WASHINGTON—Barbara Jean Wilson was 8 years old when she was first trafficked. Her mother was the pimp.
“Instead of me going out, she would bring the men home,” Wilson said during a trafficking summit at the Justice Department on Jan. 14.
“I was fed drugs. I was fed alcohol. The one time that I had the courage to say ‘No,’ one of them put a gun to my head and said, ‘No one tells me no.’”
Wilson said she would plead with her mother for it to stop, but was told that’s how the rent was getting paid.
“And so I had nowhere to seek help and I just dealt with it. That’s how I lived,” she said.
Wilson was eventually thrown out of her home, and to survive, she got deeper into drugs and did the only thing she knew—sell her body.
By 15, she had a daughter to support. At around 17, Wilson overdosed on drugs, and ironically, that’s what she said saved her.
“The Holy Spirit came to me and said, ‘Enough is enough,” she said. “And I made a promise to God that if he got me through it, I would spend the rest of my life sharing my story to help other victims … [and] bring understanding and awareness to those who don’t know what we go through.”
She’s been doing so ever since, but the pain is still evident. Despite what her mother put her through, she said she has forgiven her.
“She asked for forgiveness. I forgave her. I forgave my abusers. … In order for me to go forth, I had to forgive,” she said. “But it damaged me in a lot of ways, damaged me in so many ways.”
Homelessness and Trafficking
Bill Bedrossian, CEO of Covenant House in California, said his organization is the largest provider for homeless youth in the United States.
“And by default, we’ve become the largest provider of housing for victims of human trafficking,” he said. “For a lot of these young people, they literally have begun being trafficked at 8, 9 years old by their family members, by the gangs, by the street life that they’ve been exposed to.”
A recent study conducted by Covenant House found that 20 percent of young people who experience homelessness are sex trafficked, Bedrossian said.
He said he has noticed a change over the past five to 10 years in both the sophistication of the traffickers and the insidiousness of the crime.
Kay Duffield, executive director of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative, said that in about 84 percent of sex trafficking cases, the trafficker uses the internet to sell their victims.
“One sex buyer said that buying sex was as easy as going online and ordering a pizza,” she said.
‘Traffickers Are Predators’
Barbara Amaya grew up in Fairfax, Virginia, in a home she said looked beautiful on the outside, but wasn’t on the inside.
Amaya said she was abused and ended up going through “all the systems,” including child welfare, foster care, and juvenile justice. By 12, she was a habitual runaway.
“I wasn’t just running away, I was running to find something,” she said. “And traffickers are predators. They prey upon the vulnerable.”
One day she was approached by a young woman at Dupont Circle in Washington, who suggested she come home with her to get food.
“She took me back to her place. And there was her boyfriend, who was actually her trafficker,” Amaya said. “They started training me for purposes of prostitution. I was 12 years old.”
Soon after, she was sold to a man who took her to New York and trafficked her out with other minors he had bought from all over the country.
“He had many other young people in different hotels around New York. He had two apartments in Manhattan on either side—East Side, West Side, and he would move everybody all around all the time to keep everyone off balance and isolated in that world,” she said.
Her trafficker became violent if she didn’t bring in enough money.
“He would beat me with a wire coat hanger … throw me down the stairs, throw me out of a car,” Amaya said.
“The violence occurred in his hands and also at the buyer’s hands. I’ve been shot, I’ve been stabbed. I’ve been everything that you could probably think of—or not think of. When someone thinks they’re buying you, they think they can do whatever they want to do to you.”
At around 15 or 16, Amaya was hooked on heroin and in Rikers Island prison. She broke out of the brainwashing fog long enough to tell the authorities her real name and age and asked them to call her parents. They came back and said her parents were on their way.
“I had all this flood of emotions because I’d been gone for so many years and I don’t know what they told my parents. I had shame, horrible shame—this is all my fault,” she recalled.
“I opened the door to the room. And I walked into the room, and it was my trafficker standing there.”
Amaya said she still doesn’t know how her trafficker knew to be there. But she was desperate for a heroin fix and left with him, missing her parents by 10 minutes. It put her back into the life for another seven years.
“[The drugs] numbed my brain and my body to the existence that I was suffering. So by the time I was 23, 24, I’m five foot nine, 99 pounds, probably going to die. I knew that,” she said. “I knew I had to do something and I pulled myself into a drug clinic over on the Lower East Side.”
She recalled vividly how the receptionist treated her “like a human being.”
“She cared. I felt like I mattered. I don’t remember feeling like that, maybe ever,” Amaya said. “And because of her, taking time out of her day to treat me like a human being, she propelled me out of New York City.”
Wilson said victims of sex trafficking should know they can get out and go on to live a productive life.
“Don’t be ashamed of what you were put through, because you’re not to blame,” she said. “That is not the life that anyone should have to live. And especially a child.
“When you see those young girls and those young boys out there on the street, they’re not out there because they want to be. They’re out there because they have no place to go. They don’t trust anyone.”
Bedrossian said a common thread in homeless and trafficked youth is that they crave love and belonging.
“We all long for significance in our lives,” he said. “The No. 1 deterrent from a young person to become trafficked is having a meaningful relationship, positive relationship with an adult in their life.”