Horror of teen sex slavery not foreign woe; it's here
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
The late-night calls began when Theresa Flores was 15.
In 1980, before everyone had a cell phone, the private phone that Flores' parents had installed in her bedroom was a luxury. But it nearly proved her undoing.
Minutes after getting a call, Flores would silently slip out of the house, cut through the backyard and get in a car waiting at the curb. She would then be whisked away from her home in an affluent Detroit suburb to homes and hotels, anonymous places where she was forced to have sex for hours with strangers.
"I can't describe to you the feeling of terror. No child should ever have to know that kind of fear. I didn't know what I was going to have to endure that night, for how long, or if I was going to come back home."
What started innocently with Flores' infatuation with an older male classmate turned to date rape caught on film by some of the rapist's friends. They used the photos to blackmail the girl into sexual slavery that lasted two years and involved hundreds of men.
Now 43 and a mother of three living in central Ohio, Flores described her ordeal yesterday at a human-trafficking conference that attracted more than 500 people to the Vineyard Church of Columbus, 6000 Cooper Rd. The conference was co-sponsored by Xenos Christian Fellowship.
Flores and other speakers emphasized that the problem is not confined to foreign countries or America's biggest cities. Nor is it just about young girls sold in Thailand or foreigners smuggled across U.S. borders to feed the sex trade.
"Yes, it is happening in central Ohio," said Dr. Jeff Barrows of Bellefontaine.
He has founded Gracehaven, a fledgling nonprofit that aims by year's end to establish a residential rehabilitation facility for girls who have been sexually exploited. He said there are only 39 beds for such victims in the country.
"As I got to know about human trafficking, two things hit me hard: how horrific it is and how prevalent it is," Barrows said. "You reach a point where you say, 'I've got to do something about it.' "
"We have allowed this to happen," said Flores, who has written a book about her life. "We don't like to think that it happens here, but slavery is alive and well in the U.S."
Experts and victims said the problem hides in the shadows and thrives on silence.
Worldwide, human trafficking generates $9.5 billion, ahead of the arms trade and second among illegal trading only to drugs, said Kathleen Davis, a human-trafficking expert from Cincinnati. It might involve 300,000 children in the United States, some as young as 12. She said the FBI considers northwestern Ohio one of the "top recruiting locations" in the U.S. for underage prostitution.
A law that Ohio legislators recently passed and Gov. Ted Strickland signed allows judges to tack on tougher penalties if human trafficking accompanies two related felony charges.
Judge Paul M. Herbert of Franklin County Municipal Court said he sees a connection between domestic violence and cases where teen-agers end up as runaways vulnerable to prostitution and sex trafficking.
"I look at the whole family and think, 'How long do I have to put this man in jail so the family will realize they no longer need him?' "
Marlene Carson, who late last year started the women's shelter Rahab's Hideaway, said her story is like Flores'. Carson said she got involved with an older man when she was 16. He took her to New York, where he forced her to have sex with 37 men over two days.
"This problem is much bigger than you can imagine," Carson said.