Editor’s note: The following story contains information from interviews conducted by The Times-Gazette with two women who offered to share their experiences with human trafficking, prostitution and drug abuse. Their names have been changed to protect their safety.
Alexis had her first hit of cocaine at 15 years old.
At age 17, one of her friends taught her how to prostitute herself for cash and drugs. It wasn’t until later that Alexis found out her friend was making money off of her.
“She was teaching me how to put myself out there, and eventually I started doing it, too,” she said. “She made me feel like it was OK, like it was perfectly normal. Then I started noticing she was getting extra money… for taking me somewhere.”
Now 28 years old, Alexis has served one prison term already, and at the time of her interview she was headed for a second one. She has been addicted to drugs on and off for the last 10 years, and she doesn’t know how many times she’s been arrested. Her only hope is to check into a treatment program after being released so she can get her life in order.
“I love who I am sober,” she said.
While she was still 17, Alexis’ friend got her a fake ID and brought her to Columbus, where she was hired at a strip club. When she wasn’t drinking or dancing, she said, she would go to the owner’s house and try his cocaine – and other things.
Several other girls were in the same situation, she said.
Time went on, and soon she found herself in Dayton, where she was arrested for having a needle on her. She spent three weeks in jail, and after she was released, there was no one to pick her up. Her family was long gone, and she had precious few people to call friends.
“I sat at a bus stop for three days,” she said. “Everybody kept asking me if I was alright, and then this man, he walked by and asked me if I was alright, and he ended up taking me to his house.”
It wasn’t long before Alexis was high on nerve pills – Xanax, she recalled, though heroin is her preferred substance.
“I passed out, then woke up and I was being taken advantage of,” she said. “He made me walk down a street, and it was prostitution. Cars stopped and knew exactly what I was doing.”
It was fear that kept her there, Alexis said. That, and the drugs.
She was there for a week before an acquaintance was able to bring her back to Highland County.
Though she didn’t go into great detail about the events of that week, Alexis remembered vividly how she felt.
“I was just in the city. I didn’t know nothing or no one. I was scared. I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “I felt… unwanted, unloved, unloveable.”
She felt betrayed by herself most of all, she said. Alexis never painted herself the victim, instead taking on herself much of the responsibility for what happened.
In many ways, Alexis said, it was the sexual trauma from her childhood and her early drug addiction that sent her down the wrong road, and she feels like she holds the blame for both. But she still hopes to make things right. The only time Alexis showed emotion during the interview was when she said she ruined a clean streak a few months ago by using methamphetamine – and when she said it, she broke down in tears. She would have been 24 months clean.
Sara was a little older when she first traded her body for drugs, and she’s “not sure” if she’s ever been sold – but she never really cared. It was always about the drugs. She didn’t sell herself until she was 21, although she began using drugs well before then. She was sexually molested when she was 5.
The 24-year-old showed an expression of guarded surprise when she realized it had been three years since she first exchanged sexual favors for dope.
It wasn’t that she didn’t know what was going on. She always knew.
“I just didn’t care,” she said. “I knew, but I didn’t care.”
No matter what, though, it was always for the heroin, her drug of choice. Always. She couldn’t keep away from it, still can’t keep away from it, and the people she offered her body to knew it, too.
“They knew it was because I was a heroin addict,” she said.
At the time of the interview, Sara had been clean for a while, but she had no plans in place to keep her from going back to heroin. And she recognized that if she stays here, it’s only a matter of time before she uses heroin again. If she does, she said it’s even more likely she’ll continue to sell herself to get it.
When asked how that makes her feel, she paused for a moment.
“I’m not proud of it,” she said. “I don’t lie about it. But I don’t want other girls to do it.”
While Sara kept direct eye contact for much of the interview and showed little emotion, when she spoke of her little sister, it didn’t take long for her to lose her composure.
“My little sister is out there in heroin right now, and in order for her not to (sell herself), I would go out and sell myself first,” she said. Tears began streaming down her face. She quickly regained her poise.
