Lipstick kisses stain the corners of the mirror. Open tubes of mascara, a rainbow of eye shadows, and a warm curling iron cover the counter of the pink bathroom. T-shirts, skirts, and heels are scattered on the couch and spread along the floor of the basement. Sixteen-year-old Susie discards an entire pile of tops before settling on a cropped T-shirt, jeans, and wedges. Her naturally curly black hair is stick straight, her nails are freshly manicured, and her youthful olive skin needs no makeup. She hums along to some current mid-’90s radio hits—Mariah Carey, Tupac, Biggie—and helps a friend apply yet another layer of eyeliner, while the giggles and chatter of two other girls, ages 15 and 16, fill whatever space is left in the cramped room.
Around 11 p.m., after a final glance in the mirror, the girls are ready for their inspection. The foursome lines up against a kitchen wall upstairs for the nightly ritual. Dante’s six-foot-plus frame looms over them.
The man the girls call Daddy gives each of them a deliberate up-and-down appraisal; his dark eyes take in one developing body at a time. Susie’s look pleases him, and she smiles. But her friend with the eyeliner still looks too young. Dante tells her to add false eyelashes.
Susie absently pushes a strand of hair behind her right ear, revealing the corner of a “5” tattoo. As she runs her finger along it, her skin tingles. Dante branded her with it a couple of weeks after she moved in with her new family. Although she’s not yet certain what it means, she’s pretty sure it has connections to his gang. It’s her first tattoo, a symbol of acceptance into this group and her new home.
After the review, Dante will drive Susie and her friends to a hotel suite or an apartment to meet the guests of honor. Some of these men will be barely old enough to drink; others could be the girls’ fathers or uncles. Bottles of alcohol will cover the tables. Ecstasy, fast becoming the drug of choice among partyers, will be passed around. The girls, however, can’t have any of it. Dante wants them to be sober when his clients choose their entertainment for the night. As they make flirty small talk with the girls, the men’s gazes will linger too long over their bodies. One of them will pick Susie, take her into another room, and close the door. She’ll pretend to enjoy herself, to find him interesting, to feel excited by his touch.
By the time she returns to the two-story Colorado Springs home at 6 a.m., school buses will already be starting their routes. That’s when Susie will shed her guise and become who she really is: Aubrey, a lost teenager who would do anything for her pimp. Because he provides for her basic needs—and she owes him.
The practice of slavery in the United States officially ended in 1865 with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, almost three years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Over the previous 250 years, traders forcibly shipped more than 12 million Africans to the Americas. But even though the inhumane system has been universally outlawed, social scientists estimate that today, at least 27 million people around the world are still enslaved—more than twice as many as there were at the height of the transatlantic slave trade.
Although precise numbers are elusive, conservative approximations suggest 600,000 to 800,000 people worldwide are trafficked annually for labor or sex. (The rest of those 27 million are otherwise held against their will.) Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world, generating at least $30 billion every year. The inception of websites such as Craigslist and backpage.com has helped slingshot trafficking to that top spot: Today, about 76 percent of sex trafficking transactions involving underage girls start on the Internet.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, sex trafficking makes up about 79 percent of all trafficking; labor accounts for most of the rest. Despite the connotation of movement, the phrase “trafficking in persons,” when referring to sex trafficking, is more about forced prostitution than transportation—even though victims and their predators often move between homes or towns to avoid the police. Contrary to the plots of popular movies such as Taken, in which kidnappers snatch girls and ship them off to foreign brothels or elsewhere, victims recovered in the United States are just as likely as not to be American citizens. “These are young people who live in Colorado,” senior assistant attorney general Janet Drake says. “I am not seeing a lot of people, particularly kids, being brought here from other states or from other countries.”
Sex work is considered misdemeanor prostitution; commercial sex becomes a trafficking felony when someone (usually a pimp) profits off the transaction and a level of violence—or even the threat of it—is present. The federal Victims of Trafficking Protection Act of 2000 defines sex trafficking as when “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age.” In 2012 alone, U.S. law enforcement officials recovered about 40,000 such victims.
By law, minors do not have the legal capacity to agree to any commercial sex act, which is why the term “child prostitute” is a misnomer. “If there’s a way to manipulate someone, then someone out there will do it,” says Emily Lafferrandre, director of education and development for Prax(us), a Colorado nonprofit dedicated to ending domestic human trafficking. “If we can take off those blinders from who can experience it, we’ll start identifying people.”
