Hope for sex trafficking survivors

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Suzie, a human trafficking survivor, sharing her story with Rexburg residents Photo credit: Grace Wride

“Little did I know” — Suzie’s story

“I was at the level of just surviving,” said Suzie, a human trafficking survivor.

Suzie grew up in a religious family, which influenced her to graduate seminary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and develop a love for reading the scriptures. After she graduated high school, at 19 years old, she moved to Hollywood to pursue her dreams.

“Little did I know, I would be eaten up alive and spit up to the world,” Suzie said.

While she was there, she downloaded a dating app and started meeting guys. There was one particular man that she started seeing more seriously. In her mind, they were building a relationship, but in reality, he was manipulating her — “grooming” her.

According to Fight to End Exploitation, “grooming is a preparatory process in which a predator gradually gains a person’s trust with the intent to exploit them.”

After they had “dated” for a while, he said to her, “Your dream is to come to UCLA, so why don’t you just move in with me and I’ll help you through that?”

She was young and broke, grateful for the opportunity for financial support. She agreed, and over time he took control of her personal documents — her birth certificate, car documents and bank account information.

After she moved in with him they went to a nice dinner, like they had done many times before. As they talked and ate the conversation suddenly took a sharp turn.

“So, where do you think you’re gonna come up with all the money?” he questioned.

“What do you mean?” she asked, caught off guard.

He repeated his question.

“I thought I was just going to move in and you’d help me,” Suzie responded, confused.

She remembers sitting across from him as he was eating. He looked up and gave her what she described as “the biggest grin of evil that you could ever imagine.”

“Yeah,” he said. “About that. You’re gonna be my b—- now.”

Suzie was stunned.

“By the way,” he continued, “I don’t really like your name, so for now you just don’t have a name.”

In shock, she awkwardly finished her meal, unsure of what to do or say.

Afterward, he took her to a strip club where he told her she’d now be working, along with having her own clients down the line. He would collect the money she received. Because he had control of her phone, her documents and her bank account, she had no way to escape.

“I worked from 12 p.m. to 5 a.m.,” Suzie said. “I was sleep-deprived, I was starving and I was controlled by him.”

This trauma affected her physically, mentally and emotionally. She mentioned that her brain wasn’t working at full capacity.

According to Lily Dayton with Pacific Standard, trauma for trafficking victims affects the brain in multiple ways. The amygdala, the fear center of the brain, is overactive; while the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and contextual learning, shrinks. The brain literally shifts into survival mode. On top of that, she had formed a trauma bond with her trafficker.

According to Lois Zoppi with Medical News Today, a trauma bond can occur “when someone’s main source of support is also their abuser.”

 

“I knew I didn’t want to be there,” Suzie said. “I just didn’t know how to get out.”

As the trafficking continued, Suzie went on a trip to San Francisco and Seattle with her trafficker. He was there on business to collect money from other girls in his network. While on this trip, a girl that knew both Suzie and her trafficker gave Suzie a call.

“Suzie, you need to leave right now,” the girl told her.

Suzie had no idea how she could leave. She was in an unfamiliar city with no connections, a simple flip phone and a few other belongings. But she listened and trusted the girl’s advice.

Panicking, she gathered her few belongings and headed out, unbeknownst to her trafficker. The girl had contacted Suzie’s parents; her dad was able to get her a hotel room for the night. He flew up the next morning and helped her get back to Utah, safely.

However, the escape didn’t leave her unscathed. Her journey to healing was and still is, a rocky path. It took her a long time until she stumbled upon Dahlia’s Hope.

Dahlia's Hope meeting at Rexburg Tabernacle
Dahlia’s Hope meeting at Rexburg Tabernacle Photo credit: Grace Wride

What is human trafficking?

Dean Coleman, a Rexburg resident and advocate for anti-human trafficking, defined trafficking as, “Anytime individuals … are used, sold, against their will, non-complicit, for gain.”

Human trafficking includes sexual exploitation, forced labor, forced criminal acts and more. In North America, the majority of trafficking happens to adult women.

 

According to The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “In North America, Central America and the Caribbean, sexual exploitation is the most commonly detected form of trafficking (over 70 percent), which is among the highest recorded globally.”

Trafficking doesn’t always happen in dark alleyways to runaway teenagers. Trafficking happens through dating apps, in the foster care system and even from family members in affluent neighborhoods.

Suzie grew up in a strong, Latter-day Saint family; she did what young women do, tried to meet guys, and get into the dating scene, and this ultimately led to her being exploited against her will.

Dean emphasized how students need to be aware of the problem so they don’t become a part of it. He mentioned being extremely cautious on dating apps and staying away from things that can desensitize a person, such as choosing to view pornography.

On March 16, 2020, the FBI issued a public service announcement about traffickers continuing to use online platforms. It reads as follows:

“Human traffickers may pose as legitimate job recruiters or agents for modeling companies or employment agencies misrepresenting their true intentions to victims. Traffickers groom victims online by offering opportunities for a better life and providing fake employment opportunities.”

In situations like Suzie’s, they pose as men with innocent intentions of getting to know a woman — a dangerous, controlling, manipulative wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Suzie’s path to finding help

Her parents said she was a “living robot” when she first got home; she had no opinions about anything. During a doctor’s visit when she returned, she found out she was pregnant.

“At that moment I just lost it,” Suzie said. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to think. I just remember my mom hugging me. And again, so many survivors don’t have that support.”

