It usually takes an arrest to pull a teenager out of the horrors of sex trafficking, and sometimes even that’s not enough, a survivor’s mother said.
Ruth Buckels of rural Story County, Iowa, shared her story Thursday at St. Ambrose University. She took on a 16-year-old foster care daughter in 2008, knowing nothing about her past. After a phone call from a Cook County prosecutor, the pieces began coming together.
Buckels’ daughter, whom she identified only as Brittany, had been forced into sex trafficking in Chicago.
In 2009, authorities were putting together an investigation hoping to catch Brittany’s traffickers, and they needed Brittany to testify against them, Buckels said.
Brittany couldn’t do it.
“They couldn’t guarantee her safety even two years after the trafficking ended for her,” Buckels said. “That’s how deep it goes.”
It ended when an officer arrested Brittany for prostitution, and Buckels said that was the best thing that could have happened to her.
Now well into her 20s, Brittany still lives with the nightmares of what happened to her, according to Buckels, who adopted her when she turned 18.
For example, dating is tough because Brittany is afraid of being touched, Buckels said. She also flunked out of college because she couldn’t go to class for fear someone would look like one of her traffickers.
Parenting Brittany was hard, Buckels said, because she had to get used to the teenage girl locking herself in a bathroom, staying up all night, changing her appearance almost daily and lying. As a victim of trafficking, she would lie to stay alive, Buckels said.
Brittany never knew someone could love her unconditionally.
“I claim you,” Buckels would tell her. “I value you. I love you. You’re mine.”
Like most victims of sex trafficking, Brittany was abused as a child by a relative of her birth family.
Tina Frundt, a sex-trafficking survivor, relates to Brittany’s story. Frundt, who originally is from Chicago and started Courtney’s House in Washington, D.C., to help other victims, also was a victim of child abuse before she was forced into trafficking. At 16, she was arrested for prostitution and spent a year in a juvenile detention facility, although Frundt said that alone wasn’t enough to save her.
Frundt had to learn to value herself, and that goes back to the effects of being abused. She said 99 percent of sex-trafficking victims were abused as children, often by someone they know. She added that traffickers target vulnerable children.
“People don’t get it, but it does happen way more than people can imagine,” she said.
Frundt also shared her story at St. Ambrose, which hosted “The Child Next Door: Quad-Cities Human Trafficking Conference” on Thursday.
Sex trafficking is different from prostitution in that victims are forced or coerced into the trade and made to perform sexual favors for no money in return, Frundt said. She added that victims are all ages, not only minors, and while the focus seems to be on girls and young women, boys and young men also are trafficked, and the stigma against them sometimes is greater.
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Among organizers of the conference was the Rev. Brian McVey, rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davenport.
McVey said sex trafficking exists in Iowa.
“We’re a rural state, a mind-your-own business state,” he said. “We’re the perfect place for sex slavery because we don’t think it exists.”
Maggie Tinsman, former Iowa state senator who also spoke at the conference, pointed to a recent police discovery of a prostitution ring in Muscatine as one sign that sex trafficking exists in the Quad-City area.
“They’re looking for teenagers,” Tinsman said. “They go where teenagers hang out.”
In 2006, then-Sen. Tinsman helped get a human-trafficking law passed in Iowa, the 16th state to do so. Human traffickers can now be charged with a felony.
Buckels said parents need to open up if they suspect their children may be victims, adding she speaks around the country about her adopted daughter’s experience.
“I’ve gotten death threats,” she said. “I’ve been told to shut up.”
Frundt said immediately after her talk at the conference, a woman from Iowa approached her and said she suspected her granddaughter might be a victim of sex trafficking in Chicago. Frundt said she called law enforcement officials from the conference.
“They’re on their way right now to investigate,” she said.