All Aubrey wanted was a place away from the chaos at home so she could do her schoolwork. A sophomore at Thomas B. Doherty High School, the honor roll student kept a busy extracurricular schedule: band, dance team, and volleyball. She couldn’t wait for the independence that would come with college. But she’d never get into nursing school unless she kept up with her assignments—and regularly coming home to her drunk or high mother made it difficult to focus. Her friend, Theresa, a pretty 18-year-old Aubrey met while working at 7-Eleven, invited Aubrey to crash at her house.
She was surprised to find that the man living there, Dante, wasn’t actually Theresa’s mom’s live-in boyfriend—which Aubrey realized when he asked her to join his escort service within hours of her arrival. Theresa and her mom were involved, he reassured her. Aubrey said no. She needed to focus on school, and she already had enough crazy at home. She then went to a party with Theresa, drank a soda, and groggily awakened to an unfamiliar man sexually assaulting her. It wasn’t the first time. For eight years, starting when she was two, her uncle and grandfather did things to her that she didn’t understand. When it was over this time, she put on her clothes and opened the bedroom door. Dante was waiting in the hallway and said, “That’s the last time you ever tell me no.”
She was stuck. Thanks to Theresa, Dante knew where Aubrey lived and worked. He knew she had a little sister. Aubrey worried that if she fled, Dante would come after her family. Her mom and grandmother had made it clear that she should stay quiet about her uncle and grandfather; there was no way she could tell them about this. It was her choice to run away, and now, she thought, she deserved whatever consequences awaited her.
In some ways, Aubrey’s departure from home was inevitable. Her mom had battled drug and alcohol addictions since before Aubrey was born. Aubrey barely knew her father, who seesawed between prison and the streets. Growing up, she would sometimes knock on a neighbor’s door to ask for food. But in this cozy house, Aubrey quickly settled into a routine. The “family”—twentysomething Dante, Theresa, and Theresa’s mom, along with the four or five girls living there at any given time (many of them younger than Aubrey)—would hang out and watch TV. They had nightly dinners. Dante told them to call him Daddy. He asked about their days. He took them shopping and let them pick out whatever clothes they wanted, occasionally treating them to a manicure or a visit to the hair salon. For once, Aubrey had pretty things and a consistent family life.
Unlike her biological parents, Aubrey told herself, her new daddy cared. He set rules. He told them when they could shave their legs, when they could eat, even what brand of tampons they could use. They weren’t allowed to wear makeup unless they were getting ready to work. When they got home, he made them strip down to their underwear to ensure they weren’t hiding any money.
He taught Aubrey about relationships and offered tips about what was sexy and how to flirt. He had her walk down the hallway until she swayed her hips seductively enough. He trained her on—and made her rehearse—how to give oral sex and the techniques of intercourse: how to put a condom on, how to act scared and cry hard enough when a “date” wanted to act out a rape fantasy.
Dante gave her multiple identities. (He assigned all the girls names and personas.) Sometimes Aubrey was shy Susie. Sometimes she was Jenny, the confident, dominant woman who liked to party. As long as Aubrey was someone else, then none of this—the flirting, the sex, being slapped around—was actually happening to her. In the end, perhaps the most important lesson Dante taught her was how not to feel.
On one blustery winter night, about a month after she moved in with Dante, a “john” (or client) picked her up and drove to a park. He forced her into a different vehicle with another man. It wasn’t standard practice, but fearful of disappointing or angering Dante, Aubrey didn’t resist. She held back tears as the men raped and beat her before abandoning her. Having grown up in Colorado Springs, Aubrey quickly figured out where she was. She used to rock climb and hike here. The restaurant her grandma once ran was nearby. If she turned right, she’d reach Dante’s house in about 15 blocks. If she headed the opposite direction, Grandma’s house was less than five minutes away.
She remembered phoning her family a few weeks after that first assault at the party, pleading for help. Her grandmother called her a whore and said she was ashamed of her. Now, in the cold, her nana’s words echoed in her head. Shame coursed through her until she thought she would vomit. She was trash, just like Nana said. She couldn’t disgrace her old-fashioned grandmother by ringing her doorbell at 3 a.m. in ripped and bloody clothes. Aubrey turned and walked toward Dante.
Although many pimps are involved with gangs, drugs, guns, and other offenses, dealing in people may be the most profitable enterprise of all. “When you sell cocaine, you have to re-up; it runs out. They’re selling humans because you don’t have to re-up humans,” Lakewood Police Department detective Brent Struck says. “You can sell a girl over and over and over.”
