On June 11th, FAIR Girls' own Maryland Outreach Services Coordinator and Survivor Advocate, Asia Graves, testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance on the prevention and intervention of domestic child sex trafficking. A Boston native, Ms. Graves was trafficked at age 16 by various pimps who promised her a fairytale life. Today at age 24, Ms. Graves is finishing her college degree, teaches trafficking prevention education to Baltimore County high school students, and advocates for girl victims of trafficking just like her all over the U.S.
We are honored to share Ms. Graves' compelling and critical testimony which tells her story of survival as well as outlines three critical recommendations for preventing and ending the commercial sexual exploitation of children in America. I urge you to read onward to understand the face of child sex trafficking affecting American girls in this country, and the services necessary to assist and rehabilitate survivors.
Without brave survivors such as Asia, FAIR Girls would not be able to empower hundreds of girl survivors and educate thousands of teen students each year against trafficking. If you are inspired by her work, please consider making a gift to ensure we can continue providing comprehensive and compassionate services to at-risk teens and girl survivors of sex trafficking.
Written Testimony for Asia Graves, Maryland Program Coordinator & Survivor Advocate at FAIR Girls
"I would like to thank Chairman Baucus, Ranking Member Hatch and the SenateFinance Committee for giving me the chance to testify at today’s hearing “Sex Trafficking and Exploitation in America: Child Welfare’s Role in Prevention and Intervention.” My name is Asia Graves, and I am the prevention education coordinator for FAIR Girls and a survivor of domestic minor sex trafficking in America. It is an honor to have this opportunity to speak to you about what human trafficking looks like here domestically, how trafficking interacts with the child welfare system and to make you understand that a girl who is involved in human trafficking is a victim in need of long-term compassionate services. She is not a prostitute or criminal. I would first like to start out by telling you my story of surviving sex trafficking.
I believe that I am one of the lucky few because I received the care and support I needed to overcome my past. Then, I would like to share with you the work I do at FAIR Girls to find and empower hundreds of more girl survivors of sex trafficking right here in the nation’s capital. As a survivor of sex trafficking, I no longer consider myself to be a victim. While the average age of entry into sex trafficking in America is only 13 years old, my life as a victim of sex trafficking began at age 16. An age where I should have been going to school dances and slipping notes to my friends during class. Long before my exploitation began, I was already battling things no child should experience. I did not have a positive support system, my family could not care for me, and the teachers and social workers who met me did not see the warning signs. By the time my pimp sold me, I was isolated and scared, which is exactly what most girls feel as they fall victim.
At 16, I was living with my mother who was addicted to crack cocaine and herself a victim of years of abuse. I didn’t know what else to do, so I moved in with my father who was an alcoholic. I did not know my life would turn upside down. My dad told me that I had to pay $900 in rent each month or I’d be thrown out. How was I supposed to do that at age 16? I got a job working as many hours as I could, and I even missed school. When I could not pay his rent, my father threw me out. So with no place to go I moved in with a group of girls who were staying in a one bedroom apartment. They tried to convince me to sell my body for sex to pay their rent. It was January 2004, and one of the biggest snow storms ever in Boston. But, I refused and started to walk in downtown Boston with nowhere to go and nowhere to sleep.
As I walked, a guy who looked about my age pulled up in a car and offered to help me. He said I was too pretty to be out in the snow. I had nowhere to go, so I said yes. The thought of him taking care of me and having a place to live was like a dream to me. The first week was like being in a fairytale full of romance, good food, and a place to sleep. But, then things changed. After a week he told me that he was a pimp and I was his property. When I told him I wanted to leave, he beat me for the first time. Then, he called an escort service who took naked pictures of me and put them on their website. Men came to the hotel and had sex with me. He told me he would kill me or let these men kill if I did not have sex.
Two weeks later he took me to the track, which is a place where pimps sell girls like me, and made me work all night – rain or snow, even if I was sick. He said that if I didn’t then he would kill my family. He sold me to several other pimps that had sex with me and forced me to have sex with other men. My story is sad, but it’s common. And, girls like me are all around, but people don’t see them so they remain victims.Three years passed. Pimp after pimp, beating after beating, and feeling like I’d never get free. And, feeling like maybe I was not worth this world. I didn’t even feel I was worth a $3 happy meal. After being beaten, hit in the head with an iron, and sexually assaulted with a hairbrush I had enough. And, I was pregnant. I wanted my baby. I wanted to have someone who would love me for me.
