What inspired you to support the movement against child sexual slavery and exploitation?
I first came into contact with children who had been sold for sex in America a few years ago, while I was completing my MSW degree from UC Berkeley. At the time, I was interning as one of the emergency department social workers, and my job was to conduct the initial interview of physically and sexually abused youths who were brought into the emergency department for treatment. My job during this time was to capture the story of the child and/or parent/social worker who brought the child to the ER department and to provide the child with all appropriate support services and to develop an aftercare treatment plan.
During the course of my internship, I began to encounter children who were brought into the ER who had been sold for sex and I began to notice patterns in their experiences. It was almost as though the children who had been sold for sex had the same story. One of the girls recalled that she had been walking home from school one day, or to a local shop after school, and she had noticed a man staring at her from a car. The next day, the man was out of the car and seemed to be waiting for her. He said hello. Then they began to form a relationship. He became her boyfriend and she fell in love. They started sleeping together – remember, these girls were twelve to fourteen years old, and often these men were thirty plus. Then he started smoking marijuana with them or beating them. Then he introduced the girl to the other ‘cousins’ (the cousins were the other girls on the ‘track’ or street where child victims are sold for sex). Last, he asked the victim if she would go out with the girls. I remember one girl recalling the story: she went reluctantly watching for her pimp the entire time to make sure she was ‘safe’ and another girl seemed excited for what could happen next as she went out onto the ‘track’ for the first time.
During one of these interviews, I met a mother and her daughter who were desperate for help. The mother explained to me that she was afraid that if she took her daughter home that her daughter would become victimized by her pimp again but explained that they had nowhere else to go. The mother pulled me aside and began to tell me her story. We left her daughter in the small emergency department treatment room; I remember she was reading a book about horses. The girl was twelve years old but it was clear that she had learning difficulties – she had slow speech and she appeared to function at more of an eight-year-old level.
When the patient’s mother pulled me aside that day, I had no idea that my life was about to change. The mother explained to me that her daughter was being sold for sex and that she did not know how she could get her pre-teen daughter away from her pimp. She explained that the daughter had been reeled in by the pimp and was not smart enough to see through his manipulations. Her daughter thought she was in love. Disturbed by the story, I began to ask her mother questions. I asked the mother if she could move, but she explained that even if she tried to apply for other low-income housing, it could take years for the transfer to be approved due to long wait lists.
By the end of 2010, I decided to become a part of the solution. I said “yes” to moving forward with developing a non-profit organization that would build and create clinically sound treatment centers and restoration homes for children who have been sold for sex both in the United States and internationally. We opened our first home in the Philippines in November 2011. Since we opened that home, we rescued more than thirty girls out of sex slavery. The girls we rescued are thriving and doing well. Four of them graduate high school this March. One girl came into our home pregnant and now mother and baby are thriving.
We are working hard to open additional homes. Our vision is to see every boy and girl who has been sold for sex in America and internationally to have access to the protective shelter and specialized services needed to stop cycles of victimization and provide them with the opportunities they need to move forward into recovery. Unlikely Heroes wants to see child sex slavery ended worldwide.
How did you go about setting up your non-profit organization?
I began to connect with other people who were well established in the anti-human trafficking movement. I set up a lot of meetings and I asked a lot of questions about what the greatest needs were in the USA and internationally. The unanimous answer was homes. We need restoration homes to put these kids into so that they can be rehabilitated from the trauma they endured.
Then I had to move forward with the enormous task of fundraising. I had to talk to a lot of people and ask all of my friends and professional contacts to help. The first few fundraisers we had were really just all of my friends and acquaintances showing up to show their support for me and for our decision to help rescue these kids out of sex slavery.
What are the aims of your organization and what is the plan to achieve them?
We currently have one home in the Philippines. We are working to expand our project there to open additional homes to meet the great need we have encountered. We are also working to open new homes in Mexico and in the United States.
Our vision is to end sex slavery worldwide and to restore value to human life. Our goals are to provide comprehensive restoration services to child victims of sex slavery through our restoration homes and therapeutic restoration program. We also provide education and awareness training on the issue of child sex slavery worldwide.
We want to open homes that do more than just feed and clothe these children – we really want to make sure that these kids are provided with the therapeutic treatment services they need to be fully rehabilitated so they can live lives of freedom. We want to see them back in school, learning skills and trades, and also given the opportunity to heal from the trauma they have been through.
Last year, I took a team of therapists to our home in the Philippines and we spent time working with the girls we rescued. We provided them with art therapy, trauma therapy and one-on-one counselling sessions. Every girl in our home spent time individually talking with the counsellors we brought over. It is really important to me as a social worker to make sure that all of the services we provide will really help to foster full healing for the girls and help to move them out of the trauma they endured.