From the outside, it can be difficult to understand how people are drawn into the life. “It’s hard for people to wrap their heads around,” Denver Police Department sergeant Daniel Steele says. “How can somebody be convinced to go out and be sold and then give their money to somebody else?” For trafficking victims, emotional and developmental immaturity, low self-esteem, a lack of social support, and traumatic histories often result in a muddled fusing of love and pain. Traffickers are sophisticated profilers. Pimps know kids with these kinds of backgrounds are easy to manipulate and brainwash: Take a vulnerable teenager off the street, house her, feed her, and pretend to be her boyfriend. Then, when she starts to feel safe, tell her she owes you and has to sleep with other men to maintain her new life.
Johns, or “tricks,” become a way to prove commitment. They’re most commonly white and 40 to 60 years old; many are in committed relationships, educated, and employed. Some are violent, some aren’t. One law enforcement source in Denver says he’s come across plenty of johns over the years whose names you might recognize.
These men typically pay $100 for a half hour or $250 for a full hour. Often, our society labels these dalliances as “boys being boys,” a rationalization that results in men who buy sex being imprisoned only half as often as women who sell it. Colorado johns convicted of “patronizing” minors typically receive probation rather than jail time but also have to register as sex offenders. In general, Colorado’s success rate at combating youth trafficking has fluctuated. But the numbers are improving, thanks to a dedicated task force and a team of law enforcement officials, lawyers, NGOs, and others. Their efforts, though, still haven’t solved the problem for our exploited children, because right now Colorado’s inadequate system means the best way to protect these victims is to take them into custody.
Johns were as regular in Leah’s* life as tea parties and play dates are for other young girls. She spent her childhood days amusing herself with toys in various motel rooms around Aurora while her mom seduced men over the phone. She was too young to know what “prostitute” meant; she just knew that whenever her mom met someone in person, Phil,* her mom’s pimp, would take Leah to wait in his car outside until the appointment was over. Leah didn’t know what crack, meth, or cocaine were, either, even though she saw them all the time. And when Leah noticed the bruises on her mom’s face and asked why Phil had hit her and why they stayed with him, her mom said, “Because I love him, and he loves me.” At six years old, Leah knew what she wanted when she grew up: a Phil of her own.
Leah shuffled between homes, alternately living with her mom, her dad, her maternal grandmother, and her paternal grandparents, plus two stays in foster care. In 2008, when she was 14, Leah ran away for the first time after a pimp showed interest in her. (Within 48 hours of landing on the street, one in three children will be approached by the person who will subsequently exploit them.) The life he outlined for Leah—living with him, providing massages for money—had a familiarity that betrayed Leah’s common sense. She didn’t perform any sex acts that first week. If she was looking for a Phil, though, he wasn’t it, and she moved on. For the next two years, she bounced between the streets and different pimps, being sold—and selling herself along Colfax Avenue—to survive. By her 16th birthday, Leah had endured six pimps and a bedbug-infested house. Then she met Victor Sanders.
She thought the 26-year-old Crip was handsome, with his buzz-cut hair and puppy-dog eyes. He sold her the story she’d been so desperate to find: that he could help her—them—make enough money to exit the life forever. He seemed legitimate. After all, he owned three cars, including a custom job he nicknamed “Bad Cheetah” with orange rims, TV screens, and Chester, the Cheetos brand mascot, painted on the hood and doors.
And he backed up his talk. Right after Leah moved into Sanders’ Aurora apartment, he kicked out another girl who had been living there. Now it was just the two of them. He stocked the fridge with bread, bologna, and mayo. He stored his gun behind a sofa cushion. At his bidding, Leah started posting ads to backpage.com numerous times a day, posing as 19-year-old Renee. The ads tempted johns with variations of: “I’m 5’4” with a thick and toned body to leave you breathless. My luscious lips, mesmerizing eyes, soft skin, all-around stunning features, and perfect skills will leave you with a memory to keep you fantasizing….”
Accompanying each posting were three provocative photos of a half-naked girl (not Leah) sporting black cheekies or a bikini. Whenever a trick called, supposedly just for the “body rub and striptease” the ad offered, she followed a script word for word. Sanders drove her to appointments, or she met clients in apartment parking lots. Every time a “date” unfolded, she retreated into her mind, numbly replaying the instructions of her previous pimps: You’re using the trick. You’re in power. There are girls out there just running around having sex; at least you’re making money for it.
