Advocate talks about how to help victims of child sex trafficking
“Tracy” was rescued from her child sex trafficker by a drug dealer. It was the first time anyone had intervened on her behalf in the six years that her trafficker spent recruiting, transporting, advertising and selling her sex for his profit.
“I became so malnourished and depleted, no one wanted to buy me anymore,” she said, which led to a beating. She was broken and bloodied when the drug dealer visited her trafficker and took her away.
Tracy was one of an unknown number of boys and girls forced into the sex trade in the greater St. Louis area, including Southern Illinois. Experts agree the number of victims is “high” and “growing,” but struggle to assign a number or percentage.
Earlier this week, an accused sex trafficker with ties to Belleville was linked to the death of a young child whose decomposed body was found Tuesday in a Centreville garage. Las Vegas police alerted Centreville police of a tip from a woman who said her husband had killed the girl and left the body in the garage in 2013.
The husband has been arrested and charged with sex trafficking his wife and accepting or receiving earnings of a prostitute. The couple had two teens in the Las Vegas home, who are now in protective custody according to reports.
They’re sexual assault victims with a side of domestic violence. They’re abused and manipulated by their trafficker.
Ann DiMaio, physician at SLUCare who works at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital’s child protection unit
“People always think it’s a Ukranian girl named Svetlana. It’s Keiras and Keishas,” said Dr. Ann DiMaio, who works with child victims at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, and are just as likely to be from the greater St. Louis area than not.
Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation may support that anecdotal evidence: In 2013, the Uniform Crime Report listed six child trafficking victims rescued in the United States. In 2014, there were 57; in 2015, there were 92 child trafficking victims. The number of victims rescued in 2016 has not yet been reported.
Most people see there’s something going on so they turn their head away. If every(one) turns away, then nobody helps.
Tracy, a former victim of a child sex trafficker in the metro east area
“I think if you talk to any of our agents that work (human trafficking), it’s really difficult to find who those traffickers are,” said Bradley Ware, a media representative for the FBI in Springfield.
“They’re very good at what they do. They really hunker down in the weeds.”
Many victims, doctors and counselors say, are children who are already somehow vulnerable. They become even more vulnerable under a trafficker’s influence and control.
In the last two years, a special unit at Cardinal Glennon has treated about 30 young victims, DiMaio said. They come to the hospital for a range of issues, including sexually transmitted diseases, but never admit they are victims of sex trafficking.
“They don’t come in saying, ‘Hello, I’m a sex trafficking victim, save me.’ Not gonna happen at all,” said DiMaio, a SLUCare physician at Cardinal Glennon. “They’re sexual assault victims with a side of domestic violence. They’re abused and manipulated by their trafficker.”
“Almost all” victims have a range of physical and mental issues from the abuses they had suffered, she said. All 30 who have gone through Cardinal Glennon’s exploitation clinic have had at least one sexually transmitted infection. They also have psychosomatic issues, migraines, repetitive gastrointestinal problems and gynecological complaints.
Donald Boyce, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Illinois, said his office has successfully prosecuted six people since 2013 on charges of child sex trafficking. He is careful to distinguish that these cases are public; he would not say whether other cases might exist.
“Sex trafficking can cover a broad scope of conduct,” he said.
Multiple statues may apply but sex trafficking is coercion into sex with someone for money, or something of value such as a place to stay or food.
“Other things that happen to an adult that aren’t illegal, but are (illegal) if it’s a child,” Boyce said, such as crossing state lines to have sex.
Sex trafficking is a federal crime. Solicitation for sex is a local or state crime, Ware said.
The following six people convicted of child sex trafficking do not include people from Illinois who may have been convicted in other federal courts, such as the Eastern District of Missouri, which includes St. Louis.
▪ Michael Johnson, formerly of East St. Louis, recruited four girls under the age of 18 for sex trafficking.
“Using actual physical violence or fear of violence, lies and mental manipulation, Johnson made the girls have sex with men for money, which he kept. Johnson knew or recklessly disregarded the fact that the girls were under the age of 18 at the time,” Boyce’s office said in a statement when Johnson was sentenced to 30 years in federal prison.
Johnson remains in federal prison in Greenville.
▪ Demerous E. Foxworth, formerly of Centreville, is serving more than 11 years in Greenville for sex trafficking of a minor.
