Friday, October 21, 2016

It Happened to My Family - It can Happen to Any of Us

The worst phone call that any parent can receive is that their child is missing.  This is the call that I received in the Fall of 2011 from a relative that I had entrusted to care for my child.  The call went like this, "Your daughter did not come home yesterday. She left and got in a car with a man who was parked down the street.  She was very disrespectful." My immediate response was to ask whether or not the police had been called.  Instead of a yes, I received an explanation as to why the police had not been called and why they did not go looking for her.

At that moment, 5 hours and 300 miles away, my body went numb and my vision blurred.  How do I call my partner and share that our daughter is missing from my relative's home? How do I share that they are not looking for her? That they have not called the police? I think my heart stopped beating. I have never been so terrified in all of my life. I had to call my partner.

My partner and I immediately called the police at which time they informed us that because she had left the house voluntarily, we needed to call back in 24 hours if she had not returned home. At this point, she had already been gone for 18 hours; a point that fell flat as the police were not willing to search for her.  Again, I went numb.  We made a "missing person poster" and headed to Ohio.

Once in Ohio, we contacted the police again. They still were not helpful so we created our own search team consisting of other family members and began looking for her ourselves. After 5 days of not hearing from her, my daughter finally called her older sister from an unknown number. Her sister informed her that we were looking for her and my daughter gave approximate directions to her location.

When we got her in the car, upon looking at her, my soul shattered.  I knew what had happened to her without her saying a word.  She possessed a bag that only contained baby oil, a razor and shaving cream, lingerie type underwear and a disposable minute phone. She was dressed in clothing that I had not purchased. She was wearing makeup that I had not purchased. She was being sex trafficked.

My child had only been sixteen for 2 days before she went missing. She went willingly with this strange man because he said that he would be her friend. She had met him at a gas station where he was employed. During the time that she was gone, her address had been changed, she had been issued an Ohio ID, and had been held captive in a place she did not know. The man threatened to harm both her and our family. She was only supposed to be going to a carryout when she reached out for help.

I took her to a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program to receive confidential and expert care. This is where I learned the details of her assault. Her points of vulnerability were exploited. She was a young female of color, with a history of being a runaway, mental helath issues and a past victim of sexual assault in a city that was unfamiliar.  All of these things that I knew about her should have alerted me to not let her stay with relatives; not even temporarily.  After all, I train and facilitate on these issues for a living.

My daughter was one of the fortunate ones. She had supportive people who were actively looking for her. It is essential for families to remain a viable option of unconditional support for a victimized child as she may be told that no one cares and that the perpetrator is the only person who "cares".

When a child is victimized, the family is victimized as well. It is imperative to provide the family with the tools and resources necessary to provide a supportive environment to the child who was victimized. So what can you do to help? Find out what programs exist in your area. Volunteer at an organization that is providing services. Donate to an organization. Becomce equipped to recognize vulnerability and become an educator in your community.  There is something we can all do.

TAKE ACTION: Learn how to end child sex trafficking in your community. Help to raise awareness. Read, share and post this fact sheet about child victims of human trafficking through your social media, personal and professional networks.  We must work together to protect our children.

Chéree Thomas is Program Director at the Michigan Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence and a member of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.