But she couldn’t escape reality all the time. If Sanders felt disrespected or Leah didn’t follow his orders precisely, his brown eyes turned black. He told her she was “no treasure to be had” and that no other man would want her. He tested her loyalty by leaving a $50 bill in a drawer to see if she would swipe it. She knew better than to try. Once, he berated her for looking another African-American man in the eye—it’s called “reckless eyeballing”—because he thought it made him look weak to someone who could threaten his business. Another time, he burst the blood vessels in her left eye with a punch. He assaulted her vaginally and anally with a spatula. He heated an iron poker in the fireplace and branded several marks onto Leah’s back.
She started a journal to avoid repeating mistakes that might earn her a tirade, or worse. (Sanders often gave her a mysterious blue powder before her dates that made her mind go fuzzy.) In bubbly teenage girl handwriting, she scribbled reminders to be convincing when talking to potential johns and notes on the rates charged to specific clients. On other pages, her words are more introspective, demonstrating her commitment to her man: “I don’t want anyone else. I need to really look out for him and show him he’s truly my everything.” So she continued to post ads every day, put on her high heels, deaden her body with booze and drugs, close the door to the apartment or hotel room or car, and give her trick what he wanted. Just like her mother had.
* Names have been changed.
Up to 300,000 children each year in the United States are susceptible to trafficking. (Although boys also are targets of exploitation, their numbers are even more underreported than girls’, and research has shown that LGBTQ youth can be up to five times more likely to experience exploitation than heterosexual teens.) The average age, nationally, for a girl to be lured into sex trafficking for the first time is between 12 and 14, and 46 percent of them know the person who’s recruiting them. Somewhere between 70 and 90 percent of the victims have a history of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse. Up to 80 percent have been part of the child welfare system at some point. These “throwaway” kids can be any race. In Colorado, 1,200 to 1,500 12- to 24-year-olds are homeless at any given time—there were 921 such individuals in metro Denver in 2013—and estimates of homeless and runaway children nationwide range from 575,000 to 1.6 million annually.
All these factors add up to a lifetime of being groomed for victimization. It’s not because these minors are weak or don’t know right from wrong. They’re desperate for any type of loving parental figure, and they’re easy targets for someone who suddenly offers them protection and shelter. “These kids want something better for themselves,” Steele says. “They get pulled into these situations because something isn’t right at home.” The 18-year police veteran formerly oversaw the DPD’s vice unit and is now part of the FBI’s Rocky Mountain Innocence Lost Task Force (ILTF). Created in 2003, the broader Innocence Lost National Initiative (ILNI) is a collaborative effort—between the FBI, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), and the Department of Justice’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section—to combat domestic sex trafficking of children. In its first decade, more than 2,700 youth were recovered nationwide. The group makes headlines during annual Operation Cross Country sweeps. The one this past July recovered 105 children and arrested 150 pimps across the country—nine of the children were recovered in Colorado. (More recently, trafficking made national news when a ring in New York was busted just before the Super Bowl.) Two months ago, almost a dozen adults were arrested in various metro Denver investigations for alleged involvement in child prostitution.
Colorado’s multijurisdictional ILTF, which was formed in January 2012, brings together the FBI and officers from Denver, Aurora, and Arapahoe’s police departments. Steele was assigned full time to the task force with fellow DPD detective Mitch Wilson during a period when the department hadn’t hired a new police officer in four years, and so far the task force has produced numbers that are both encouraging and troubling: In 2013, the ILTF and law enforcement statewide recovered 61 sexually exploited youth in Colorado, including two males, which was up from 49 in 2012. In both years, some of the children had to be recovered multiple times. Leaving the life for good can be a challenge when, like Leah, the children have nowhere else to go and no one to support their recoveries.
Leah is what’s known as a compliant victim, a psychological term that signals law enforcement and lawyers to handle her more empathetically. The status was in effect for Leah when she testified in a Jefferson County courtroom in July 2012, on the day before her 18th birthday. She tried to avoid making eye contact with Sanders, who was sitting just steps from her. She hadn’t seen him in more than a year, but she viscerally recalled the fear of those three months spent under his control.
On January 11, 2011, the NCMEC received a tip from backpage.com about a possible juvenile, “Renee,” advertising escort services. The agency sent the tip to Denver’s ILTF and the Aurora Police. After one sting operation failed to catch her, the Lakewood Police Department set up another in late January. Brent Struck was the lead detective. In his off-the-clock wardrobe of flip-flops, jeans, and a beaded necklace, the divorced father of two can talk for hours about his work as passionately as he regales you with a tale of attending Mariano Rivera’s final game at Yankee Stadium. Struck says he can tell right away if a girl he’s apprehended will cooperate or run back to her pimp. “It’s in their eyes,” he says. “Some girls are just gone. They can be 14, and they’re already gone.” After agreeing to perform a sex act with an undercover cop, Leah was brought to a room filled with police officers. Struck got down on his knee, looked her in the eye, and said, “Hi, Leah.” When she began to cry, Struck knew she’d be one of his success stories.