I remember one of the girls we worked with was taken from the brothel she was at to an army barrack where she was gang raped for three days. Her story was so heartbreaking, but we watched her begin to put down some of her walls and really experience healing during her time with us. Many of the girls have given us encouraging feedback about our time with them. One girl told us that her nightmares have stopped and another girl told us that she felt like she could start dreaming of a new future again.
Can you describe what your day-to-day role involves?
I spend a lot of time on program development and of course, fundraising. I also do a lot of speaking on the issue of human trafficking. Last year, I trained over 6,000 people on the issue of human trafficking. I speak at a lot of conferences all over the USA and internationally. I’m currently in Korea, training over 2,000 Korean leaders about the issue of human trafficking.
I am the main visionary behind Unlikely Heroes. I am very motivated to develop a reproducible therapeutic treatment program that will be able to help hundreds and hundreds of children. I want to see as many children as possible rescued from brothels and given access to full restorative care. My passion to see these kids rescued and restored is what fuels me on a daily basis.
I also plan events, work with the board, and meet with other human trafficking abolitionists. I work with the directors of our programs to launch new homes. I also work with our team on a daily basis to develop new projects and events to further our mission.
What training or experience did you already have that enabled you to start your non-profit organization?
I have a master’s degree in social welfare from UC Berkeley and I worked with victims of trauma and trafficking at a children’s hospital in the San Francisco bay area. I’m trained in crisis assessment and child counselling techniques. I’ve also run a few managed care programs including an in-patient drug rehab center and a transitional housing program for foster youth transitioning out of the foster care system.
What have you learned on the job or in training that has been particularly useful to you when working to rescue victims of child sex slavery and exploitation?
When it comes to working with survivors in this field, I have had to learn to adapt. Working with people in different cultures who value things differently, I have had to learn how to find common ground, to honor and to celebrate our differences. These girls are so resilient. They are strong and caring and compassionate and they have hopes and dreams. I have learned the power of hope and healing and forgiveness by working with these girls. People are people. People are valuable, and they are worth fighting for.
One thing that I have learned is that ‘rescue’ is just the first step in the process of restoration. One of the most important things I’ve learned is that to really see life-long healing, our team has to be committed to living, loving and sacrificing for these kids long-term.
What legal improvements or changes would help to abolish child sexual slavery and exploitation?
Internationally, nations need to protect their children from sex slavery. Human trafficking is the second most profitable organized crime in the world, and it is the fastest growing. We have to protect our children from this atrocity. One way would be to put pressure on governments to stop child sex slavery and also to provide restoration homes and support services for child victims. A second way would be trade embargoes for nations known to be child sex trafficking offenders.
In the USA, one of the most important changes that needs to happen to abolish child sex slavery is to criminalize domestic minor sex trafficking. We need to make changes to the criminal justice system that increase criminal penalties for traffickers (pimps) and buyers. We also need to implement protective provisions for the child victims.
The average age of entry into prostitution in the USA is thirteen years old. These are little girls who are being raped for profit. Unfortunately, when these kids come into contact with the police, they are often arrested and taken to juvenile detention centers. What is crazy about that is that our law also states that a thirteen year old is not old enough to consent to sex. So how can the same law arrest these children? It doesn’t make any sense. These kids are victims not criminals. They don’t need jail time – they need restoration care services.
We need many more restoration homes in the USA. We need stricter penalties for traffickers and we need this population of child victims of sex slavery to be re-branded by the government so they are no longer thought of to be criminals (prostitutes) but instead, they are thought of as victims in need of support services and restoration care.
For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
I’m going to give three easy steps for people who want to help:
- Get educated – Watch the documentaries, read the books. Study the laws and read the Trafficking in Persons Report.
- Get Connected – Volunteer at a local anti-human trafficking organization. Begin to connect with other people who are doing something to help rescue and restore these kids.
- Take Action – Hold a fundraiser and raise money for an organization you believe in, hold a movie screening of a documentary you believe in and invite your friends – help to get other people educated. Just get out there and start doing something.
Bring your gift, your strength and your resources forward to help end human trafficking. If each and every one of us would just do something, I really believe that we could see this end in our lifetime.
Recommended websites/further reading:
For more information on Unlikely Heroes and what we are doing, visit our website.
Please do request an action packet, read the Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 (this is an excellent resource) and get educated. Check out Shared Hope International and Polaris Project, two great websites with a lot of information and resources.
Great Movies: Sex and Money Film: A National Search for Human Worth, Pretty Young Girls, Nefarious.
Great Books: Disposable People, Renting Lacy: A Story of America’s Prostituted Children, From Congress to the Brothel.