Human Trafficking and Mental Health with Rebecca Bender


Speaker 1: On today’s episode, we are talking about human sex trafficking. I realized this is a taboo subject and not everyone is willing or wants to talk about this. Towards the end of this episode, my hopes are that you have a better understanding on the topic of human trafficking, that you understand the causes, effects, and consequences, and that through Rebecca’s story, we can dispel some of the major myths surrounding sex trafficking. Welcome back to another episode of Mindful Space.

Today, we have Rebecca Bender with us. How are you? Hi, I’m great. Thanks for having me. Of course. Thank you for joining to our first virtual interview. Yeah, it was fun.

Yeah, I’m excited. So today, we are going to be talking about a very serious topic. Let’s start with a brief intro of yourself. What do you do? Why are we talking today?

Speaker 2: I’m a survivor of human trafficking. I run a nonprofit now that helps train law enforcement on identifying and responding to trafficking, both in investigations and operation. And we also run an online school called Elevate Academy. It’s the largest online school in the world to help survivors get job ready after a skate.

And we have 1600 students spanning 600 U.S. 19 countries. So it’s been a really incredible journey to just use your story and helps to help make social impact both in communities across the country that have an ability to intercept and respond, but also for survivors to find seats at the table and join their community in helping move the needle forward on the topic as well.

Speaker 1: Yeah. No, I love everything that you’re doing. And I know we’re going to go more deep into it. For now, that was a great brief intro. Explaining your specialized training and the work do you do. I know you do trainings for the FBI and Homeland Security. Is that correct?

Speaker 2: Yeah, we’ve trained undercover cops, secret service, CIA, FBI, local PD, detectives, district attorneys, judges, any form of law enforcement, and all department. How is that experience? I love it. Training cops is one of my favorites. Okay. Because usually the teams we work with in anti-trafficking units, they really care about this issue. They care about learning about neurology and the brain. They care about trauma-informed response. They care about decreasing arrest. So really, we’re seeing a lot of criminal justice reform within the departments that we work with, which is a great shift to see in terms of making progress in areas that need attention.

Speaker 1: Yes, agreed. Completely agreed. What exactly inspired you to create this Rebecca Bender initiative?

Speaker 2: Well, as a survivor of trafficking myself, I can remember going to jail lots of times as a victim, and then the feds rating our home in 06, which led to a federal investigation and prison time for the other victims. And so I think when I first got out of trafficking, I can remember sitting at my kitchen table thinking, now what? What am I going to do with the rest of my life? I was in the government subsidized apartment living in poverty.

I had a mattress from Craigslist on the floor and a pot and pan from Goodwill for like 50 cents. And I thought, this isn’t freedom. Yeah, I was able to run and flee, but this still didn’t feel like freedom. I felt very trapped coming back to the same vulnerabilities that got me trafficked in the first place. So as I sat there and I kind of thought like, this isn’t freedom.

Now what? It inspired me to start figuring out how to use my story for purpose, how to make some calls to action with my testimony, not just tell a sob story, but really create, be a part of a movement that can create change. And that’s what began the journey of starting a nonprofit.

At first, we didn’t really know what exactly we were going to do. So I thought the name would be broad enough that we could identify our programs under that umbrella. And since we have two main programs, Equip, which is our law enforcement training and community professionals. And as that one grew, we started having survivors reach out and asking to be mentored on how they could find purpose with their story and how they can get involved, whether it’s with the child welfare agencies or passing laws in their state or on their task force.

And so we decided to create a second program called Elevate Academy. And really, it was at the time I was finishing getting my master’s degree online. And I thought if I can get a master’s online, I could mentor online. And so I created an online school. We started with just five women. And now to have 1600 in 10 years, it’s just been incredible to see so many other survivors taking seats at the tables across the country and their own communities.

Speaker 1: No, I think you’ve done a great job in using your your own story to give back, right, to the community. Tell me a little bit more of this, the learning experience at Elevate Academy. Who is it for? Like, who qualifies for this?

Speaker 2: Yeah, any survivor of commercial sexual exploitation, so it doesn’t just have to be trafficking, any any survivor of exploitation. So whether it’s labor trafficking, sex trafficking, the commercial sex industry, anyone that wants to exit or escape can join Elevate.

And generally, we ask that they’ve been out of exploitation about one year. And our focus is really job readiness, career development, career exploration, figuring out your gifts and your skillset, you know, your Myers-Briggs, your disc, your all of the things that help people kind of align their heart and talent, and and then give them access to networks of people, but also the classes that they need to really explore what going into those different arenas would look like for them, and how they can move forward in an area that they’re really passionate about to find economic empowerment and financial freedom. Because trafficking, you’re not really, you don’t get to explore your talents. And so a lot of people get out of trafficking and they don’t even know what they’re good at.

And so this is an opportunity for us to help all all people, women and men alike, to figure out what they’re good at and explore their talents and then and then decide how they want to create, you know, the future that they really dream of.

Speaker 1: What a great resource to have, you know, especially after going through something like that. When we talk about sexual trafficking, what are some common misconceptions about this or myths?

Speaker 2: Yeah, there’s so many myths about trafficking. I would say that a couple common ones are that this is only kidnapping. Common myth is that it happens overseas, which it is true, but oftentimes happens right here as well. Other common myths are, you know, I don’t know anybody that engages in in human trafficking.

It’s a big myth. A lot of buyers exist with wherever sex is for sale, which is a lot in our country. But I think those are probably our three biggest ones is people oftentimes confuse smuggling with trafficking.

That’s another one. You know, smuggling is a crime against a border, or often the people involved are willingly there, obviously, for their own marginalization reasons and needs. But trafficking is a crime against a person, where their choices, the violence kind of takes place, the force-fraud or coercion takes place. So those are two kind of couple misconceptions that it’s kidnapping, that it’s only overseas, that it’s smuggling, or that people that they know are involved in trafficking.

Speaker 1: Those are three big ones that I hear more and more people talking about this. So I think eventually those myths will be put to the side.

Speaker 2: Let’s hope. We’ve been doing it 15 years. They’re not yet. You’re doing great stuff like baseholps, or is it where you’re going to surround business?