“Documents filed in the District Court establish that in the summer of 2014, Foxworth contacted a 16-year-old female and established a sexual relationship with her. Shortly after meeting the minor, Foxworth offered to help her make money by engaging in illegal prostitution. Foxworth thereafter repeatedly posted advertisements on the Internet offering for the minor victim to engage in prostitution, for which Foxworth received a portion of the money,” Boyce’s office said in a statement.
Foxworth also recruited five adult women into prostitution, from which he kept some of the money.
▪ Timothy S. Griesemer, formerly of Jerseyville, text messaged a woman he knew that indicated he wanted to have sex with a minor. During an investigation, Griesemer repeatedly expressed to undercover agents that he wanted to pay to have sex with an 8-year-old girl.
Griesemer was convicted of attempted sex trafficking of a minor; he is serving 25 years in Greenville.
▪ David Driskill, formerly of Carrollton, Illinois, was convicted of commercial sex trafficking of a child in 2013. He made arrangements with an undercover officer to have sex with a 7-year-old girl in Jerseyville. Driskill is in federal custody in Florida until 2026.
▪ A married couple, Marcus DeWayne Thomspon, and Robin Thompson, both formerly of Park Hills, Missouri, were sentenced for sex trafficking of a minor in the Southern District of Illinois. Robin Thompson was sentenced to 25 years for her role in the recruitment, transportation and advertisement of a girl from Illinois for commercial sex acts in Florida, Georgia and Louisiana.
She is serving her sentence at a federal prison in Alabama.
Marcus Thompson was found to have recruited, transported and advertised the minor girl for commercial sex acts over a six-week period. He advertised the girl online, arranged prices, services and meet locations with men to have sex with the girl. Thompson, now 29, had sex with the minor girl at least five times in June and July 2015.
He is serving a life sentence at a federal prison in Arizona.
Tracy’s trafficker, she said, “is gone.” She would not specify if that meant he is away from the area, in prison, or dead.
She said he started with compliments and kindness before moving to physical abuse and drug addiction to control the girl from the ages of 13-19. She is in her early 20s now.
Tracy, not her real name, asked for anonymity and spoke to a reporter by phone. A representative from Hoyleton Youth and Family Services in Fairview Heights was on each end of the calls. For her safety, Tracy asked through those representatives to not allow anything that could identify her to those she knows. She remains fearful.
Tracy would not say whether she or the two other girls she knew while she was being trafficked had sexually transmitted diseases.
Buyers were not all men, she said, and victims are not only girls. Johns were of all races, ages and physical appearances. Anybody could be a john, she said. All kinds of people were.
DiMaio, of Cardinal Glennon, said johns may think they’re getting a safer encounter with a younger girl.
“They assume girls weren’t as used or full of infection. I hate to tell these guys, but no. You’re going to come down with something — I hope it falls off.”
“They’ve been used,” DiMaio said of the victims. “It takes a while before they can trust” the staff at Cardinal Glennon or other agencies trying to help.
Child trafficking victims are usually in some way considered vulnerable, DiMaio said. Perhaps there’s a history of sexual abuse, physical abuse, or neglect. Any of those could make a child susceptible to the techniques a trafficker would use.
“First, it’s ‘I’m going to save you. You’re so beautiful,’” DiMaio said traffickers tell potential victims. She said most victims have a home life in which they lack attention from parents.
“They can be very charming,” Kristen Eng, a prevention supervisor at Hoyleton, said of traffickers.
They (johns) assume girls weren’t as used or full of infection. I hate to tell these guys, but no. You’re going to come down with something — I hope it falls off.
Ann DiMaio, physician, on the rate of sexually transmitted infections that child sex trafficking victims have.
Tracy did not speak about her life before being trafficked, and did not say how she initially met her trafficker. But no one intervened at her first meeting with him, which was at a fast-food restaurant.
“Many people seen a much older individual, heard the conversation, and just walked by,” Tracy said of the first time she met her trafficker in person. “Somebody saying something would have made a difference.”
She said that first conversation was “definitely inappropriate.”
“He was in his mid 20s and I was 13. (He was saying), ‘Hey baby, how you doing, wanna go to a party?’”
“Most people see there’s something going on so they turn their head away. If every(one) turns away, then nobody helps.”
In the life
Once in, there isn’t a choice for the victim if he or she stays or goes, Tracy said.
