Changing the dialogue around human trafficking is an important step toward preventing it. This starts when survivors are empowered to speak out.
Jerome Elam sat down at his computer in November 2011, preparing himself for the plunge. He wanted to write.
He began with Jerry Sandusky.
Sandusky, over the course of a decade and while coaching football at Penn State University, sexually abused boys. Many were selected from a pool of at-risk youth in his charity, Second Mile.
Elam watched as television reporters showed Sandusky’s supporters accusing victims of lying about their abuse for a payout. His rage bubbled. He pointed out that since Sandusky’s grand jury report that November, more and more victims were coming forward to talk about their abuse.
Elam — who spent more than 12 years researching Crohn’s disease for the University of Florida — had written only for himself: song lyrics, a play in eighth grade. But he seldom shared his personal writing. Instead, he kept to scientific reports.
As he wrote about Sandusky, nightmares from nine years of abuse resurfaced. He thought about his stepfather and became physically ill.
He didn’t let the past stop him. He channeled it.
“The Penn State scandal has begun the demolition of the wall of silence surrounding pedophilia,” Elam wrote, “and like the liberation of East Germany, those victims of childhood sexual abuse now have a fighting chance to find justice for stolen childhoods and vandalized dreams.”
Elam’s voice, long silenced by shame and self-blame, erupted onto the page. With each word he wrote, the weight he had borne over 40 years of silence began to lift.
He was writing from experience. Elam’s mother gave birth to him when she was a teenager. His stepfather began sexually abusing him at the age of 5, trafficking him to a ring of pedophiles in Jacksonville. His mother’s alcoholism kept her from intervening, and the abuse continued. The dysfunction and lack of attention made Elam vulnerable to his stepfather’s manipulation.
“Statistically one in eight males are a victim of abuse and a child has to tell seven adults of suspected abuse before he or she is taken seriously,” Elam wrote. “Rates of suicide among male victims of childhood sexual abuse are 14 times higher than the norm, and they are 38 times more likely to die from a drug overdose.”
Elam remembered the day his own abuse was discovered. It was when he was 12 years old, after he had attempted suicide with alcohol and pills.
He knew in the marrow of his bones that if Sandusky went free, sexual predators would believe they could abuse children without consequence. It was then that he addressed the veil of silence that stifles victims’ voices.
“Victims and their supporters are subjected to immense pressure to retreat to a world of invisible suffering,” he wrote, “and that has to become unacceptable in a society based on each voice being heard.”
Elam, like others who were trafficked as children, came out from the shadows to share his story, which was eventually published in The Washington Times in 2011. In doing this, he influenced the creation of new policies that recognize and protect survivors of human trafficking.
“There was a point in the whole process where I said to myself, ‘Either I’m going to have the nightmares, or the nightmares are going to have me,’” he said.
For some survivors, speaking out can be cathartic. But it also hurts. As Elam was writing his first piece, he became depressed. Confronting his past is emotionally draining, he said, and it took him a long time to get to a place where he felt ready.
“It took me 25 years of therapy every week to deal with this and get to the point where I could actually talk about it,” Elam said. “To resurrect those monsters, even if it’s only in your mind, you have to face the impact of the emotions that you couldn’t process as a child.”
“Do you know how utterly discouraging it is to have professionals who are supposed to help you not know how to handle you?”
In Alachua County, there are no shelters and few resources for adult victims. Most, said Marie Samec, vice president of the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking, are geared toward helping children, especially after the Safe Harbor Act passed in 2013, which creates safe houses for sexually exploited children funded by increased fines for those soliciting prostitution. The act, which assigns a legal advocate to each dependent child and provides “security, counseling, transportation, food, clothing, health and dental care, and other services,” is only a short-term solution. Long-term aftercare is still blighted by a lack of funding, Elam said.
For adult victims, having a place to go is also important, said community advocate Trish Kearney, who has worked with several organizations including House of Hope, a local shelter for vulnerable women, though not specifically victims of human trafficking. Victims who have yet to begin recovery need a place equipped with people who can help them through the trauma that comes with human trafficking, she said.
Ann*, a survivor of child sex trafficking who spoke at the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking symposium in 2012, wrote in an email that something changes when you are sold for money. Most therapists and doctors didn’t know how to handle her recovery.
“Do you know how utterly discouraging it is to have professionals who are supposed to help you not know how to handle you?” she wrote in an email. “It just adds to the isolation and displacement.”
House of Hope, which also works with men, can only accommodate a limited number of people. Because of this, the only other option is GRACE Marketplace, a homeless shelter in northeast Gainesville that provides supportive resources like counseling, food and clothing. And while the shelter is expanding, Richard Tovar, president of the coalition, said it’s problematic to group people who have survived human trafficking with other vulnerable populations.
Tovar said victims who haven’t fully recovered have entered shelters like GRACE only to end up recruiting those there into trafficking. Elam added that turning to sex work is common among victims, who have difficulty associating sex with intimacy.
“[There’s also] the need to have a shelter in an undisclosed location to prevent traffickers and pimps from having access to the survivors,” Tovar said.