Speaker 1: I feel like just talking about it, I mean, at least I hear more about it now in the news, out there, posters, like psychoeducation-wise. So I’m not saying we’re there yet, but there’s more people talking about it, hence why we’re here. What types of, well, it’s said that, I feel like another myth would be that they think that the sex trafficker is somebody that you don’t know. What is the common reality?

Speaker 2: Yeah, that myth of kidnapping has really permeated our culture. I think that creates shock value that engages maybe a viewer or a listener, but the reality is that less than 1% of traffic victims have been our stranger abduction. Most traffic victims are lured away by somebody that they know and trust, at least they think they know and trust. It’s part of what keeps victims in mental chains and coerced and controlled through brainwashing. What I tell people is that sex sells and oftentimes kidnapped people in basements are very sexy. And so we have to remember, for the trafficker, this is a business, and it’s about selling a product that’s sellable. And so how do you keep somebody in mental chains? Well, you get to know them, you figure out what their hopes and their dreams are, you offer them their hopes and dreams as a dangling carrot, then you have some strings attached.

If they don’t comply, you begin enforcing other tactics such as violence, threats of harm. And so it’s much more gradual. It’s a very increase in trust and expansion of boundaries. It’s very rarely stranger danger. I don’t think I’ve seen one case in 15 years of stranger danger really?

Speaker 1: I think you say stranger danger. I have a child, so I’m just thinking, you know, that’s who you just get taught and you teach, you pass on stranger danger.

Speaker 2: But it’s, you know, opposite. Yeah, yeah. And we want, I have four daughters, I absolutely teach stranger danger. But typically when you see issues of kidnapping, it’s not related to trafficking. It’s probably related to other forms of violence and abuse, but not the crime of trafficking. And so I think we, as experts, we can’t, you know, we can’t stamp everything as trafficking. Yes, abduction happened.

That’s horrible. We want to protect our children. Usually those perpetrators are not traffickers.

They’re there for their own, you know, devious reasons. But it’s not associated with the crime of trafficking. Traffickers use very different recruitment, grooming and grooming tactics. So it’s important to teach both. It’s important to teach stranger danger.

But it’s also important to know that traffickers will get to know you really well first. And how do we teach our kids to identify their boundaries? And when something doesn’t feel right, when something feels misleading or they’re in a situation that now they don’t know how to get out of, how do we also talk to our kids about that? Like, what do you do when someone, when you’re at a party and an older guy touches your thigh and you’re still uncomfortable, but you don’t want to be the Debbie Downer to your friends or you didn’t have another ride, your friends there, enjoying your time. So you just kind of put up with your boundaries being tested.

But we see in the case of Jeffrey Epstein, that was the first thing he did all the time, was test the young people’s boundaries. And so we got to do both. We got to teach both stranger danger. We also have to teach our kids what to do when their boundaries are tested, how to know what that feels like and what to do in response.

Speaker 1: Yeah, very important. Talking about this subject with your children, what would you say would be like the right age to start talking about this?

Speaker 2: You know, I always, we always, I would think that talking to children about safety should happen right away. You know, just because someone might, it might not be trafficking doesn’t mean we don’t, all kids safe from any type of predator of course. Usually kids in elementary school, age, we use a lot of stranger danger language. We do want to be thoughtful around a lot of predators, but target that age group are going to be friend to the parents. So parents need to be aware of who’s offering to pick your kid up for practice, joining different groups. So we, you know, those are things for parents to be aware of.

Good touch, bad touch, good picture, bad picture. Those are always books that are really helpful for kids in elementary age. We’ve even used the movie Frozen, or you know, when you think of like Elsa and Anna, it’s like, you know, Hans fast-tracked a relationship for a reason.

So any, any attempt to fast-track a relationship is a red flag. And so, you know, there’s ways you can talk about it without it being too much or, or age in ways that would be really age appropriate. When it comes to middle school, we recommend talking to kids about any of their gaming devices. Most predators are targeting gaming apps, but most online games have gotten really good about not allowing the exchange of images in the chat forums. So what we tell, what I tell my daughters is what we call a white minivan moment is if anyone is in the chat and they ask you to start chatting on a different device, because they’re going to try to get, gain the trust pretending to be another child and then get them to leave that app and go to another app where you can exchange photos.

That should be a stranger danger moment, a white minivan moment. And I’ve got a time for my daughters. Yeah, or my daughters running are like, Mom, someone’s trying to get me to chat off the app. And I’m like, give me their handle and don’t worry, I blocked and deleted them.

Like, okay, but next time I’d love their handles, who should also report them. And then when you get into middle school and or I mean high school and college, it’s those boundary question. And now it’s like running through verbally what you would what excuses you could have ready to leave a situation you’re not comfortable with, making sure a rideshare app is on the phone ready, a card is active, you know, going through some exit plans with your high school or college kid. So three different age groups really might be different predatory tactics. So you want to be sure that we’re that you’re teaching your kids the right things to look for.

If we just blanket everything, stranger danger, we’re going to miss situations that our kids are in all the time that are going to make them uncomfortable, or put them at risk for, for, you know, being a target to a predator.

Speaker 1: And you mentioned an example of a tactic if you’re in middle school, right, the one he’s with your daughters, to solve this. And you talked about tactics that the trafficker might use an elementary.

If you’re in high school or above, what would be some of the tactics or what are some of the tactics that you see that you usually see for them to manipulate someone?

Speaker 2: Those boundaries setting, you know, knowing when your boundaries are being tested is the high school and college age red flags. You know, if you’re at a party, someone’s making you feel uncomfortable, but you don’t want to be the one to leave, going through an excuse with your high school and college age kids of what let’s let’s walk through right now. What’s an excuse who would say if you want to leave a party, have them actually say it, you know, just creates kind of that muscle memory helps them to not be caught off guard, but that they’ve practiced and then making sure they have a rideshare app on their phone active and ready for use so that regardless of who got them to the party, they can always leave as soon as they’re uncomfortable. And we always hear parents like if you, you know, just call me, but do we do we create an environment for our kids to be able to call?

