HOUSTON—The domestic sex-trafficking industry is growing in the United States. It is well-organized and well-networked, and predators employ masterful manipulation techniques to gain mental and physical control of their targets.
In Texas alone, more than 79,000 children are being trafficked for sex, according to a study by the University of Texas at Austin.
Sex-trafficking survivor Courtney Litvak became a target at her suburban high school in Katy, Texas. She had a great childhood with loving parents and solid relationships; she attended church and was a varsity athlete. But by the time she reached 17, several painful events, including being assaulted after a school dance, had left her struggling to cope.
“I had something taken from me and I became a changed person after that—seeking coping mechanisms, trying to medicate myself, being exposed to smoking and excessive drinking. And that was a domino that pushed one domino over from another and led me down this path,” Courtney, now 21, told The Epoch Times on Nov. 7.
Courtney’s vulnerability made her a prime target for fellow students, acting as “spotters,” to approach and befriend her. The spotters eventually connected her to her first pimp—who paid the spotter a “finder’s fee” for her.
“You shouldn’t go through a terrible life experience or a loss and then that means that people are allowed to have access to you, [that] you’re now labeled as a target,” she said.
“Every person in that age, even earlier—junior high, elementary school—they will experience something in life that leaves them hurt, disappointed, betrayed, and they will want to fill that void … to feel accepted, to feel loved, seeking validation, affirmation.”
Common events—the divorce of parents, a breakup, bullying, or the death of a family member—can all make a child vulnerable. Many trafficked children come from the foster care system. But sexual abuse is the most common source of vulnerability for sex-trafficked children—70 to 90 percent of these children have a history of sexual abuse, according to anti-trafficking organization Path2Freedom.
The spotters invested almost a year from the time they befriended her to handing her over to her first trafficker.
“My life was worth a sum to [them],” Courtney said. “They took their time and they slowly broke down those barriers and boundaries to where I myself had not noticed the process in which I had strayed so far.”
For Courtney, the grooming started through Instagram direct messaging and Snapchat private messaging, as well as in person.
In domestic sex trafficking, it’s rare that a stranger will snatch a victim off the street, as depicted in the Hollywood movie “Taken.” Usually, it’s a long, methodical process that can easily be mistaken as normal teenage rebellion, or a phase of growing up.
Fifty-five percent of domestic sex-trafficking survivors who entered the life in 2015 or later met their trafficker for the first time using a mobile app, website, or text, said Tammy Toney-Butler, an anti-human trafficking consultant for Path2Freedom.
Courtney had grown up with technology and “being able to seemingly establish these trustworthy, authentic relationships with someone behind a screen did not seem like a far-fetched thing,” she said. She was introduced to a “friend of a friend,” which lent credibility to the new relationship.
That’s often the next step, according to a Polaris report.
“Online recruitment may begin with commenting on potential victims’ photos and sending direct messages, carefully building the rapport and intimacy needed to entice victims into a false sense of trust,” the report says.
“The next phase is often ‘boyfriending’ [or ‘finessing’]—manipulations such as feigned romantic interests, extreme flattery, promises of gifts or other financial assistance, assurance that they, and they alone can care for the potential victim, or even perceived salvation from domestic violence or child sexual abuse.”
Courtney grew to trust this person, this “friend of a friend,” to the point that she allowed him to pick her up at night. She also began sneaking off school campus with him. If her parents confiscated her phone in attempts to cut communication, her “friends” would simply give her a new one at school the next day.
Courtney was careful not to reveal any details about the people who groomed and trafficked her, as it would jeopardize both her safety and the possibility of getting justice.
“It’s very well-organized and it’s very well-networked. It’s never a one-man show. There are multiple people who go into making this whole system work,” she said.
Courtney’s mother, Kelly Litvak, said she noticed drastic behavioral changes in Courtney in 2016, but couldn’t figure out what was going on.
“The behaviors were so extreme that I had to question: ‘Is this just normal teenage behavior, is this rebellion, is this hormonal?’” she said.
“But, unfortunately, it wasn’t the normal teenage growing up, and phases, and emotions. It was indeed human trafficking that had latched onto my daughter and changed our family forever.”
Courtney had confided in a family friend, who then sat down with Kelly and her husband to tell them what was happening.
“As parents, I can tell you, we were completely ill-equipped to understand how to navigate this devastation,” Kelly said.
Unfortunately, by that point, Courtney had already been conditioned to resist any parental intervention. She was only a few months away from turning 18 and her groomers knew it would be easier to wait until she was a legal adult before luring her from home—stymying her family and law enforcement.
