Rachel Thomas, Cody Foute and D’Lita Miller were able to escape lives as victims of human trafficking, but most victims are not so fortunate.
All three of them are now united by shared histories. They help educate and advocate on the prevalence of human trafficking and how others can prevent themselves and loved ones from becoming victims of abuse.
The women told their stories at Cal State Fullerton’s 14th annual Violence Prevention Conference. This year’s event was titled “Technology & Trafficking: Predatory Behaviors and Gender Violence” and took place on campus.
The WoMen’s Center hosted the conference, which raised awareness about gender violence by addressing the issues about the different types of predators, how to protect oneself and acknowledge when someone needs help.
About 72 percent of human trafficking victims working domestically are United States citizens, said Deputy District Attorney Bradley Schoenleben of the human exploitation and trafficking unit.
Many pimps in Orange County come from other counties.
Schoenleben explained how pimps know who to target and how to lure in young females.
The majority of the females are either runaways or throwaways that come from unstable homes.
Two of the women, Foute and Miller, came from broken homes and began working as sex slaves.
Foute was 14 when she was placed in a group home. She became a sex worker after a friend had informed her about the “glamour” of making money from having sex.
Foute got the courage to escape in 2011 after she was beaten in front of her daughter.
Miller’s mom was on drugs and her father was absent.
“I felt like a rag doll as I was held down and raped repeatedly by several men,” Miller said.
She became a medical assistant, but ended up back in the human trafficking trade when she was unable to pay her bills and provide for her five children. Miller did not leave for good until she was 30.
Foute and Miller are now advocates for awareness of human trafficking. Miller is currently the program director of California Against Slavery Research and Education. She helped advocate for Proposition 35, which California voters passed in 2012. The initiative increased the maximum possible prison sentence for adults convicted of sex trafficking from five years to 20; additionally, forcing a minor into the sex trade can result in a life sentence, as opposed to eight years previously.
“We were victims; then we became survivors, but now we are leaders,” Miller said.
Pimps try to target youths by finding them at places such as the bus stop or online. They then coax the females into trusting them by treating them with kindness and making them feel loved.
Soon, the pimp isolates his victim and starts controlling her by checking her phone. He abuses her and forces her to engage in sexual acts. Pimps often have a history of anger and violence issues.
“They know how to screw with these kids’ heads so much that they now want these guys’ approval. They’ll do anything for them,” said Schoenleben, explaining why some victims are unable to leave their abusers.
Some stay because they are threatened and fearful, while others stay to please their pimps because they believe they are truly loved by them. These women are belittled and their self-esteem shattered.
Pimps sometimes will keep the identification card of their victim as “proof of ownership,” decreasing the chance of a victim running away.
Allisha Tillman, adopted by Miller, escaped human trafficking last December. Tillman was gang raped and serviced men in Los Angeles and Orange County.
“You can’t leave. It’s just hard to leave. … What am I supposed to do?” Tillman said. “I have no choice but to have with sex with these guys and bring back money that he told me to bring back.”
Schoenleben said customers of the sex trade, known as “johns,” sometimes beat the women, and pimps will do nothing to stop it. Pimps collect their money and do not care if a woman is sick or is hurt in the process. He added that this is an issue and it has expanded.
There are websites where johns can choose any race, eye color, body shapes, or women who are willing to engage in fetishes, said Schoenleben.
Human trafficking victims can come from even the most stable homes.
Rachel Thomas, another victim, was born to an attorney and a deacon. While she was attending Emory University, a man approached her commenting on her beauty and said he could help her be a model. She refused, as she was planning on finishing college.
She was approached again the same night, this time by a woman. She told her she was gorgeous and she should model.
Thomas agreed to try it and was cast in a music video. She was excited and signed a contract agreeing to pay $25,000 to be represented by Candy Girl Casting for a year.
Mike, Thomas’ “agent,” told her to do what he wanted. She dropped out of college and began working in a strip club and having sex with men for money.
She had been tricked into human trafficking. Mike hit her, threatened to harm her parents and broke down her self-esteem. She was soon forced to become a recruiter, targeting women in college.
Thomas escaped this lifestyle when another female victim went to the police. She began helping the police and was subsequently placed in the witness protection program.
Mike is in prison now, and Thomas hopes students will learn from her experience.
One in four women and one in ten men will be sexually assaulted at some point during their duration in college, said Mary Becerra, interim director of the WoMen’s Center.
Eric Nicholson, 22, a human services major, said the conference made him “realize that (sex trafficking) does actually happen even though it’s hidden from our view.”
There are a variety of predators on the spectrum, Becerra said. She said that she hopes people learn how to protect themselves.