Do they think they’re going to get in trouble? Right. And so it’s, you know, all of that combined. But I think also talking about online safety with different social media platforms, if people are asking you to send photos, you know, you want to be really careful of who you’re talking to online. And it’s not just people of opposite genders. Oftentimes traffickers will use same gendered persons to help gain trust of a potential victim, make them think they have a friend, the friend will invite them to go to go out of town, go on a trip, go on vacation. And really when they arrive, the friend then wants them to meet their significant other or their partner. And now they’re stuck in another city.

That’s a definite tactic of traffickers is to isolate somebody from their community. So those are all things you can talk to your kids about so that you know if someone’s inviting them out of town, even if they’re in college, you know, I have a 24 year old and we definitely talk about things with our, you know, 20, 21 year old, they need to know if you’re, you’re a way at college and your friends invite you out of town, like what do you do when you get there? If something feels off or uncomfortable, who can you call?

What can you do? And even finding just another safe adult, sometimes kids don’t feel, the reality is sometimes kids don’t feel comfortable calling their parents. But if we can agree on who is a safe adult that you can and that you can talk to them, call this aunt, call this cousin.

Speaker 1: Like what’s the safety plan? Yeah, like thinking through a safety plan is definitely something you want to do before you’re kid to go off to college for sure. No, I can see how that can help. And nowadays with the Uber and the share rights, like you said, that helps a lot. Because I definitely have to call my parent or just bring it.

Speaker 2: Yeah, exactly. And you know, 18 to 24 is a really vulnerable age for trafficking. It’s because they’re over the age of 18. So traffickers tend to target right around that 18th birthday because who goes to jail for prostitution, not the trafficker, the victim.

And so they tend to, they know they take less risk by targeting someone 18 or over. But cognitive brain function still isn’t formed really before average age is 25. So you’re still getting a vulnerable, non, you know, non developed cognitive brain between 18 and 24. So it’s a very targeted age, which is why I think bringing up high school college is always important for any anyone that has a loved one in that age group know that that’s equally being targeted. It’s not just five year old, six year olds. It’s 18, 19, 20 year old vulnerable people are being targeted by traffickers too.

Speaker 1: Is there any way for us, the community to spot victims? Are there any signs? Or what makes it difficult to spot it?

Speaker 2: Yeah, this is a question we, I get a lot and I love and I did it. I focused on this specific topic in my TED talk because I think it’s so crucial. We often ask what would be the signs to look for? My answer is twofold. One is the way you spot a trafficking victim is the same way you might spot an alcoholic. Or like, how do you spot an alcoholic? It’s like, there’s not really a way for someone that’s a stranger to oftentimes spot a traffic victim, just like it’d be hard for someone buying a bottle of wine in a grocery store.

It’d be naive of us and probably harmful to assume that anyone buying a bottle of wine is an alcoholic, right? But if the people in that person’s life see signs and symptoms on a daily, regular basis, they’re the ones that are going to have access to seeing those patterns and behaviors, which might then lead to a red flag or at least being able to reach out for help for someone that has some of those signs. So some of those signs, if you are someone that’s closely intimately involved, whether it’s friends, family, loved one child of trafficking is a simple equation we call abuse plus money. So anytime you see potential signs of domestic violence in someone you love, they’re being isolated, they have physical signs of abuse, maybe they’re more heightened and on edge. They have a heightened emotional response to things.

They’re snappy. They sleep a lot during the day, but they seem to be awake at night, which is high prostitution hours. And then any increase in money, more travel, new car, newer bags, lots of jewelry, these that you know they might not normally be able to afford it as a waitress at 19. So any of that combined, abuse plus money is definitely a sign of trafficking. And that police should absolutely reach out to your local human trafficking task force and help to try to prevent any more ongoing exploitation.

Speaker 1: Let’s talk a little bit about your own personal story. How did you become trafficker? How did you your journey begin? And how did you get out of it?

Speaker 2: I was born and raised in a small farm town. I grew up in an average, you know, blue collar small town family. My dad worked at the local lumber mill.

My mom was a stay at home mom, she taught aerobics on the side. Just grew up normal, skipping rocks on the river, taking a salt shaker out to the garden to pick a tomato, just a kind of a normal small town kid. I used to have cows and sheep and you know, just grew up on a little bit of a farm. And my parents divorced when I was nine. I was a pretty ugly divorce. My dad started drinking after that.

My mom suddenly had to get a couple jobs to make ends meet. So from about nine to 13, at a lot of vulnerabilities, that I didn’t realize we’re going to be so impactful in my life. But I think that’s important because even kids from, you know, quote unquote, good homes, we all have vulnerabilities.

Every single one of us have something. And that time of the divorce made me feel very alone, very unimportant, you know, very unwanted, just because everyone was busy trying to rebuild their lives or cope with their own, the trauma of divorce in their own ways. And when I moved off to a bigger town from our small farm town, I learned that a coping behavior for myself was if I just said yes to everything, then I wouldn’t have to be alone. Yes, yes to every party, yes to every sporting activity, yes to every extracurricular, yes to every boy, yes to every drug.

If I just was the yes girl, then I wouldn’t never have to be alone. And unfortunately, that created a lot of boundaries that had been pushed for me as a young person and had been desensitized to a variety of things. But also it put me in a category in school where no one would have considered me at risk youth. I was on the soccer team, I was a cheerleader, I was on the honor roll, I played trumpet in the band, just very active in everything.

And so I don’t think anyone would have noticed that I was still really struggling. So when I went off, I graduated in high school a year early, I was accepted in Oregon State, had my door room assigned, I was very excited to get out of my small town. And even though I wasn’t in a tiny farm town of like 3000 people, I was still in the town of only 30,000. To us, that was the big city because you had, you know, a Walmart and a McDonald’s. So I was still excited to get out of the small town and go off to college. But that that summer I got pregnant. And I gave up my dorm room, stayed in my small town, went to community college, had my daughter.