The police booked Leah on misdemeanor prostitution charges. One of the first people she met was Anne Darr. As one of two FBI victim specialists in Colorado, Darr gets involved soon after law enforcement to ensure the kids’ rights are upheld, and she often continues her relationships with them—by helping them access any necessary services—long after the legal aspects of a case have concluded. Darr is smart (she holds master’s degrees in forensic psychology and counseling) and possesses an Illinois-bred Midwestern charm that immediately sets people at ease. She’s someone you want to be friends with or ask to join your softball team, and she uses her warm personality to help child victims find some hope. “It’s that immediate contact that’s so precious,” Darr says. “They are so groomed to understand that law enforcement doesn’t care. I hate, hate, hate taking our girls into custody. But a lot of times they tell me that’s the first night’s sleep they’ve had in a long time because they don’t have to worry about getting their nightly quota.”
As expected, Leah initially didn’t want to talk because of her fear of Sanders. Many exploited children form a Stockholm syndrome–like trauma bond with their pimps, particularly if they’ve been isolated from friends and family for extended periods. (Leah was a textbook example of this, but Aubrey had no such attachment to Dante. Instead, she spent years blaming herself for her choices.) After undergoing an immediate needs assessment—“Do you need medical attention?” “When was the last time you ate?”—Leah was assigned a guardian ad litem (GAL), a court-appointed representative. She was interviewed by Struck, taken to Children’s Hospital Colorado for an exam, and then placed in Mount View Youth Services Center. If returning home isn’t plausible—as was the case with Leah—a structured facility like Mount View can hold children for as long as necessary (if they have been charged with a crime) while police, child services, and the victims themselves determine the best place for them to go. It also gives police time to start building their cases against the pimps. “We did that with Leah, which I hated,” says Katie Kurtz, a deputy district attorney with the special victims unit of Jefferson and Gilpin counties, and a prosecutor in Sanders’ trial. “I look back and I just think, My God. She was such a victim of her life circumstances, and we arrested her and put her in custody that night.”
Yet the counterintuitive practice is showing results. Before the ILTF started in Colorado, DPD rescued 120 victims of human trafficking over a five-year period, 47 of them children. The proactive, multidisciplinary task force means those numbers are steadily rising, with more than 100 kids recovered in just two years. Darr, Steele, and other regulars on the beat have helped secure almost all of them. “It’s not the perfect model,” says FBI agent Rick Wright, the lead agent for the state ILTF. “But it’s worked pretty well.”
It also has limitations, primarily due to a lack of funding. “If Innocence Lost had five more Dan Steeles and five more Anne Darrs, we could probably eliminate the trafficking of minors in Colorado,” says attorney Beth Klein, who helped write the state’s past trafficking laws. That’s unlikely to happen. Steele and his partner’s salaries are paid through private funds that are scheduled to expire at the end of 2014. After that, DPD will have to decide whether to keep the pair working with Innocence Lost or reassign them elsewhere. If the latter happens, Steele worries about possible repercussions for the other organizations involved in the task force. “If you take away one of the primary agencies in the group,” he says, “then the other agencies tend to get skittish” about their abilities to commit resources to these kids.
Inadequate funding isn’t just an issue for law enforcement; someone also has to pay for the services provided at treatment facilities or group homes. Law enforcement’s most common tactic is to have the courts, the Department of Human Services, NGOs, or nonprofit service providers help cover the bill. Overall, though, “funding [for victims] is still very piecemeal,” says Amanda Finger, executive director of the Laboratory to Combat Human Trafficking (LCHT), a Denver-based nonprofit focused on trafficking research locally and nationally. Statistics show Colorado is doing a decent job implementing the police side of the equation, but until recently, the child services aspect has been limited. “[The police] have a really crappy relationship with human services,” Struck admits.
There’s no law that compels police to contact human services after recovering these victims. “Kids are getting caught [between] a law-enforcement system designed to catch criminals and the child welfare system,” says Stephanie Villafuerte, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Children’s Law Center, who says local law enforcement and our child welfare system only began working together on this issue within the past two years.