I tried to run but was held hostage at gunpoint. When I finally escaped I spoke to the first officer that I could find. My traffickers took out their revenge on me. I thought I was safe staying with a friend, but the next morning my traffickers sent four women with steel-toed Timberland boots to assault me. They knew I was pregnant, and they kicked me all over my stomach and left me beaten on the sidewalk. I lost my baby, and I felt like garbage. I could have died, but something inside me said to fight. So, I walked to the nearest police station and a police woman named Sgt. Kelly O’Connell met me at the door. She knew my trafficker. During the interview, I started to miscarry and Sgt. O’Connell rushed me to the emergency room. Honestly, I feel blessed to have found Sgt. O’Connell and to have a group of investigators to believed in me and my story.
I did not wake up one morning and say that I wanted to be a prostitute. No girl does. And, there is no such thing as a “child prostitute” because legally children cannot consent to be sold for sex. No girl chooses to be a slave. Yet, girls like me are the face of modern day slavery in America. You might ask how this can be possible. Here is how. 80 to 90% of victims of trafficking have been sexually abused. That is my story, too. I was raped my mother’s drug dealers from the ages of 6 to 10 years old, which made me vulnerable to trafficking. I went to school and told my teachers as well as a school social worker who just believed that I was making it up. I stopped asking for help.
My life as an American victim of modern day slavery could have been prevented. Over the past five years, a strong team of women leaders, including Sgt. O’Connell, have helped me rebuild my life. They kept me safe. They stood by my side as a testified against six traffickers. I wish this had never happened to me. I wish no girl or boy was sold into sex trafficking. Yet, all this pain has led me to being able to truly empathize with each of the hundreds of girls who come to FAIR Girls every year. I hope someday to be a lawyer, and take my past and use my work at FAIR Girls to truly ensure fewer girls fall victim to sex trafficking. I am going to be honest with you right now. The state child welfare system failed me as a child. How is it possible a straight A student like myself went missing and no one reported it? What about all those social workers and foster homes where I was abused and beaten?
To start, we need three critical changes. First, critical funding is needed to open specialized homes where girls sold into sex trafficking. Second, every social worker and teacher should be educated on how to see the red flags of trafficking and report and help a victim. Third, every high risk youth, most notably girls inside the child welfare system, need to be educated on how to stay safe from sex trafficking.First, we need critical funding to open specialized homes where girls and boys sold into trafficking can truly receive the compassionate care they deserve. Often times at FAIR Girls, we have nowhere for these young girls to go. We do our best with our partners, but many times we are hiding in hotels while looking for safe house. This is not how a victim of slavery who has just been freed should spend her first night. FAIR Girls and many social service agencies nationwide have the staff and vision to create specialized safe houses, but we need the resources to launch and sustain them. And, I think you could help us make that happen. Second, every social worker and teacher needs to be educated how to identify and assist child victims of sex trafficking. FAIR Girls is a member of the DC Anti Trafficking Task Force, and we have educated hundreds of law enforcement, social workers, and educators in victim identification.
We can only truly keep American children safe if their adult support systems are educated and given the tools they need to understand the warning signs before a child is victimized. I often wonder what could have happened if one of my teachers or social workers had intervened and taken action to help me before I was sold by pimps all over America. This is not expensive training, but it’s life saving. Third, children, their teachers, and their social workers need to be educated nationwide on how to stay safe from sex trafficking. As the prevention education coordinator at FAIR Girls, I have educated 1000s of teen girls and boys in foster homes, schools, and detention facilities. This curriculum has educated over 4,000teens nationwide. Children in the child welfare system are most at risk and absolutely have to be educated on how to avoid being sold into sex trafficking. Had someone like me come to my school when I was 16, maybe my story of exploitation would never have happened.
Recently, one young teen mom recently came to me saying she was being pressured by her older “boyfriend” to strip because she needed the money. I was able to join up with her school teacher and child welfare advocate to stop her fall into sex trafficking. FAIR Girls has hundreds of stories just like hers. We work closely with the DC and Maryland child welfare agencies, and this evidence-based partnership model could be emulated nationwide with the right resources. I appreciate the opportunity today to speak before you. And there are many more stories that I would like to share, as I believe passionately in the rights of the girl survivors that we serve at FAIR Girls. And I am very open to questions. I consider today the beginning of a wonderful dialogue that will lead to creating new resources to help girls just like me."