And it was then that my friends who after they spent their first freshman year in their dorms, they went into an apartment, they got an apartment, they said, Hey, we have an extra room, you should come up. And I thought, Okay, finally, this was my chance to get out. And when I got there, those same vulnerabilities of feeling really alone, started to resurface, you wouldn’t know that when you’re young, you’re not thinking like, I think due to my childhood trauma, I’m experiencing stuff, you know, like, you’re just young, you’re just feeling lonely.

And, you know, I’m the girl on campus with the kid was not very popular 24 years ago, and or very common. And so, you know, I had a lot of those same kind of emotions and vulnerabilities resurface. And I think that made me a target to to traffickers, because I, I had this great need to be a part of something and to have someone help me figure out life. And I already had a lot of clearly expanded boundaries. And I had this vulnerability of being a single teen mom, right?

You’re in poverty, you know, you’re, you’re, you’re trying to figure it out. And so I met a young man on near near the college campus at this little restaurant that was budded up right to campus called Taylor’s. And I thought I was dating, I was dating this really charming, funny guy who always picked up the tab, he drove a nice car and had nice clothes. So I figured he must have a good job. And he made everything about me and the baby.

Everything was about we and us. And just started painting this picture for me of what I think broken nine year old me really wanted. But I really wanted for my daughter. So after dating me for six months, he invited me to move in with him. And I thought I’d met the one that I was going to get married and have a white picket fence and a dog named spot. So everything was going to be great. That’s what happens when you’re young and naive. And, and as I was packing up my apartment, he told me that his job was relocating him to Las Vegas.

And I begged to go. And I think that’s important to remind people because we think of these stranger abduction scenarios. And we’re not realizing that traffickers take their time to dangle, create a, you know, get to know what it is that you really want, dangle that carrot in front of you, and then lure you away with different manipulative tactics and love bombing and all sorts of, of, you know, narcissistic tendencies and relationships.

But they, their tactic is to lure you away. And so I got to Vegas and the trafficking started the day that I arrived. He brought me to an escort service and told me that I needed to make the moving money back.

And when I said escort, that sounds like prostitution. He, he slapped me across the face. And he said that I needed to go in that room and get the money back. And we had left my daughter with his brother that night. He told me we’re going to go out on the town and I was to see Vegas nightclubs. And, you know, meeting someone’s family is a natural progression of a relationship.

So it wasn’t a big red flag for me. I’d met his brother lots. I left my daughter with him for the night. I thought I was going to go out for a few hours. But in that moment of sitting outside of that escort service being physically assaulted, I can remember thinking, I don’t know where my baby is.

I don’t know the address to even if I wanted to jump out of the car and run right now, I wouldn’t even know where to tell anyone to take me. And so I pushed all the red flags aside and hoped it would be just dancing. I thought, you know, I can trust him. He, he knows this world better than I do. I’m in love. I want things to just go back to normal tomorrow, go back to being hopeful and excited.

And maybe I can trust him. And so I went in the room, I complied out of fear and not knowing a lot of options and, and went in the room and, and it was not just dancing. And at that point I was sold into human trafficking for nearly six years, bought and sold between three different traffickers.

Two of them tattooed their names on my back for ownership. I’ve been hospitalized for dehydration and overexhulsion, had my face broken in multiple places, severe, extreme abuse. Sometimes I was given an hour to sleep in the closet. I was really hopeless. And I tried to commit suicide twice. I just thought, I don’t, I don’t know how I got here.

Like I’m a good kid from a good home. I’m so embarrassed. I’m so afraid.

I don’t really know how to navigate all of this. I had multiple attempt escapes, but none of them went well. You know, I tell people life isn’t like a screenplay. The movie doesn’t always have the great twist and the great response. That’s not always real life. And, and, you know, you’re thinking, you’re trying to make split second decisions from a teenage, you know, young, early 20s, young adult brain that’s experienced a lot of trauma. And you’re having to make split second decisions, like in the blink of an eye that are life or death. And so it’s hard. It’s hard to figure out.

It’s hard to navigate all those hurdles in those moments. But thankfully, no six, the feds raided our home and allowed for an eventual avenue for a skate. Feds had been watching us for money laundering. We, my traffic red purchased a pizza shop in a suburb of Dallas, Texas that he had been laundering money through.

And thankfully, that’s what led to our eventual, his eventual capture. But it wasn’t again, like the movies, two out of of the victims went to prison for tax evasion with the trafficker because he had put everything in their social and they were too afraid to talk, which is what led me to want to train law enforcement on how to better investigate, how to do trauma and formed interviewing, how to really know the severity of brainwashing and, and what that’s like to try to help people exit what feels more like a cult than, you know, this, this, you know, horribly abusive person, although they are domestic trafficking, if it’s all indicators of cult behavior. So we can reposition our thoughts are like, how would you help someone exit a cult? How would you help them deal with the survivor group, the loss of community, reshaping rules that don’t exist anymore and into the new normal society in which they live? It’s, it’s a lot to help someone reintegrate after living in what feels more like an abusive cult setting.

Speaker 1: During those six years, I mean, I can only imagine what went through your mind, but what was, what was your mental health like? Were you aware of all these risks, you know, putting things under your name? Did you feel in danger for six years? Did it become a point where you were just, you just accept that your fate, you think if you wouldn’t have gotten rated, you would still be doing the same thing? Those are all great questions.

Speaker 2: I think, I think I could tell that my mental health was definitely suffering. I mean, no one lives in complex compound trauma and experiences that amount of PTSD and torture style brainwashed for compliance without experiencing, you know, mental health and living in a prolonged state of fear always affects our mental health, whether it’s anxiety or depression and not just fear of your trafficker, but you know, every person that bought you, it felt like you’re playing a game of Russian roulette every time you knocked on the door or you’ve gotten a car.

You didn’t know what to expect. You could have very dangerous buyers. You could have, you know, multiple, you have a 200% increase of homicide as a person involved in prostitution. So the fear of being strangled to death, left in a stairwell, strangled in a car was always present. And so when you live in that prolonged state of fear, both at home with a sociopath, but then also with the risk of the buyers and definitely a sexual mental health and then having experienced actual physical assault, sexual assault, I think towards the end, I can remember having this moment where I was sitting on the bathroom floor. And I started banging my head on the floor, like on the tile of the floor. I don’t know why, I just started feeling like I could feel my sanity slipping. Like I could feel it. Like I thought people were watching us and I’d check the mirrors in my cars and I thought maybe there were taps on my phones and there weren’t, there were any of those things. But it just stayed a paranoia and the state of being just the PTSD of jumping at any tiny thing. It got really intense and you do, you do feel like I don’t even know how to get out of this.