“We had to make major moves,” Kelly said. “We withdrew her from school, we sent her out of state. We were told to get her out of the environment but, unfortunately, we brought her back to her hometown, and within the first 24 hours, contact was reestablished. So, right when she turned 18, days later, she left. She left on her own two feet.
“And there began a complete disaster, a parent’s worst nightmare.”
Courtney was on social media claiming to be safe, but Kelly later found out that was all scripted by the people she was with.
“During those first 40 days, we just were completely just all over the place with just really not having any idea of what path to take, and we failed. We failed at bringing our daughter home,” Kelly said.
For the next several years, Courtney sold herself for her traffickers, receiving no money personally, so brainwashed that she thought she was doing it for the greater good of her surrogate family.
Courtney describes the manipulation as being “unlike common sense—it’s not what is plain to the eye.”
“The main form of brainwashing that I see as a constant in every situation is to convince this person that you love them so much that you’ll allow them to do whatever it takes to provide to the team, to be an asset. They will give you permission. They love you so much, but they want you to boss up and to be independent and to bring something to the table,” she said.
“So they’re going to let you go and make the decision yourself to sell your body, to put a price tag on who you are.” She said it sounds “so outrageous,” but she understood they were allowing her to do what she wanted.
Behind the brainwashing is the victim’s wish to fill emotional needs, something Courtney says was present in everyone she met while she was being trafficked.
“You’re not seeking money. You’re not willing to sell your soul for some change, but you will do anything to find love, to find validation, self-worth,” she said. “Those things are priceless. Those are the things you’re willing to put yourself through hell and back for.”
Most of the time, the only money Courtney ever had was given to her minutes before she went to work and was to pay her tip-out fees at a club.
“I may make the money but the money … will never be mine. On a good day, they may refer to the money as being ‘ours.’ I am owned by them. The money their ‘property’ makes is a return on their ‘investment.’ I am always in debt, I will never make enough money, I will always owe more,” she said.
“Everything is in their control. It is always about them. It is their money, it is their house, it is their car, it is their nails, it is their hair. Everything is theirs. All of your decisions are theirs. You’re not a person. You’re a commodity. You are property. And that is how you are viewed and that is how you are treated.”
This treatment is passed off as love.
“It is evil that is infiltrating people’s lives in the form of trafficking and pimping. It is not love. It is not gangster. It is not a path anyone should wish on their worst enemy. It is pure evil,” she said.
Path2Freedom’s Toney-Butler said the income for one victim can be close to $400,000 a year and survivors have reported being forced to have sex more than 20 times a day while being six to seven months pregnant. And once a woman is over 18, she’s often seen by society as “a drug-addicted prostitute” rather than a victim of sex trafficking, she said.
Houston FBI special agent Jeanette Milazzo said victims can be difficult to identify, often because they’re so controlled and afraid that they don’t self-identify, even in public places.
They’re also trained by pimps to tell false stories, they’re moved from place to place, they may have fake identification, and they distrust service providers and law enforcement, Milazzo said.
The FBI conducted a nationwide operation in July, dubbed Operation Independence Day, that resulted in the rescue of 82 child victims of sex trafficking, as well as the arrest of 67 traffickers. The FBI identified a further 21 child victims.
Prosecution is simpler in cases involving child victims, as “force, fraud, or coercion” doesn’t need to be proven, as is the case with trafficked adults.
Clearing the Fog
While Courtney knew she was suffering, knew her life was in danger, knew she was going against everything she had believed in, she still couldn’t equate that it was her traffickers to blame—the people she “loved.”
“Empty promises become a daily routine. You never have to see one thing, one promise be followed through on to continue to believe the lie each and every day,” she said.
“Because to assume that they’re lying to you, that they don’t mean what they say and that this is a setup, that’s too painful to bear. So you believe the improbable and reality becomes unbelievable. It is very complex.”
She said several moments of clarity helped her start realizing she needed to get out.
“In the most unseeming place I started to realize that I was not alone. When everything is taken from you, one thing remained for me and that was faith. Not hope, that was too eager, but faith,” she said.
In the darkest of times, she was able to reconnect with her belief in God, that there was something out there that could combat the evil she was surrounded by.
“You can’t believe in God and not believe that there is a devil. Satan is out there to destroy us. This is his realm. Human trafficking—the selling of human beings, children, teenagers, adults, women, men—it’s evil,” she said.