The relationship between the two entities is slowly becoming more unified. This past September, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children, Youth and Families released a report called “Guidance to States and Services on Addressing Human Trafficking of Children and Youth in the United States.” Its message was clear: Because trafficking is a child welfare issue, any solution must involve input from child and human services. In Colorado, LCHT has educated most county human services directors. (Arapahoe County, for one, has a dedicated trafficking liaison caseworker for its hotline.) Unfortunately, some other groups around the Front Range, from local police to human services divisions, haven’t yet made trafficking a priority.
Leah prepared to testify at Victor Sanders’ trial. Janet Drake says the attorney general’s office ends cases with plea agreements when appropriate to prevent traumatizing victims even further by having them testify, but prosecutors had a strong case against Sanders, and Leah wanted to be heard.
Sanders, who declined to comment for this article through the Department of Corrections’ public information officer, was charged with the pandering, pimping, trafficking, and procurement of a child (four separate counts), as well as contributing to the delinquency of a minor and sexual assault. Four of the charges qualified for “crime of violence” sentencing enhancements. The jury ultimately convicted him of the pandering, pimping, procurement, and delinquency charges. But the jurors ruled he was not guilty of sexual assault and were unable to reach a verdict on the trafficking charge. “Some people still have the deep-seated belief that this is just a prostitute, and prostitutes can’t be raped because they have sex for a living,” Kurtz says. “Even if it’s a child.” On September 24, 2012—more than a year after he was arrested and Leah was recovered—Sanders was sentenced to 34 years in the Department of Corrections, the longest sentence to date in Colorado for this category of offenses. He has filed an appeal.
The verdicts left Leah conflicted. “It really upset me [that he wasn’t charged for the sexual assault] because that was one of the most traumatizing things he’d done,” she says. “But I was also relieved. My biggest fear was him coming after me. I get to live my life without worrying about my safety.”
She was lucky. Since the state’s human trafficking law was signed in 2006, only three such cases have made it to trial. Most offenders, including Sanders, are convicted of related charges, such as pimping. Some get probation. Others receive open sentences that give judges discretion to choose punishments within a specified range.
In 2013, 39 states passed anti-trafficking laws. The Polaris Project, a trafficking- and slavery-focused nonprofit, gave Colorado a tier three (out of four) rating in its 2013 report on trafficking laws, ranking us near the bottom nationally. Colorado has a number of regulations that prosecutors can and do use, but confusion surrounds our human trafficking statute, which currently references the “selling, exchanging, bartering, or leasing” of a person. “There are some issues [with the wording of the laws],” Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey says. “Some things that leave jurors going, hmmm….”
That should change this year. In February, Colorado House Representatives Beth McCann, D-Denver, and Jared Wright, R-Fruita, introduced a bill to bring state criminal statutes more in line with the national 2013 Uniform Act to Combat Human Trafficking, which established guidelines to help make trafficking laws more consistent around the country. Colorado’s bill would clarify and expand the state’s definition of trafficking of minors. It would also negate certain defenses, including claims that the child consented and the “affirmative defense,” meaning it would no longer matter if the perpetrator knew the victim was underage or not. And the bill places trafficking of a child under the umbrella of child sex offenses (which eliminates the statute of limitations), protects victims under rape shield laws, and mandates the formation of a 26-member Colorado human trafficking council that would include police, human services, and nonprofit and legal reps as well as two survivors. This group would develop a training plan for law enforcement and human services and recommend statutory changes, among other duties. “We’re hoping we’ll be able to set up a grant-making agency or put grant-making into one of our current state agencies so that we can get more capacity for treatment and housing for victims,” McCann says. As of this writing, state lawmakers were still debating the bill.
One thing the proposed law doesn’t address is safe harbor, the topic du jour for those working on the issue. In general, safe harbor laws label exploited minors as victims instead of criminals, putting them directly into services and treatment instead of cells. Six years ago, New York enacted the Safe Harbor for Exploited Children Act. (The state has often been at the forefront of trafficking- and prostitution-related policy changes; this past September, it set up Human Trafficking Intervention Courts to specifically handle those charges.) Since 2008, seven other states have passed similar provisions. Five others have laws that identify children involved in prostitution as victims and/or protect them from prosecution. Even so, according to Drake, none of these states is doing it particularly well.
Colorado officials say they are aware we need some sort of safe harbor provision, but they’re unsure of how it should be implemented. Although the issue isn’t likely to come up this legislative session, most agree the conversation needs to—and will—continue. At the federal level, U.S. Senate Bill 1733 was introduced last November. If passed, it will require a national safe harbor law to be enacted within three years, and implementation would be connected to a state’s eligibility to receive grant funding.