And so then when people say, well, why didn’t you just run? I’m thinking I could barely figure out what to eat for lunch. You know, like when you’re in that kind of mental fatigue, it’s really hard to make sound, you know, escape, you know, plans and decisions.

Speaker 1: And also the manipulation is there and all the different tactics they’ve been using for years at this point. You know, same as domestic violence, people always say that, well, why don’t you just get out of the relationship? Well, it’s not that easy, right?

Speaker 2: Right. And in addition to the, I think what people don’t realize about brainwashing is in addition to all of the consequence for not obeying the rules, not just physical punishment, but social, you know, social ostracism, food deprivation, sleep deprivation. Those are all tactics traffickers use if you don’t comply with the rules, but they also reward you for obedience. And I think that’s a part of the brainwashing. It’s a part of the abuse. And so then we see someone that it’s like, oh, she went to on vacation in Mexico, she must be fine now. It’s like, no, he purposely bought her a vacation after he beat her really bad because that’s a tactic of abuse. It’s a tactic of that honeymoon behavior. And it’s a reward for compliance so that they want to keep complying because you want to keep the good responses coming. You want to avoid the consequential, you know, the punishment at all costs.

So you, it’s a tactic that they employ purposefully. And then you layer on the complexities of the trauma bonding, not just with the trafficker, but then also with the other women in the home. You know, I can remember feeling like I just can’t leave the other women. I can’t, if I run, she’s going to be beaten. If I run, will her son get in trouble?

And if I run, who’s going to pay for her lawyer for her federal case? And so the bonds of feeling like, am I never going to see my best friends again? Are they going to be okay? And that survivor guilt really plays a part with what feels like your little community that you’ve had for so long. And relationships are a part of, you know, our evolution in terms of safety. It’s our map to safety, its relationship and community.

That’s what all of us feel. That’s what’s done, you know, kept our civilization alive from, you know, prehistoric times of community, create safety. And so when you’ve known that for so long as your community, it’s really hard to figure out how would you even navigate a new community?

It’s like, when I run, when I finally escaped and ran, I can remember getting back to my small town and thinking, how will I make friends? And where will I tell people I’m from? And if I apply for a job in my criminal record shows, will everyone in my small town know? Will people let their kids come over to play with my kid?

Will my neighbor look at me different? Like there’s so much of like the humanity side that then keeps you like, well, maybe I’ll just stay in this community I know a little longer and hopes that I can just keep the behavior in that reward kind of cycle. So it’s hard. It’s like trying to figure out which one do you do, risk it all and leave and start over with nothing. Or try to just keep everyone in that kind of like good behavior. That’s really hard when you’re in the moment of trauma.

You’ve only had an hour of sleep to pick which one to do, but thankfully chose the former and ran and decided to start over with nothing that it wasn’t worth the risk.

Speaker 1: How was your experience right after your release? What did you have to do in order to, you know, did you reunite with your family? Did you, I mean, you sang it’s really hard to get back into the community.

Speaker 2: When you say release, so I didn’t end up going to prison. Two of the other women went to prison. Four of us total two of us got to escape and two more sometimes. And so I fled the country. I went and lived in London in England for a year.

Figured if I was out of the country, they wouldn’t be able to find me. I’d live there about a year. And towards the end of that year, I started kind of feeling like it’s time to go home.

I didn’t know what that was going to look like. And, you know, choosing technically homelessness, choosing to go sleep on people’s couches. When you have a nine year old little girl and you’re 28 and you have this huge criminal record and a gap in job history and bad credit and PTSD from all the complex trauma. It was like, it’s scary. You don’t have a pillow or fork to your name.

I had nothing but, you know, two suitcases and my nine year old. I thought, okay, here we go. It’s, it’s got to be better than what I’ve experienced. Even if it’s going to be hard, it’ll be a different kind of hard. And it was hard. I mean, sleeping on couches until I could get, you know, government housing.

And then having me know my one mattress from Craigslist in the pot and pan from Goodwill and, and it’s soft. And I thought this doesn’t feel like freedom. There’s still got to be more than this. But I determined in that moment, I can remember having the thought. If I give the same amount of time to this new life that I had given the old one, and then, then, then God wouldn’t be outdone.

It was kind of what, what went through my mind for me. And, and so I decided I’m going to give this new thing a shot for six years that I can’t expect to undo in 30 days. What took six years to build. And I chose in that moment to dig my heels in as hard as it would be for six years. And I’ll be honest, it took about two, took about two years of living in poverty and having the stigmas about me come out, trying to figure out navigating, you know, single parenting. Took about, it took about two years until I started to feel like things were turning around. So two years of sticking into really hard things.

Still not easy. How long has it been now? Oh gosh, I got out in 2000. 2009, I came back to the U.S. from London. So 2006, the feds rated December. Yeah, December 31st, 2007 is when I got on the plane for London. Okay. 50, I can’t do math, 22,007 when I ran for good.

Speaker 1: And what made you decide, or when did you decide to come out with your story? Because I know that’s also something stigmatized and a lot of women that have gone through what you went through are not really comfortable talking about it. Why did you decide to talk about it and how was that experience?

Speaker 2: It was really hard to be honest. I was really scared that my traffickers would see, that it would come out in the news or… That was my biggest fear is that they would see where my traffickers would see. And so in the beginning, I did things anonymously.

I would do an interview with the news, but I would want to be not shown or I’d use an alias. And then at one point, I just started realizing, you know, how can I sit here and do nothing? Like, I know what it’s like to be more afraid to go home than I was to get in the car with a stranger. And that really hit me having that thought of like, home is supposed to be where you feel the most safe. Just be able to come home, let your hair down, sit your keys down, feel like you’re in the safe space. And to know what it feels like to be more afraid to go home than you are to get in the car with a stranger. I thought, how can I sit here in my nice cup of tea house with my worn cup of coffee and do nothing?