When asked if she’s ever been pimped out, Sara said she remembers other people “hitting me up” to go prostitute, and she can only assume they made a profit off of it.
Either way, at the time, it never really mattered to her. She was willing to do anything for the heroin.
Sara said based on her experiences, she understands prostitution and human trafficking are a problem in Highland County.
“You’d be surprised,” she said.
Alexis’ and Sara’s stories resemble many others from around the region and around the nation: A traumatic sexual experience at a young age is followed by adolescent drug abuse, followed by prostitution in exchange for drugs or money, and in some cases, the addiction-fueled prostitution leads to situations where men and women alike are coerced by an individual into providing commercial sex acts for clients, while much of the profit goes to the trafficker. The victims are often left traumatized, with no money or resources, and still with an addiction problem.
According to Bhumika Patel, a regional coalition specialist with End Slavery Cincinnati, many variations of that narrative – some far more harrowing – are currently playing out in area communities unbeknownst to those who can help.
As reported by The Times-Gazette, Patel said in a recent presentation to the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition that the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Task Force identified nearly 400 victims of human trafficking from 2014-2015, although that only counts those who were reported by law enforcement agencies.
Many cases go unreported, Patel said.
That’s why REACH for Tomorrow, a local nonprofit based in Greenfield, has begun an effort to educate and mobilize members of the religious community to work alongside officials in the public sector to end human trafficking in Ohio.
Heather Gibson, CEO of REACH for Tomorrow (which stands for Restoring, Educating, Advocating, Collaborating and Hope – the organization’s five guiding principals) and president of the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition, recently announced REACH was awarded a $150,000 grant from the Ohio Attorney General’s Office to fund the effort.
“We think it’s more pervasive than most people realize,” Gibson said. “It’s a very uncomfortable area for some of the faith-based community to wade into. So, if we can make that easier or provide them with the tools and the things they need to make that easier, then that’s what we’re going to do.”
Greg Delaney, a Xenia pastor who partners with the attorney general’s office to mobilize the churches to address substance abuse, said the human trafficking grant came as a followup to work that had already been done with the church regarding the opiate issue. He recently spoke to the Highland County Drug Abuse Coalition about his own experiences with substance abuse, and has worked closely with REACH to win the grant.
He said substance abuse and human trafficking go hand-in-hand.
“We wanted to leverage what we learned about educating the church when it comes to opiate addiction, and adding trauma and trafficking information to that,” Delaney said. “What we’ve seen a little bit already in this space is we’ve had some faith-based groups pop up to house girls who have been traumatized by this and trafficked… I wept when they gave us the grant, because this is something that’s really important to me and the church.”
Gibson hopes eventually there will be an organized coalition effort in every community where human trafficking is identified as a problem.
According to Gibson, similar efforts have been made in response to the opiate epidemic here, specifically with the Highland County Drug Abuse Prevention Coalition, a group that brings law enforcement, drug treatment professionals, people of faith and other concerned citizens together to exchange ideas and solutions to the drug problem.
Gibson said the first step in the human trafficking effort is to organize and identify individuals who are willing to help create infrastructure for the program. Next, REACH will hold meetings with social workers and faith communities already serving those affected by the opiate epidemic.
“We’re going to start there, and we’ll build it as it presents itself,” she said. “Primarily, a lot of it is going to center around awareness and equipping communities.”
Gibson said education is key.
“We want to say, ‘This is what it is, these are the red flags and as far as agencies go, this is how you deal with it,’” she said.
For Sara and Alexis, the future is uncertain. But Alexis said she hopes her story serves as both a warning and a call to action for those who can help.
“(Human trafficking) needs to be brought to everybody’s attention,” she said. “It’s like everybody around here is oblivious to it, like it doesn’t happen. It does happen.”
Reach David Wright at 937-402-2570, or on Twitter @DavidWrighter.