She slowly stopped putting drugs and alcohol into her system and her thoughts became clearer; she also began to question the people she was with and the life she was living. Courtney added Christian artists like Casting Crowns and MercyMe to her playlist. She found a Bible a couple of times, and began to pray.
“I had to make a decision to leave this lifestyle. I had to stand up,” she said. “But it’s the decision that goes down in history as the greatest decision I ever made.”
Courtney returned home at the end of 2018, but things got worse before they got better.
“When you come home, you’re not really home,” Courtney said. She was 60 pounds lighter and shattered inside.
“I surrounded myself with similar relationships, similar environments. I may not have been under physical control, but I absolutely was still under that emotional, psychological, brainwashing control,” she said. “I had forgotten what it was like to live. I couldn’t adapt to my new environment.”
A few months after she returned home, at the beginning of this year, Courtney was arrested on felony drug charges. This was her rock-bottom moment. So, the only place to go was up.
“That was exactly what I needed,” she said. She now views her arrest as a blessing in disguise.
Refuge for Women
Courtney’s arrest led her to a five-month stay at an inpatient program with Refuge for Women, a nonprofit, faith-based organization providing specialized care for women who have escaped sexual exploitation.
“It’s like a version of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous mixed together, but a lot more chill and a lot more relatable and laid back, and it really worked for me,” she said.
“Trauma-informed counseling was a huge, huge key and tool in helping me heal and understand what complex trauma does to the brain. That’s something I couldn’t have figured out on my own.”
She said trauma creates a chemical disruption to the brain that can push a person to operate in “survival mode” and then continue to add layers and layers of unresolved issues.
“With going through this program, I was able to peel back those layers of things I hadn’t dealt with.”
Courtney said the program helped her learn to trust again, to build healthy relationships, and thrive as an adult in society. “And even more so to purpose what you have been through to give back to other people. I will forever be grateful for the Refuge for Women, forever grateful.”
Courtney is one of the very few sex-trafficked victims who have managed to get out and stay out.
Toney-Butler said a child, after being pulled into sex trafficking, “only lives for seven years before they succumb to the environment.”
Courtney is now thriving and is using her experience to help others.
She has joined ChildProof America, an organization her mother founded, as an ambassador and plans to take her story nationwide. On Nov. 19, Courtney and her mother met with Ivanka Trump, President Donald Trump’s daughter and senior adviser, to discuss human trafficking.
Courtney also wants to be a peer-to-peer supporter for other survivors.
“It takes one person to change the course of another human being’s life,” Courtney said. Helping others through this organization is “my calling, what God has chosen me to do.” Being of service to others is what defines her now, she said, rather than what happened to her.
ChildProof has helped Courtney find purpose, while her mother said founding the organization kept her sane.
“If I didn’t do anything … positive from this, oh, I don’t know where I would be today. This organization probably saved my life,” Kelly said.
After the initial six weeks of terror and hopelessness, Kelly said she searched online for resources for parents whose children are being sex trafficked. She found nothing.
“And that is where ChildProof America came from,” she said. “It was meeting a need that was nonexistent, and it was meeting a need that was critical. Because, during that time, I would have given anything, I just wanted one person to tell me what to do. But instead, I had 20 different people every day telling me 20 different things.”
ChildProof is that one strong voice, that one guide with all the information on local, state, and federal levels to provide a clear path to parents in need. The organization is launching a Family Guides Program, which will send out experienced volunteers to provide 90 days of in-person support to families in crisis.
The program is designed to support the family in getting the child safely out and into recovery, “which most likely is going to be trauma-informed counseling and perhaps long-term residential care,” she said.
Counseling and support are important, Kelly said, but prevention through education is crucial, especially in schools.
“We don’t want any family to ever say, ‘Not my kid.’ And we don’t want any family to ever say, ‘What’s trafficking?’ That’s not acceptable. This is in your child’s classroom potentially. This is on your child’s cell phone. This is in your church.
“Anybody to say that they don’t understand what this is, it puts that child at risk.”
The 6 Stages of Grooming
On ChildProof America, Kelly Litvak adopted the “6 Step Recruiting Process” by John Clark, the father of a victim. She also provides advice for parents.
“It’s so critical for parents to understand what the grooming stages are. Because if you understand the stages and you understand what behaviors present within each of those stages, you can really intervene effectively and redirect your child. But it’s so difficult because those stages can take a year, can take two years. They’re so slow because the predator that is grooming your child, they’re so patient,” Kelly said.