How can I? And so I decided that moment I was just going to start sharing and sounding the alarm that trafficking exists in every community across the country. It wasn’t just kidnapping in foreign countries, but it happens everywhere.

Happens in our small town in Oregon, happens in big cities. And trafficking looks really different based on the culture and community in which you live. But that doesn’t mean it’s still not trafficking, right? I think we like picture like trafficking in a karaoke bar in Cambodia. And we’re realizing that online escorting in Seattle is very different recruitment tactics, but it’s no less coercive and forceful.

Speaker 1: That’s not even talk about Miami or Florida. Completely different.

Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s its own culture. Yeah, every city has a little bit of a different culture. I’ve learned in the 15 years now I’ve been doing this work, it’s like every city is kind of known for its own type of trafficking a little bit. A little different tactics.

Speaker 1: Yeah. When you were going through this and even after, what role did therapy or mental health counseling, I mean, I’m assuming you got it afterwards. Yeah. I’m assuming right. What kind of role did it play in your life?

Speaker 2: Therapy’s radically changed my life. I still go to therapy every other week. And I have a phenomenal therapist who specializes in trauma and does a lot of EMDR. Which has a huge success rate for people with DTSD. EMDR has radically changed my life. It rewires the neurons in your brain, helps you to process through traumatic memories and the chain of those traumatic memories. One of the things, the ways that my therapist, I mean, my therapist described what we do with EMDR, which has been, for me, such a great analogy.

It says all of us have some core memory wounds, some core wounds that we all have. And he said, think of it like it’s a water source to your city. And your city is you. It’s your body. It’s all in your community, all of your relationships, whether it’s friends, work, romantic.

And if you don’t address those core wounds, if you don’t address your water source, it will contaminate every part of your city. And so by going through therapy regularly, what I noticed was it allowed the professional to see themes that were coming up consistently after a few months of therapy. They will see the themes. And that’s what helps them identify that core wound. And that’s the water source that then we go after in EMDR. So a little bit of talk therapy so they can see the core themes. And then that will help identify the core wound which we target in EMDR. It’s been radically changed my life.

Speaker 1: Did you, are you able to work the trust? Because I know that’s a big thing for victims of sex trafficking. How can I trust the next person? How did you work through that? Or what do you recommend for those scenarios for victims?

Speaker 2: I don’t know that I’ve struggled with the thoughts of will I trust someone again. That’s never been a big issue for me. I think it’s been more like I am so trusting that that’s the issue. And that’s why I got in that situation.

Right? So it’s like realizing that I have an attachment style. That’s an anxious attachment style.

So I want to attach really quickly and I never want to let it go because I don’t know when it comes back. That obviously deals, comes from childhood trauma. But recognizing what my attachment style is, learning what some protest behaviors and responses are. Learning that I need to wait 90 days to six months depending on the person before I actually start opening up more of my heart and vulnerability.

And learning that there’s different levels of vulnerability that you can enter into conversation with with people. Whether it’s, yeah, I broke my arm, it sucks. And then level two is like, you know, broke my arm and I’m a little bit hopeful that I’ll be able to regain strength again all the way too.

I broke my arm and I’m really scared I’ll never play, be able to, you know, work out or play sports again. There’s like three levels of vulnerability that you can go through with someone. And so learning to wait 90 days, three to six months to go through those layers. That’s just been a tactic that I’ve had great mentors and therapists teach me because I can tend to go really vulnerable really quickly with someone that I meet right away. Because I, I were my life completely out in the public. So I kind of felt to me like, well, if I’m vulnerable, then someone will mirror that and be vulnerable back and then I feel bonded and connected. And so recognizing that that is also in a sense a trust issue, because what I really deeply craved is community and connection. And that’s what I’ve always craved, which is what got me into trouble.

And so that that continues, that still continues that I have to. I’ve gotten into business deals too quickly. I got married way too quickly, led to a divorce. I’ve became friends with people really quickly that trusted that I’ve trusted that have stabbed me in the back. And, you know, I’ve had to learn that I actually my quick attachment is a form of wanting such a deep connection that it’s not a matter of I don’t trust anyone. It’s a matter of my craving can override my judgment. And so I’ve had to learn that the hard way, the very hard way.

Speaker 1: Definitely sound like you’ve been to therapy though.

Speaker 2: Lots of therapy, lots of relationship. A lot of yeah. A lot of coaching.

Speaker 1: A lot of awareness. Yeah. I tell people all the time, I would be like, so what’s your attachment style? Yeah. I went on one date, one guy said, is emotional intelligence just a word you made up? I’m like, next. Yeah, I’ll take the check. Yeah, exactly.

Oh my God. Now, when we talk on this a little bit more abroad, but how has your experience influenced your perspective on law enforcement or government institutions designed to protect people? Has that changed at all?

Speaker 2: Oh, it’s changed drastically for me in the beginning of getting out of trafficking. I hated law enforcement with a passion. I mean, I had been really brainwashed to believe they were like a rival gang that we don’t talk to them. We don’t sit in the same rooms as them.

I wouldn’t even be in the same room with a law enforcement officer. I just thought they were total scum. The enemy? Yeah, totally the enemy. And unfortunately, there have been incidents of really bad behavior by a protected system that needs reformation in some capacities. So it’s not unrealistic for the things I’ve experienced and the things I’ve witnessed to have kind of that lens coming into it, which was shocking to want to begin training law enforcement. What I realized for me was that the law enforcement that I get to work with in human trafficking units care very deeply about the topic. And they choose to stay in those departments because they really care about trying to make change. They want to learn about trauma-informed interviewing and not arresting so they can decrease hurdles to reentry. I see them at these trainings.

You know, I see law enforcement officers turn down promotions so that they can stay in trafficking because it’s the area they’re really the most concerned about. And so I’ve got to be introduced to a group of people that do care deeply and that want to change. And I’ve seen them come in and make changes on task forces after our trainings. I’ve seen non-arrest laws get put in place.

