’t she? Then what? Her mother and grandmother could not protect her.
Could she trust these cops? Could she trust anyone?
She just wanted out but how? What else would she do? Where else could she go?
She could never be normal.
If she cooperated with the police, could they protect her? And her daughter?
What were her options?
Eventually she fell asleep.
This story, while we created it as a vignette for a class on Human Trafficking at Stanford University, isn’t far from true reality for many victims. This is one version of how the crime of trafficking occurs. If you would like further training on Human Trafficking, during Human Trafficking Awarness Month (January) we are offering our Human Trafficking Awareness Training for a donation of $25. Sign Up Here.