She had her baby, and over time she tried therapy, self-help books, even a nonprofit in Utah that supposedly helped human trafficking survivors with the resources they need. That nonprofit offered her no direction. She realized she had to figure it out on her own. Taking her own progression by the reins, she pursued a career path in law enforcement and graduated from the police academy.

Down the road, she got in touch with Cherstyn Stockwell, a co-founder of Dahlia’s Hope, a complete aftercare facility for sex trafficking survivors. This organization was the key to her progression and healing.

Suzie smiling as she shares how Dahlia's Hope helped her heal
Suzie smiling as she shares how Dahlia’s Hope helped her heal Photo credit: Grace Wride

Dahlia’s Hope, a beacon to human trafficking survivors

Faith, the survivor that inspired the creation of Dahlia’s Hope, was trafficked from age 13 to 15. For five years after her escape, she searched for an adequate combination of all the aftercare resources she needed to move forward. Her story can be read here.

Dahlia’s Hope weaves all the parts of aftercare resources into one accessible foundation, as shown in the picture below.

A screenshot of some of Dahlia's Hope's resources
A screenshot of some of Dahlia’s Hope’s resources Photo credit: Dahlia’s Hope

Suzie said that even when there isn’t a resource available, her therapist will consult with the team and they’ll find a way to make it available. Other facilities may have had clinical therapy, but no options to help with survivors’ finances. They may have offered a hotline, but no medical assistance.

The first completed facility is in American Fork, Utah, where they also have a therapeutic animal farm. Horses, rabbits, sheep and other animals are used to help survivors “learn to trust again in a safe environment,” according to their pamphlet.

The city of Rexburg will likely be the second home for a Dahlia’s Hope facility. On May 22, 2021, the co-founders of Dahlia’s Hope, along with Suzie and Faith, met in the Rexburg Tabernacle to discuss plans for a facility in Rexburg. Mayor Jerry Merrill attended the meeting as well and stood to voice his support to the congregation.

Dean and Kristin Coleman, two Rexburg residents, initiated the idea to build a facility here. A while back, they visited the American Fork facility with Cherstyn and her husband.

“It was really just walking (on) that property that something powerful happened,” Kristin said.

They felt something inspiring, tugging them towards a higher purpose.

“We literally felt like we were being pressed on our shoulders, like, ‘You’re going to be a part of this. You need to make this happen,’” Dean said.

From previous work, Dean is acutely aware of the connection between drugs and human trafficking. At the Rexburg Tabernacle meeting both Dean and Aros Mackey, the founder of Adaptive Ops, a counter human trafficking organization, mentioned that wherever drug trafficking is happening, human trafficking is happening as well.

To the surprise of many, it happens in quaint sheltered Idaho as well. Sex trafficking was happening at a girls’ home in Idaho Falls just two months ago.

It’s difficult to find an accurate number of cases because so few are reported; traffickers keep their jobs under the radar. Trafficking is their business and publicity threatens that business.

“We will be bringing children that are trafficked in this state,” Dean said. “We’re healing our own state.”

How to help Dahlia’s Hope aid survivors

Human trafficking survivors need hope; they need help. After escaping, most of them don’t know what steps to take to restore their lives. Trauma inflicts their mental capacity and hinders them from healing, especially without the proper resources. As college students pursue education and engage in social activities, survivors and victims are simply trying to survive. Dahlia’s Hope seeks to offer them the resources they need to heal and progress.

Dean and Kristin Coleman holding a Dahlia's Hope sign
Dean and Kristin Coleman holding a Dahlia’s Hope sign Photo credit: Grace Wride

“This is a basic human right to be free,” Kristin said. “I’m not sure anything supersedes this mission.”

Dean shared that the pace at which a Dahlia’s Hope facility is established in Rexburg depends largely on the support from the community. This includes financial and time donations. Both Cherstyn and Kristin emphasized how indispensable microdonations are: $5 a month gives lifeblood to the resources of Dahlia’s Hope.

Financial donations – Donations to Dahlia’s Hope can be made here or through Venmo @dahliashope. Where possible, include in the notes that your contribution is toward the Rexburg facility.

Volunteer opportunities – Once the facility is open and running, you can sign up to volunteer here. Until then, Dean and Kristin Coleman said there are still things that BYU-I students can do to help. There will be other meetings, fundraisers and events that they’ll need assistance organizing and running. They say they’re looking for any skill set that could contribute to the case, including photographers and writers. If you’re interested in helping, contact Dean through his LinkedIn profile.

“It will be a really awesome way to be able to look outside ourselves,” Mayor Jerry Merrill said. “It’s very meaningful service to be able to change somebody’s life.”

A hopeful future for survivors and volunteers

On the night before the Dahlia’s Hope meeting in Rexburg, Dean and Kristin Coleman had the Stockwells, Suzie and Faith in their home for the evening. The Colemans mentioned the inspiring light that these survivors bring.

“They bring a light into the world that is different, and it is special,” Kristin said.

She said she spoke with Cherstyn, commenting on how difficult it would be, immersed in the fight against something as dark as sex trafficking.

“Because when you meet the survivors, they’re fighters,” Kristin recalled Cherstyn’s words. “They kind of lead the charge. You just try to help them.”

Suzie’s story of exploitation and abuse is just one among the millions that are human trafficked every year. Rexburg residents have an opportunity to help give those survivors the life they deserve.

Girl with sun and dandelion, symbolizing hope
Girl with sun and dandelion, symbolizing hope Photo credit: Bailee Merrill

“There is nothing that is more fundamental to our humanity that deserves our attention and fighting against, than the trafficking of human beings,” Dean said. “We invite you to join the fight.”