Colorado’s system, although imperfect, did help Leah find her way to safety. At Sanders’ sentencing hearing, she mustered the strength to stand in front of the judge and Sanders and deliver a statement. “I have risen up and overcome him and all of his counterfeit power,” she said. “I am free. I am not a victim. I am victorious.” She said she had found God, who in turn helped her find a way to forgive Sanders. When the hearing ended, Sanders’ mother, Georgia, approached Leah, embraced her, and apologized. “Leah’s our all-star, my all-star,” Struck says.
Three years after being recovered, Leah still has flashbacks and wonders about what will happen when Sanders is released, even though he won’t be eligible for parole until 2027. But her progress is evident. She’s attending cosmetology school in California and plans to return to college for a business degree. She’s finally found a therapist who makes her feel comfortable. The lip piercing from her mug shot is gone. She giggles like any 19-year-old when telling a story about a cute boy asking for her number. The lightheartedness quickly turns serious, though, when she wonders aloud if desiring a man’s attention means she’s slipping back into her old ways. It’s difficult for her, at times, to separate normal teenage struggles from her traumatic personal history.
Perhaps the best sign she’s doing better is that Leah can no longer connect with her younger self. “When I look at her, I see someone who was really lost, broken, and hungry for love,” she says. “I had no perspective on life at all. I was thinking about the moment I was in.” She knows those instincts don’t fade easily. “I still have so much healing to do. But I’m in a really safe situation right now, and I have a lot of room to mess up like a teenager and then learn and grow from it.” Leah goes quiet for a few seconds, lost in thoughts about who she used to be. Then another high-pitched giggle escapes her lips. “Channing Tatum could come up to me and I’d say, ‘Babe, you don’t need this…maybe…but, no.’ ”
The gravel road appears after a series of turns onto increasingly empty streets outside Colorado Springs. Finally, an unremarkable stone and stucco building emerges. Most people would drive by without realizing it’s a house, and that’s the point.
Sarah’s Home opened in the summer of 2013 as the state’s only group home that has a family-oriented premise, isn’t locked down, and is dedicated solely to helping sex-trafficked minors. It can house four survivors at a time. Besides the soon-to-open Amy’s House near Fort Collins (which will have eight beds), there are no other facilities in the state solely focused on this population. The total number of beds available in Colorado to trafficked minors is less than 30; many are in facilities that serve diverse populations. Nationwide, the outlook is even more grim. A 2012 Polaris Project survey found only 1,644 shelter beds available for human trafficking survivors in the entire country—where, at any given time, approximately 300,000 underage children are at risk. Angela Lytle, division manager for children, youth, and family services at Arapahoe County’s Department of Human Services, notes that for all the experts we have in trauma-informed work, the cost of providing their services means there’s a distinct lack of outlets where these professionals can practice their trade. “Colorado has a pretty underdeveloped system of delivery for this particular population at this time,” she says.
Executive director Lincoln Smith hopes the family environment and structured program at Sarah’s Home will help girls take their first steps toward reintegration. A lanky former missionary with strawberry blond hair, Smith resembles a high-school science teacher. “We want to reshape their worldviews and understandings of what’s normal and healthy and acceptable in the world,” he says. Step one is teaching them to recognize that what occurred was done to them, not because they chose to be victimized or weren’t smart enough to leave. Only then can the girls begin working through the sexual and mental trauma. At least one woman lives in the house as a full-time foster mom at any given time, and two survivors are currently in residence. “The trauma happened in the context of a relationship, and that’s how it will be healed,” says Debi Grebenik, executive director of Maple Star Colorado, the nonprofit child placement agency that licensed and supervises Sarah’s Home.
The foster home designation means Smith and his team can work with each survivor for an extended period of time, even a couple of years if necessary. “Part of the end goal is to really empower them to succeed on their own,” he says. The girls study an online curriculum five days a week, learn to cook and sew, have chores, participate in individual and group therapy, and enjoy field trips and weekly game and movie nights. Though it’s a Christian facility, no one is required to participate in faith-based activities. The girls have schedules, but to avoid making them feel like they are following orders—as they did with their pimps and johns—they can make choices within that structure, such as deciding what they want to eat and wear or how to decorate their rooms. Still, Smith admits, these girls are teenagers, and they instinctively crave the freedom they had before.