And so I’m really grateful for the units that we work in and I’ve got to see. Definitely does not mean there’s still not a lot of criminal justice reform that needs to take place as a whole. And systems. The thing is, is when you work in social justice issues, you see systems constantly that need reformation. You know, a child welfare system needs reformation. How are foster parents being screened? How are foster parents that are taking in trafficked teens? How are they being prepared for PTSD’s and triggers?

How are we preparing for reunification in the home with a trafficked victim to go back to her bio-family? And what is that going to look like? There’s so many things that…

Speaker 1: So many, yes. Every area. You know, what does our foster care group homes look like? It’s just like it can sometimes feel overwhelming. Like where do you begin eating this giant elephant? And so what I tell people is, you know, there’s 10 ways, there’s 10 different types, 10 different kind of arenas to fight trafficking, whether it’s demand reduction, policy reform, prevention, crisis response,

Speaker 2: stabilization, mentoring and coaching for that kind of reentry. There’s so many different ways. And that if we find one of those areas to be of interest and we’re passionate about, or we have a circle of influence then, then lean into that. And don’t worry about eating the whole elephant.

Just worry about your one lane. If prevention of kids, vulnerable kids, kids in schools is something that interests you, get all in for prevention. Google prevention curriculum in your… You know, Google, human trafficking prevention curriculum. There’s over 23 different prevention curriculums that exist that’s out there. There’s actually a great website called Nest Educators that lists all the human trafficking prevention curriculum across the country. And advocate with your local superintendent to get trafficking prevention put in the schools in your community.

There’s something all of us can do. Google who the local human trafficking task forces in your area. Attend those meetings as a public, as a person, you know, a person in the public. Learn what all of those systems are getting together, whether it’s juvenile justice, you know, local, local sheriff’s department, child welfare and anti trafficking nonprofits.

They all come together usually quarterly on a task force meeting in almost every city. And you’re doing something to combat type of trafficking that’s in your neighborhood. So join them. Find out what that task force is. Be a part, support them.

All of them online. Reshare their facts and data. Don’t just reshare influencers on social media that are sharing sensationalized numbers. Like go share from the people in your community. So there’s so many ways, right? Yeah.

Speaker 1: So many things you can do. And that was going to be one of my questions. Like how as a community we can help, but you said it correctly. You know, don’t try to target the big animal. Go for one, just one little thing, you know, it’s a domino effect and it will have an impact. I agree.

Speaker 2: Yeah. I mean, even if policy is, if laws and something like why aren’t our laws doing more if that’s kind of the justice vein that’s being pushed in your heart as you listen. And it’s like, well, you can visit your state’s report card on share You can see the seven categories. You can see the grade that your state has for fighting trafficking. You can see where your state is rated in those seven areas to get that grade. You can see your local officials. You can email them and ask what they have on the ballot this year before voting. Like we all could do something if it’s something that you find you’re passionate about, you know, asking if there’s, you know, law enforcement criminal regi- Laws in your city.

There’s it’s like so much. So we do have a find your lane e-course on our website. You can take a quiz, learn more about these 10 lanes. It’s kind of a fun personality quiz. So you take some personality questions and we point you to the lane that best fits your personality. And then we give all of these resources per lane.

Speaker 1: So we want to encourage everyone to do something. Yeah. Even if it’s just talking to your kids in elementary school about, you know, the safety and using the frozen analogy. Just do that. But if it’s all the way to, you know, volunteering at a local shelter or lobbying with your law, with your local congressperson or state representative, then do that too.

Just get involved as little or as much as you can. Do you think social media has had a big impact on this topic in a positive or negative way? Or just media in general?

I know there was a movie recently, Sound of Freedom, that I mean, I know I went to see it, but it was, you know, talked about. Everybody was saying, like, what’s your opinion on that? Do you think that’s good? Bad?

Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s hard. I think movies like Taken and Sound of Freedom paint a really sensational image that doesn’t exist, that just continues to fuel the misidentification of victims that live and walk amongst us. I think not just for us to be able to identify as outsiders, but for victims also as us, right? I’m identifying with both groups.

But for victims, we end up not self identifying. I thought for many years I was in domestic violence. I would have never thought I was being trafficked for years. Two years after my escape, did I realize that this was domestic human trafficking? It took me that long because I’m also watching the movies, seeing the things. And so I’m assuming if my situation doesn’t look like that, then I must help me beat traffic.

I must be in domestic violence. That’s a real story. And so I think sensationalism can really fuel misidentification for both the victim and a bystander.

So I think we have a responsibility to tell stories in authentic ways. That would lead to real change. I know I’m happy that discussions get built because of it, but I don’t know at what cost. Okay. At what cost. Okay.

Speaker 1: What about, are there any documentaries or books that you can recommend for people that do want to learn a little bit more about the sex trafficking, like the real topic, the real experience?

Speaker 2: Yeah, there’s a lot of great documentaries out there. Centoya Brown’s story was great. Very Young Girls is a great documentary. I think we have a list on our website of resources and a list of documentaries that are really good. Survivor books are really good. You can read the memoirs of other survivors that are telling their story. What you find is that we all have a common, like our stories are all a little bit different, but there’s similar common recruitment tactics amongst all victims. So, you know, just getting to spread the message and raise more awareness around what that looks like. And then following accounts that are doing really good work and resharing that data and those facts, I think, is important to spread the message. So, social media and media in general, it’s hard, right? Because we have the power to shift and shape culture. And what are we doing? Are we resharing the most sensationalized numbers without even researching if it’s accurate? Or are we going to follow accounts that we know do really good work and reshare their numbers?

Speaker 1: And so, it’s a good double edge. Double edge sword. In general public, picking what we’re going to share so that we can shape culture in the right way. But, you know, social media is also used to recruit victims. And I don’t think there’s been a almost every case we’ve ever worked has a social media involvement in some capacity. And I know those are really hard safety and security measures that

Speaker 2: social media platforms navigate every single day with their own safety and security teams. How do we stop image based abuse without infringing on freedom of speech? How do we not monitor everybody’s inbox but also being spied on?

