By C. Johnson for News10ABC on November 18, 2013—
“Sacramento has been identified by law enforcement officials as one of the worst cities in the U.S. when it comes to sex trafficking. News10’s Walt Gray recently talked with some of those who are working to stop the peddling of young girls against their will and help the victims, including Leah Albright-Byrd, who spent four years living on the streets and being exploited by traffickers. Byrd later founded Bridget’s Dream, a Sacramento-based organization that provides assistance to sex trafficking victims.
Here is a partial transcript of the interview. The order of the questions has been edited for clarity.
How did you become the victim of a sex trafficker?
I was 14 years old and there was a drug dealer that lived next door to my father at the time who moved out of my apartment complex and began to try to encourage me and one of my best friends to live with him. So at the time, at 14 years old, both of us, she had been molested, the two of us were both trying to get away from the environment we were in and (it) seemed like a good idea. But you trust someone who is an adult that is telling you that you can come stay here and you’ll be OK.
How long were you in that environment?
I was exploited for four years. And it was, as I’ve shared, in different settings, it was the worst experience a child can have. From 14-18 my adolescent years were taken from me.
How did you deal with life during those four years?
Well, in the mental health world, we call it disassociation. So you completely disconnect from your feelings, from your body, you have to, you know, because otherwise you can’t deal with the repeated trauma. And we’re talking about daily assaults, ongoing rapes, abortions, miscarriages, STDs, I mean it’s the whole gamut of dysfunction and pain that you deal with out there, you really can’t be fully present. And then part of the recovery is learning to be fully present all over again because you learn how to deal with your emotions at all and to be disconnected.
Did you try and escape?
I absolutely did but there weren’t any services, and the great news is that now there are services. There are things that children can reach out to, there are a lot of organizations in the community, locally, nationally.
People might ask, why didn’t you run away? But what would you run to?
That’s a great point, because if you’re running back to the environment you came out of and nothing’s been resolved, you don’t have a healthy home to return to. And then you have someone who’s telling you, “oh, I love you more than your parents do,” and then when you do try to leave, he’s abusing and assaulting you, because that’s what would happen. I remember trying to run away once, run from him, and him pinning me up against a wall by my throat. So you have that display of violence perpetrated against you, then you live in fear of leaving.
How did you finally manage to get away?
Well, at 18, I started going to city college and I had gotten away from the trafficker. He actually came and started going to school at the school I was at. So I was constantly being approached by him. It wasn’t like I could make a clean break, right, because he knew where I was. But fortunately for me I met a young lady who ended up actually inviting me to church and I have been in a Christian community here in Sacramento ever since.
Was that a hard transition?
It was very difficult because I had, have post-traumatic stress disorder. And it’s chronic, which means it’s not going to go away, and it’s something that I learned to cope with. It’s not as bad as it was because it’s more manageable. But it’s nightmares, it’s being afraid of sleeping the dark, it’s thinking someone is going to break into my house and rape me. Because you’ve lived in this battlefield, just like Vietnam veterans, you think that they would have fallen apart when they were there, but they couldn’t because they had to fight. Then you come home and then you’re in a safe environment and you think, well you can relax. Well, not so. So you get hyper vigilant and anxious and fearful for your life because now your brain can finally process what you’ve been through in a safe space.
Do you still have nightmares about it?
Well, the great thing is that there are some incredible therapists that know how to treat trauma effectively in our community and I got to benefit from trauma therapy services. And so being able to be with a counselor, work through some of those issues is really important. And the good news is now we have those resources in our community.
Are you able to have normal relationships with people now? Do you go out on fun dates?
Do you feel that thanks to the therapy, you have made a fresh start?
It is, and you know what, ultimately it’s about relationships. When you’re able to have redemptive relationships with people that restore some of the lost images you have. Relationships with men are really important. I have some incredible men in my life, and my relationship with my dad is great now. We’ve grown a lot through the experience.
Where are human trafficking victims coming from?
The biggest problem is domestic. So unfortunately, there is an issue with foreign-born victims, but it’s impacting our kids more than it’s impacting foreign-born victims being brought here. Unfortunately, the average age of entry is 12-14 into exploitation. So your average girl is 12 years old when she’s first being exploited. And sometimes it’s much younger than that. Sometimes it starts with family exploiting you to support their drug habits, and the next thing you know a trafficker has hold of you.
How are guys making contact with young girls? Is it online?
Well the unfortunate thing is that Internet exploitation is so prevalent. And so what we used to see that would be exclusively on the streets is more so hidden, and so then you have people, pedophiles, people who know they’re ordering up very young children, and they can sit in the privacy of their homes and order up our kids.”
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