Though GRACE, Kearney added, is equipped to address the needs of the homeless, it’s not always able to prevent crime.
“You can’t pluck a victim out of one bad situation and put her in another potentially dangerous one,” she said. “I’m not saying all homeless shelters are unsafe, they aren’t. I’m also not saying that about GRACE Marketplace. However, when coming out of trafficking, [survivors] need support.”
Because of this, members of the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking are searching for a building to dedicate to adult victims of human trafficking. To get a sense of how this shelter might operate, Tovar and Samec visited similar ones in Central and South Florida.
The shelter, he said, would be donations-based, rather than part of the local government, allowing the coalition to accept all survivors of human trafficking, not just those without prior offenses. After two years, the coalition hopes to rent a five-bed shelter by the end of the year. The coalition would partner with local rehabilitation programs to address substance abuse and with businesses to assist in job training.
“If you’re not trained, you do more harm than good,” Tovar said. “We try to make sure the people interacting with victims are qualified. They can make mistakes, end up in relationships with victims… you name it.”
Tovar said he and the coalition also plan to create a database of trafficking victims. He wants to develop a smartphone application that would allow social workers to collect data on victims. The information would be general and anonymous, but it would show what services are already utilized and therefore necessary.
“The ability to gather information about cases can be an invaluable tool in increasing the quality of services provided,” Tovar said.
“What we’ve learned is every case is totally unique, so you can’t just give a blanket statement,” Samec said. “There’s a lot that has to be available for individual needs.”
Elam thought the blog post would be a one-time thing, but it transformed into a weekly child advocacy column called “A Heart Without Compromise,” published in Communities Digital News. Then, Elam began to receive invitations to speak.
During his first speaking engagement, at the Child Advocacy Center near the Marine Corps base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, Elam addressed his fellow Marines, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and Army Criminal Investigative Service. He felt honored being able to educate these groups on how to help rescue exploited children from sexual predators.
“I was so overwhelmed by the response I got,” he said. “I had people in their 60s contact me and say that I’m the first person they’ve told about their experiences.”
That snowballed into a career as a full-time advocate, with Elam sharing his story two or three times a month at speaking engagements for local and national advocacy organizations — at one engagement, he raised half a million dollars. Elam’s firsthand perspective has also qualified him to give feedback on legislation. He’s assisted in passing a bill that officially defined a juvenile victim and another that barred use of the excuse that someone didn’t know a child’s age when they bought their services.
And each time he speaks, five to 10 people approach Elam after to say they’ve been victimized too.
“We’re scratching the surface of what’s really out there,” Elam said.
Female victims might be recognized at hair and nail salons while traffickers prepare them for their dates, but it’s more difficult to identify male victims, Elam said. The signs of abuse are usually noticed in the emergency room or the juvenile justice system.
“Men are raised to feel like they’re always in control and in power, so men don’t admit that they’re victims,” Elam said. “They just endure the burden of what’s happening to them.”
He said it’s a struggle to move from the victim stage to the survivor stage. By voicing his experience, he allows people to feel comfortable enough to come forward.
“You can’t go from having your entire identity stripped from you and reduced down to a number and then just go back to being a member of society,” Ann said. “It’s almost impossible to do it alone, but a lot of times people don’t know how to support someone through that because they cannot comprehend it.”
“I would not be here today if it wasn’t for a female survivor who taught me that vulnerability isn’t weakness,” Elam said.
“Once you’ve looked in the face of evil, you never forget it. That’s why I fight so hard,” Elam said. “I’d rather live speaking my mind and deal with the consequences than suffer in silence.”
As the coalition plans to better assist the needs of victims, a Gainesville nonprofit called Fight Injustice and Global Human Trafficking (FIGHT) is working in tandem to raise awareness about local human trafficking issues.
Not only does FIGHT work to inform people about what human trafficking is and who is affected by it, they also work to derail cultural norms that keep the demand for trafficking alive, Tovar said.
According to Tovar, the root of human trafficking is a culture that commodifies people — often women, who are objectified in mass media and pop culture — in a way that renders them inhuman.
“It’s the root of slavery,” Tovar said. “You treat a human being as an object.”
For survivors, feeling free and human isn’t a given. These things only come after intense care, constant support and lots of time.
“I wish that you became a survivor the moment your feet took a step of freedom,” Ann wrote. “But surviving cannot be defined as breathing and freedom isn’t as simple as no chains.”
“Every step towards reclaiming your life for yourself is a mountain,” she wrote.
Elam said that as he became more vocal and people started reaching out, the process became easier.
“When you’re a victim, especially in relationships, you feel like when you tell someone they’ll run the other way,” said Elam, who didn’t tell his wife until after they were married. “You really feel like you’re a broken person. But you find that it’s just the opposite.
“Once you’ve looked in the face of evil, you never forget it. That’s why I fight so hard,” Elam said. “I’d rather live speaking my mind and deal with the consequences than suffer in silence.
“There’s nothing that compares to trying to keep all of this hidden inside.”