Speaker 1: Yeah, it’s hard. It’s a hard thing. It’s a tight rope for them to walk. So I think everyone’s, you know, really trying to do their best. It doesn’t mean that there’s not, you know, there’s certain things that they just can’t do because they’re infringed on that first amendment. Right. You know, there’s pros and cons to everything.

Yeah. What advice would you give to others who maybe went through an experience like yourself or that are in general struggling to heal their trauma? And this is a personal opinion.

Speaker 2: I think really trying to do the work of self discovery and healing is a hard journey to face, but one that’s absolutely crucial. Like being self aware enough to say, I can’t live through a fire and expect to not smell like smoke. And so it’s okay to admit like, you know, I have this character flaw and I want to work on it and being really self aware to be a little bit critical of yourself. And that’s hard because you don’t want to victim blame and it’s not necessarily your fault, none of that, but we can’t expect to live through really hard things and not have some residual smell.

Right. And so it’s like, how can I start to be really self aware of areas that I’ve carried into my new relationships or my new, whether it’s working or familial or romantic, like, what do I carry in that maybe is residual from my past? And what can I work on?

What part can I own? What can I get therapy around? What can I read a book on?

What can I listen to a podcast on and really do some self, some growth, some personal growth and some self awareness is really going to be the best thing to help you move forward. Because we just live in the past and placate it and give excuses to it. It’s not going to help us grow. Whatever you practice grows stronger. And so you’re a character that you really want to grow in and identify areas that you might be weak.

And that’s okay. That’s actually a really strong thing to do. It’s harder to just sit in what you have done and be like, well, this is who I am.

Take it or leave it. It’s actually, that’s easier. It’s harder to go, you know what I might, I might have some things I want to work on. And that’s okay. And actually, when you’re vulnerable and open like that, people support you a lot more. And you’ll find growth in yourself and you’ll find your relationships better. So that would be what I recommend.

Speaker 1: It’s crazy how sometimes seeking for help is seen as weak or a sign of weakness. But you know, yeah, like nowadays, more and more people again, are talking about mental health and it’s okay to seek help.

So I’m glad there’s even if it’s a little turnaround in regards to that subject. Now, yeah, to close this conversation, what are some of, I don’t know, maybe you have some mindfulness techniques or what do you do? Some activities or techniques you could do at home for trauma?

Speaker 2: A couple of the things that I practice that my therapist has helped me to create into my life habitually is identifying, I guess I would say two things. One is identifying when I’m having a heightened emotional response to something. And realizing, like, what’s actually triggering me right now, that something little happens and I want to flip or I want to snap or I want to just start crying. I have to recognize I’m having a really heightened emotional response. Like, normally that shouldn’t cause that kind of response.

And so recognizing it and then being able to, like, take a minute and try to like ground yourself, of course, putting your feet flat on the ground and feeling like we’re in your body. That is oftentimes for me, it comes on my throat. And I have to like swallow a few times until I can feel it go away and then try to identify what, what is it that really made me want to snap? Is it because I’m suddenly feeling alone? Am I feeling like someone’s making me feel like I’m stupid?

Speaker 1: And like, try to identify. Yeah. And, and I get there by trying to take that moment of quiet, even if I can’t in a moment, oftentimes, that’s the case. But to be able to come back or if you can in a moment, it’s best, excuse yourself, go to the bathroom, try not to have that heightened emotional response, because it just escalates. But like, excuse yourself, step away, sit down on the toilet if you have to put your feet on the ground and try to feel where it is and try to focus.

Yeah, it’s really helpful to calm your own nervous system, but then also identify what’s the real problem here. Not that, you know, someone did, someone said something or general was, I don’t know. It’s like, that’s not even the issue, right? It’s something much deeper that is hitting. We talk about it with, with our kids too, right? We’re like, take a minute, just breathe, think about it. But for adults, we’re just like, entitled. We’re like, I’m just gonna blow out who cares.

Speaker 2: Emotional recognition. Yeah. And I would hear this phrase is like, take a breath. And for me, to be really honest, I learned in EMDR that taking a breath was a real trigger for me.

Because what I didn’t remember until going through EMDR and this chain of memories is my trafficker. If you flinched when he went to beat you, he would keep beating you. He would say, if you just take it off stop. And so I learned that like standpoint, pulling myself literally up off the floor, taking a breath, and preparing for a hit would stop my beating. And so when people would say to me, just take a breath, I felt like I wanted to panic when someone would say take a breath and be like, like I want to flip wanting to take a breath because my body was having a visceral response to preparing for a fight, preparing to be hurt. And so I had to learn other things like, you know what, I’m going to swallow until this goes away. And so I think just realizing what works for you, like finding and knowing that if your body’s having a response to certain grounding techniques, there’s a reason for that.

And there are more than one. And we can try lots of different modalities until you find the one that works for you. And don’t give up just because one modality didn’t work. It doesn’t mean therapy’s bad or that didn’t work. You know, we all have different traumas that and our bodies all respond differently. So just keep finding the things that work for you. You’re getting better.

Speaker 1: Well, I want to thank you again for giving me this hour or 45 minutes, whatever it was. Yeah, thank you for having this important conversation. Thank you for sharing your story. You know, keep doing what you’re doing. I think it’s great. On our side, we’re going to keep trying to spread awareness. And hopefully we can have this conversation again. Maybe you come to Florida.

Speaker 2: Yeah, I’d love to do it in person. Yeah, thanks for having me. No, of course. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, everyone, for watching or listening. Please leave us a comment. Let us know what you thought of this interview. And don’t forget to follow, like, subscribe. See you next week.

Experience Mental Health without the Stigma

Michelle Chaffardet hosts Mindfull—the podcast and channel creating a safe space for viewers exploring topics like addiction, recovery, mental illness, and resilience. Building relationships with local providers and diverse experts, Michelle brings her warmth, training, and curiosity as a therapist to every educational, engaging guest episode.

More and more, Americans seek answers to mental health trouble and treatment puzzles. Last year, billions of searches sought symptoms, local recovery, and wellness practices. People are ready to dig deep and find support. Through Mindfull, Michelle supports these seekers looking for help with real worries about themselves, their loved ones, and their community.

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