Aubrey understands the difficult path survivors must walk. It’s been 18 years since she escaped from Dante. She now holds a master’s degree in social work from Newman University—she graduated summa cum laude—and is the clinical consultant for Sarah’s Home. For her, recovery means sharing her story, even if it took more than a decade of bad decisions and additional trauma for her to find her voice.
All those years ago, Aubrey was bundled in a hoodie against the October chill, smoking a cigarette outside that Colorado Springs home. A drug dealer who frequented the house but rarely spoke to Aubrey suddenly approached her and said she didn’t belong there anymore; he told her if she didn’t leave, he’d tell Dante she was snitching to police. She started to cry, unsure of where she would go and why she was being pushed out of her new family. Six months had gone by, but it was the first time anyone had bothered to point out the obvious to her—and something told her to listen. She asked a regular john who picked her up later to drop her near her grandma’s. The most she could hope for was that Nana wouldn’t slam the door in her face.
Aubrey never saw Dante or Theresa again. Although the two were never arrested for trafficking, Aubrey was out of the life for good. Nana told Aubrey to focus on school and put her experience out of her mind, but Aubrey immediately started having recurring nightmares about her past. She soon began drinking heavily. She skipped school and fought with classmates. After Aubrey got into a physical altercation with her mother, Nana put her granddaughter in a mental institution for two months.
After being released, Aubrey stayed clean, doubled up on classes, and managed to graduate high school on time. She headed to Arizona for nursing school. Then, at the beginning of her sophomore year, she learned a pimp had recruited her younger sister. Aubrey left school to try and find her. She finally located Corey in Portland, Oregon; Aubrey drove right past her at a gas station because she didn’t recognize the little girl she had last seen in the now drugged-out teenager in front of her. Four months later, 16-year-old Corey committed suicide.
The loss caused Aubrey to turn back to the bottle. She married and divorced. Then something clicked: My sister didn’t die for me to live like this, she thought. At 21, Aubrey enrolled at Colorado State University Pueblo so she could learn to help fellow victims of trauma and abuse avoid her sister’s fate. And she continued her own long journey to healing. Like many trafficking victims, Aubrey, now 35, considers herself a survivor of multiple rapes. A 2003 study of 854 commercial sex workers, both adults and children, found that 68 percent had signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, a proportion comparable to combat veterans. Many of these women also have addiction issues and carry guilt about falling into the life and shame about what they’ve done. They fear friends, family, and potential mates will judge them. They wonder how any regular person could find them attractive.
Aubrey calls it “overcoming manipulation of the heart and mind.” She had been so brainwashed she couldn’t relate to the dating world. If a guy told her she was beautiful, she flinched. If someone asked her on a date, she was repulsed and immediately flashed back to being pulled into a room by someone who had paid for her. It took her years to put on makeup again, because getting done up had always meant it was time to work.
It was only after reconnecting with an acquaintance she made shortly after Corey died that Aubrey began to learn what a healthy relationship looked like. They were married this past summer and now live in Indiana. She is open about her past, and she advises the girls at Sarah’s Home to do the same. “You have to be honest with how much you got hurt,” she tells them. “I feel sorry for the girl I once was because I spent so much of my life not feeling I was worthy of anything.” She gives herself—and them—permission to be messy, to screw up, to learn, and to celebrate achievements.
Since telling her story publicly for the first time a year ago, Aubrey has a new sense of freedom. She’s earned some recognition, too. She hosts a social justice–focused radio show called Voices of Freedom on the digital MileHiRadio station. In January, she was invited, along with 19 others, to the first federal survivor forum in Washington, D.C. “It was positive to realize just how far I’ve progressed in such a short period of time,” she says. “It was good to have so many people in the room who are in places to make things happen. It’s the beginning of something bigger and better.” The gathering was connected to the first Federal Strategic Action Plan on Services for Victims of Human Trafficking in the United States, a five-year strategy to create a collaborative effort to identify victims and get them access to services.
Aubrey constantly tells fellow survivors that they’re more than their stories. No longer are her words just the musings of a fellow victim; they’re a call to action by a woman who has found her footing after years of stumbling. The invisible scars continue to fade. The only observable reminder is the “5” behind Aubrey’s ear. Except now it reads “153,” a reference to the last chapter of the Gospel of John in which the disciples, after the resurrection of Jesus, hear his voice. Under his guidance, their fish net, which had sat empty all night, suddenly fills with 153 fish. It’s a reminder to Aubrey to follow God’s voice—and to never let anyone quiet hers again.