With its manicured lawns and neat row of cookie-cutter houses, the suburban Detroit neighborhood where Theresa Flores grew up would never be mistaken for inner-city America. Nonetheless, Flores' seemingly safe community was the site of forced sexual slavery.
Flores says human trafficking has an image problem. As her experience demonstrates, the cul-de-sacs can be just as dangerous as downtown. But many Americans think human trafficking - forcing another person, usually a female, to perform sex for money - is a problem that plays out only overseas or in the dangerous gutters of large U.S. cities.
"From the women who have reached out to me, I can tell you that my story is way more typical than any of us ever thought," said Flores.
Flores, 45, now focuses her career around a rural home about 60 miles outside of Columbus, Ohio. There she serves as spokeswoman and director of awareness and training for Gracehaven, a safehouse specifically being developed for girls under 18 who are victims of commercial sexual exploitation. It is one of only four such homes in the U.S. - and the only one that specifically calls itself Christian - that can provide food, shelter, counseling and education training.
At age 15, Flores fell into the trap of domestic minor sex trafficking through circumstances not normally associated with the problem. "I've had ladies write me letters and send emails. One said she was in her 50s, and that what happened to her is exactly the same thing that happened to me. A lot of the emails say they didn't know what to call it, that they didn't know it was called human trafficking. I really feel it's an epidemic and we're just starting to touch the tip of the iceberg."
Finding herself the new girl at school after moving to Michigan as a teen, Flores was excited when a boy invited her to his house. He led her upstairs to his bedroom where he began kissing her. Things heated up and she asked him to stop. Instead, he raped her.
Too ashamed to tell her parents, Flores remained silent even when the boy blackmailed her with photographs of the rape taken by his cousin, who had been hiding in the room. He demanded she do whatever he wanted, including having sex with him and the cousin. The boys beat and raped her and for the next two years she effectively became their sex slave. They abused her, doping her with drugs and even selling her body to others. All the while her parents never suspected a thing. The ordeal only ended when her father's company transferred him out of Detroit.
"The hardest part was always thinking, ‘Tonight I have to go,'" said Flores, whose second book, "The Slave Across the Street," tells the story of sexual slavery. "So it was do something terrible, but at least I would get the pictures back. But when it was over and done and I was leaving there was nothing in my hand. It was the devastation of not having any idea how to stop this."
She recalled one night in particular when the boys left her for dead.
"You're there and you're just a kid. It was deep, dark despair," she said.
The goal of Gracehaven House is to give underage girls a place to feel safe and loved, said Jeff Barrows, the home's founder and executive director. But Gracehaven suffers from the same false assumptions and apathy that plague other ministries working against human trafficking.
"Most people hear ‘human trafficking' and think Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines. They don't think about it happening here in the U.S.," said Barrows. He left his practice as an OB/GYN in 1999 to focus on overseas mission work before refocusing on domestic trafficking in 2005.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimates that at least 100,000 underage girls have been forced into sex trafficking in America, while the number who are at risk - especially runaway girls - is about 300,000.
"To some degree, it is everywhere," said Barrows, stressing that trafficking most often happens in larger cities. However, the problem is beginning to reach suburban and rural areas with the increased availability to the Internet, where the online "selling" of girls is a growing business.
"The biggest concentrations are in the major cities, which is why rural for us was the best place to put our rehabilitative shelter. But (trafficking) goes on even in our small little town," he said.
Gracehaven exists with three main goals in mind. First, the group works to raise awareness of human trafficking in the U.S., a goal Flores focuses on by traveling the country as spokewoman. Second, the group tries to educate service providers, first responders and those who are likely to encounter the victims on how to best care for the girls. Third, Gracheaven work to create an individual rehab program for each girl at the five-bedroom home.
The costs to operate such a shelter are steep, as treatment entails total care over weeks and perhaps months. The government, through Children's Services, provides some financial help, but the girls are not always ready to re-enter the current culture when the tax money runs out, Barrows said.
Fundraising, however, is difficult in these tough economic times, especially when both public awareness and outcry towards human trafficking is relatively low.
Flores said educating the public is difficult, because many people connect forced trafficking with prostitution by choice.
"People have been used to seeing (prostitution) for centuries, so they view it as a choice someone makes," she said. "What they don't consider is, who would choose to do that?"
The idea of choice is an illusion, Flores said, explaining that 77 percent of adult women who engage in prostitution were trafficked as minors.
"So they think it's the only thing they can do," she said. "They really don't understand."
But while education is essential, Flores thinks the most important role that Gracehaven and other in-home shelters can play is in restoring the hope of trafficking victims.
"I know survivors in their 20s, and it is so difficult for them to hold a job and be a good parent," she said. "Trafficking breaks their soul."
The first crack in a victim's spirit usually begins early, when parents - usually the father -- abuse her emotionally and/or physically, Barrows said.
"Most who run away from home have been abused at home," he said. "Eventually it reaches a point where the mom isn't stepping in or children's services is not stepping in. So it's a difficult decision: stay or run. And a lot of them run."
Leaving home, they meet up with a male who initially draws them in through artificial love; the ulterior motive is to use the girl as a human ATM who sells her body to make money for the pimp's drugs and alcohol.
"They don't want to find the girls who are popular and well-adjusted, so they're preying upon girls coming out of bad homes, because they're more easily controlled," Barrows said.
The girls accept the abuse in large part because they think they love the pimp, Barrows said.
"It's call trauma bond and is related to Stockholm Syndrome," he said, adding that trafficked minors most often are looking for the acceptance and love they never felt they received at home.
"We're going to slowly teach them the proper ways to fill that void, by giving them the option to put their faith in Jesus Christ," Barrows said. "We want to show them the healthy way to fill that need. With God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. And it all takes time."
This article published January 31, 2011