This November, FAIR Girls welcomed the fourth class of girl survivors of human trafficking to join our Ugandan therapeutic art and income general project, JewelGirls. Just like the three classes before them, there will lots of laughter, beads dropping to the ground, paper and glue everywhere, and friendships made. If you stood at the window of the small classroom where the girls gather twice a week in our Kampala space, you would just think that these girls are just like any other girls. And, in many ways, they are just that. However, beneath the surface of their smiles is a unifying identity each binds the girls together: they are all survivors of sex trafficking and labor exploitation.
In Uganda, there are thousands of young girls, some as young as five, who are sold into domestic servitude where they are essentially house slaves. Many are sexually abused while being enslaved, and when they are older are forced onto the streets where they are lured into a life of sex trafficking. FAIR Girls has supported more than 200 young survivors by offering them a safe space to overcome their past and begin to think about a future where they are safe and free.
In spring 2009, FAIR Girls team traveled to Kampala to educate orphaned and street involved girls about how to stay safe from trafficking. Along the way, our young staff member, Eve, uncovered a trafficking network run by a man who was exploiting young girls under the pretense of offering a shelter. When Eve called me in the middle of the night to tell me that she was danger and needed our help to rescue these girls, I knew that we would be staying in Kampala for a long time. Soon after, we partnered with a small Ugandan youth shelter where we could offer these traumatized girls a safe space to share their stories and began to think about their futures. At first, the girls were very scared to talk, but soon they realized that they could trust us. The stories of sexual abuse, losing parents to AIDS, being forced to work as domestic slaves, not being allowed to go to school, and being sold for sex on the streets all started to come out. The first workshops were very heart wrenching, but we could feel the silence being broken.
In Uganda, paper beading is a popular jewelry craft, and we thought the girls would enjoy the therapeutic process of rolling the colorful tiny strips of paper into “pearls.” We were so right! It was super messy, but the necklaces were beautiful and represented the growing hope and confidence each girl gained as she came to our workshops week after week. They were creating necklaces in every shape and color, which showed their true creativity and talent.
Now, four years later, FAIR Girls is excited to invite a new group of girls to join our program. In addition to our amazing workshop leader, Regina, we also employee two young women survivors of human trafficking as our workshop leaders. Aldrine and Jane help not only in leading the jewelry making workshops, but also in helping the girls get access to social services. And, by being survivors of trafficking themselves, they can assure the new girls that they are not alone and will also overcome the abuse that they have experienced.
FAIR Girls is really excited to be a part of this month’s Girl Effect Challenge, where we are competing to raise the highest number of individual donations! Our hope is that if we do win one if the 6 open spots, we will be able to help finance our new class of 55 Ugandan JewelGirls. I’d love for you to take a look at our new project, “55 Ugandan Girls Survive Trafficking & Earn Income,” because we could really use your help in winning and spreading the word! Past winners have received up to $30,000 each in funds from Girl Effect – which would almost entirely fund FAIR Girls’ Ugandan JewelGirls program for one year, helping 55 girls escape situations of labor and sex trafficking.
Thank you so much for your support of FAIR Girls. We could not do our work without you, and I know that you have many worthy causes to choose to donate to, so it means a lot to me that you have given us your trust and support.
Thank you so much, and enjoy visiting our exciting new project!
Andrea (and Regina, Aldrine, and Jane!)
“Why didn’t she just leave?” That is the question I hear all the time. Movies and TV shows about human trafficking show girls kidnapped off the streets or locked up in hotels by pimps. Think about the movie “Taken” with Liam Neeson. Truth is, how a girl is trafficked is much more complicated. It often takes years of love and outreach from groups like FAIR Girls for her to “leave.”
This is a story that few media outlets have the patience to tell right. However, this month in Marie Claire, a FAIR Girls survivor advocate, Alissa (not her real name), shares her story of how she was sold into sex trafficking by a vicious pimp who knew how to exploit her youth and vulnerabilities. Alissa isn’t her real name. Even though she put this pimp and five others in jail in a landmark human trafficking trial, she still has to be careful to protect her name. I really hope you’ll read her story of going from victim to survivor and inspired by her courage then join FAIR Girls as our survivor services coordinator. The hundreds of girls Alissa helps through our prevention education and direct emergency services programs are inspired by her and motivated to take back their own lives.