“You could want out as long as you want (but you’re) controlled through fear, abuse and drugs,” she said.
Tracy said her trafficker supplied her with synthetic marijuana and bath salts starting when she was about 15, and the detox after she left was “horrible.” She does not use drugs now, she said.
“Drug use is a major component” of sex trafficking, she said, because it allows the trafficker to use physical control over the victim if the mental control starts to fall short.
Most traffickers will “get the kids addicted to drugs,” Ware said.
Then “we have a better understanding of how hard it is to get these kids away from it,” he said.
Tracy said she knew of two other girls being trafficked similar to how she was. She and law enforcement officials said some children are victimized by their parents.
Finding johns wasn’t difficult until the end, Tracy said, after the years of physical abuse, mental abuse, and drug use had taken its toll.
“It was usually somebody (the trafficker) knew” or friends of friends. The trafficker would also drive her to an area known for prostitution. She’d “stand on the street for 20 minutes” or less before a john would appear.
Learning to trust again, and learning life skills that were neglected while they were being victimized, is where organizations like Hoyleton step in.
Recovery can be a long process, Eng with Hoyleton said.
“What does that really look like? What things can we do to help support that?” she said.
Tracy was in “the life” for six years. She spent some time afterward sleeping on the drug dealer’s couch, and then crashed with family friends for a couple of years. She did not talk about her family.
“Everyone in the street culture does not agree with traffickers or abuse against women,” she said, citing a kind of street code. The drug dealer who removed her from her trafficker was among those, and gave her food and allowed her to sleep on his couch for a couple of years.
About three years after the drug dealer took her from her trafficker, Tracy found Holyeton.
“People do have a passion and want to assist,” Eng said.
Holyeton recognizes that victims need medical help, counseling, a place to stay and the life skills most people learn at home.
Without help, many girls “go right back to the life they came from,” Ware said, a sentiment echoed by DiMaio.
Organizations like Hoyleton all over the state are poised to bring victims like Tracy from victim to survivor to “thriver” status, Eng said.
“Especially if they’re recruited as a teenager, they don’t have the skills parents would have taught them. Life skills are very important,” Eng said.
Hoyleton helps arrange lodging for former victims, no easy feat given that survivors often arrive with nothing. Hoyleton works with a network of professionals to help survivors to catch up on school, as well as get the medical attention they need. Medical care includes everything from drug abuse recovery to dental care.
One of Hoyleton’s programs is called NOVATE — Network of Voice Against Trafficking and Exploitation — that educates agencies and others about how to identify trafficking victims.
Cardinal Glennon staff has come to realize when a patient in the emergency room could be a victim.
“The girl who comes in, and everybody looks at each other and said ‘Something isn’t right,’” DiMaio said. “The dynamic is wrong — the ‘aunt’ or ‘uncle’ is overbearing, controlling. And the patient is passive, submissive. ... Even with the normal mother is overbearing, the kids are rolling their eyes, looking at their cell phone.
“She’s fearful of her trafficker,” DiMaio said.
Right now, Hoyleton connects survivors to providers, but may someday provide more direct services.
Tracy said she now works nearly full-time and is attending school. She hopes for a future in public health.
Tracy also wants to help others caught up in child sex trafficking, as only a person with firsthand experience can do.
“When I come across someone who has been in the life, I share parts of my story,” said the soft-spoken woman.
Had someone, anyone, said something to her during that first conversation with her trafficker, her life would have been different.
“Somebody saying, ‘Hey, what are you doing?’” would have made a difference, she said. Instead, “They didn’t want to interrupt their day — people don’t know how” to interfere.
Human trafficking victims in federal cases
Ages 25+, or unknown
NOTE: This table shows the total number of trafficking victims involved in federal human trafficking cases. The FBI’s data do not distinguish between sex trafficking victims and labor trafficking victims.
Where to help and get help
- Hoyleton Youth and Family Services provides connections to medical help, counseling, lodging, educational opportunities and more.
- Hoyleton offers training available to anyone to recognize sex abuse victims. Parents can learn to monitor social media and have conversations with their children about sex abuse. Call Kristen Eng at 618-688-4739 for more information, or go to www.hoyleton.org
- The Sexual Abuse Management Clinic at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center offers evaluation of suspected physical or sexual abuse and neglect, counseling recommendations and referrals and more. To make an appointment for evaluation for suspected child sexual abuse, call 314-577-5347.