Stage One: Befriend
The purpose is to establish trust.
“The trust and that bond is absolutely key. The first stage of grooming is really quite ordinary,” Kelly said.
“Somebody comes into your life—it can be somebody in your church, it can be somebody in your school. In a safe environment that’s so nonthreatening, and really approach you like a teenager would. ‘Hey … I heard that you’re going through a tough time. I mean we’re all going out this weekend, why don’t you go?’
Every vulnerable teen wants to be accepted, and a normal invitation to hang out is very nonthreatening, Kelly said.
“But I can assure you, it was definitely strategized and planned ahead of time before that first conversation.”
“It is hard to recognize this step, but there are things you can monitor. Look for new friends and be inquisitive about their parents, background, living arrangements, etc. If they are a new friend, find out who have they been hanging out with before your child. Go through pictures on your child’s phone, look for new hangouts or hobbies. Changes that the new friend introduces should raise questions and investigation,” the Childproof America website states.
Stage Two: Intoxicate
The purpose is to introduce friction at home and create dependency.
“The second stage is the introduction of drugs and alcohol to get the target dependent on those chemicals. So perhaps your child is already experimenting; stage two of grooming is the easy access to those. Drugs and alcohol are absolutely very much a part of the grooming,” Kelly said.
Many kids experiment during this time of their life. If you see or suspect any drug or alcohol use, deal with it early. Find out whether it was experimenting with good friends they have had for a while, or whether it’s the result of someone new on the scene. If it’s someone new, be more concerned about a possible trafficking connection.
Stage Three: Alienate
The purpose is to drive a wedge between the teen and their family.
“Maybe you had a close relationship with your child, and all of a sudden you see your child withdraw. Well, that’s normal. They’re becoming a teenager. They don’t want to hang out with their parents and tell them everything. So most parents will just say that’s normal,” Kelly said.
“But in reality, stage three is one of the most dangerous stages because that is the separation emotionally from the parents or the caregivers and the target. And when that happens, and you’ve lost emotional control, it is very difficult to get that child back on track.”
Try not to fight about the source (new friends) of the friction, the Childproof America website states. “Try to use firm reasoning and love as the basis for all discipline. Engaging in a fight or simply putting your foot down, for example, ‘I am your father/mother, and you will do as I say!’ works to the advantage of the recruiters who are trying to drive a wedge between you and your child.”
Stage Four: Isolate
The purpose is to separate the teen from long-term friends who share their core values.
“Say that you hung out with five, six, seven peers all throughout your elementary years. And those kids most likely share the same value system as you. So it’s important at that stage for the groomer to separate you from those kids who would hold you accountable,” Kelly said.
“So the behavior that you’re engaging in would be behaviors that that peer group would not endorse, support, or engage in themselves. So separating the target from their normal peers and surrounding them with people who are in the mix of that whole grooming process is very key in that stage.”
Once the traffickers take the victim through stage 4, your child is in real and immediate danger. “Consider intervention, residential counseling away from their ‘friends.’ Think about moving the child away to live with a relative in another state, or moving the whole family. It sounds drastic, but it is logical!” the Childproof America website states.
Stage Five: Desensitize
The purpose is to disorient the victim’s moral compass. The trafficker convinces the victim that they can have a “better” life. They tell them that their parents don’t understand their generation.
“The moral compass is just spinning. So when your child once would say, ‘I would never put that kind of picture on social media. I would never smoke weed, I would never drink alcohol.’ Now all of a sudden, it’s normal,” Kelly said.
“Their moral compass and all the values they were raised on have just completely gone haywire. It’s a manipulation that’s so masterful—it’s hard to understand how anybody can get that kind of control over your child.”
When things have reached this point, it’s difficult to turn around, but not impossible, according to ChildProof America. Be looking for signs that your child is exposed to or participating in activities that are normally forbidden. If you haven’t already attempted intervention with a survivor or support organization, or if you haven’t removed the teen from the environment, you’re running out of time.
Stage Six: Capitalize
The purpose is to take your child away from you through brainwashing, coercion, kidnapping, or a combination of all three. Only 1 percent to 2 percent are rescued after this step, according to ChildProof America.
“That is when your child is gone. And it’s so important for parents to know that this is a long process,” Kelly said.
Know your options for recovery and support, ChildProof America says. Come up with an action plan to execute if your child disappears. Introduce yourself to the people and organizations you will need. Establish a code word that your child can use if they want out. They won’t want to hear it now, but they might remember it when they need it.
National Trafficking Hotline
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