One such girl is 16-year-old Jamie (not her real name). She is same age Alissa was when she was lured into a life of exploitation. Alissa and I were online doing digital outreach, which means scanning hundreds of sex ads on Backpage.com where we often find missing and exploited teenage girls being sold by their pimps. We saw an ad on Backpage.com that actually depicted the image of a girl who we know. She’s a 20-year-old survivor of sex trafficking. We notified the police and Backpage.com that the ad featured a real victim of trafficking who we know is no longer being exploited because she is safe at FAIR Girls. However, we were really worried that the real girl who was being sold might be a child.
After a month of searching, we found Jamie. The police brought her and another young victim to us in the middle of the night. Her pimp had somehow gotten a hold of the photos of our other survivor and used her photos to hide the fact that he was selling a child. One minute he would pretend to love Jamie, the next he would show her gun and threaten to kill her if she ever left. Thank goodness the police found her before he did. I wish some of the men who had bought and raped Jamie had been arrested and held accountable, too. But, at least Jamie is now on her way toward freedom. We asked Backpage.com to help us figure out who was using these images. We warned them that most likely a child was being sold in her place. They did nothing.
Just like Alissa, Jamie has experienced years of abuse. Her mother left her and the foster homes are nothing but more abuse. She feels alone and has run away more than 20 times. Each time, she would be locked up in a detention facility until she would be released back to an abusive foster home. Jamie trusted Alissa enough to tell her everything and ask for help. Now, Alissa and I are working to get her to a safe place to live where no other man can buy and rape her. She calls Alissa and I almost every day from the children’s home where she is currently living. Alissa understands why it was so hard for Jamie to “just leave.” She knows that years of abuse will tear down your self-esteem to the point that you don’t think you are worth real love. Now, Alissa* is working to make sure that she never goes back into a life of abuse and exploitation.
If you read this, please share our Marie Claire story and maybe we can help raise the bar of compassion for girls like Alissa and Jamie. Maybe we can stop asking “why didn’t she just leave,” and begin to ask “How can I help her leave?”
As always, thank you so much for your support. We could not help girls like Jamie without your generous contributions and faith in what we do. Thank you!
When you hear the term “sex trafficking victim”, you might imagine a chaotic rescue scene during a midnight police raid. Or, see a girl being comforted by a counselor as she lies crying on a shelter bed. At FAIR Girls, we have worked numerous times alongside law enforcement to extract a sex trafficked young girl from the hands of her violent pimp. We have also stayed up long nights consoling confused, homeless, and broken teen girls.
However, overcoming a life of exploitation and trafficking means so much more to a girl survivor at FAIR Girls. It means empowerment. After the crisis moment, we spend countless hours with each girl to help her plan for a restored future. For many of our girls, that means finding a place to live, applying to school and jobs, and learning to believe in themselves again. Several of the young women at FAIR Girls also want to help other girls who have been sold and exploited, just like them.
Today, we are honored to welcome a young woman survivor of trafficking to our staff. Just like the other three girl survivors on our team, she was exploited as a young teenage girl. She spent her 16th birthday being sold in hotels and online by multiple traffickers who preyed upon her because she was a homeless and vulnerable. Though her body still shows the scars, she has come so far. Now at 24, her life is filled with the typical college experience of cramming for exams, working part-time, and finding her way in the world. But, unlike most college women I know, she wants to give back to the community that helped her survive three years of brutal sexual exploitation. She wants to help other girls on their own paths toward becoming survivors.
Today is also Match Day, where Global Giving will match 30% of your donation to FAIR Girls to fund even more services to enable exploited girls to develop into empowered advocates. This means that if you give $50, it will turn into $65, which helps us reach our fundraising goal of $5000.00 for match day!
Our amazing new survivor leader will spend her first day going inside a D.C. public high school to teach a group of teenage girls how to stay safe from trafficking. She’s the perfect person for them to talk to because she knows firsthand all of the tricks that a trafficker will play to lure a teenage girl into a life of exploitation and sexual violence. She has experienced and knows what it takes to overcome a life of exploitation. For that reason, she has already become an inspiration to other young girl survivors in FAIR Girls’ empowerment programs.
We are excited for the months to come. The FAIR Girls’ family has just gained an amazing survivor advocate, and we hope you’ll join us in warmly welcoming her!
As always, FAIR Girls could not do our work without the amazing support of friends like you. Helping a young trafficked girl become a survivor takes intensive counseling, resources, and support that we could not provide without you. Please consider donating today on Global Giving's Match Day to make your gift go even further. If you are in the D.C. area, we invite you to join us at our annual gala, Pearls of Purpose, on April 3rd for a night of celebrating surivivors of trafficking and girls empowerment. Thank you so much for believing in us the way we believe in our girls.
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