For four long years, Stephanie wasn’t even allowed to use her own name. She was only known by the name her trafficker gave her when he first enslaved her. She was only 13 years old at the time.
“He said I was no longer that girl with my old family,” Stephanie remembers, “No longer a girl who went to weekend retreats with my church youth group. But now a new girl that was a part of his family.”
It was a brutal family. Her trafficker beat her and continually manipulated her emotionally. Even worse than the beatings, Stephanie says today, were his constant reminders that he would go get her 10-year-old sister — unless Stephanie kept the customers satisfied.
Eventually, local law enforcement rescued her but she still couldn’t use her own name. Shared Hope moved her from her home community in SW Washington clear across the country, and gave her a new name for her own protection. And as she was loved, cared for her and counseled, the day came when she determined to share her story boldly, to help fight the scourge of sex-trafficking, to keep other girls from being subjected to what she had suffered.
As she prepared to speak at her first public events, the old shame bombarded her again. But then, something beautiful happened: “I walked to the microphone, looked out, and saw smiles of acceptance. Something had changed. I lifted my chin, stood tall, and said, ‘My name is Stephanie, and I am taking back my name.’ I then proceeded to tell them how the traffickers work, so they could better protect the children in their homes and communities!”
Her story is, in many ways, sadly typical: the older boy taking an interest in the younger girl, persuading her that their relationship is “fate,” promising to marry her, buying her nice things, and then demanding that she dance in a strip club to help him out of a financial jam.
“It was degrading, but I did it ‘for us,’” Stephanie says. When he demanded that she sell herself for sex, she refused — and he threw her out of the house on a bitterly cold night. She could sell, or she could freeze to death.
“I began endless nights of selling myself to make the money my trafficker demanded. I descended into depression. I drank and took drugs to dull the pain. Before I turned 16 all I wanted to do was die. Police picked me up, recognized me as a reported missing child, took me home — but fearing what he would do to my little sister if I didn’t return, I would get in the car when he drove up to my house.”
Arrests and returns became a cycle. At one point, the trafficker brutally assaulted Stephanie in front of her own home. “While I was hospitalized, my probation officer asked Linda Smith of Shared Hope to find a safe place where professionals had the skills to address my many needs,” Stephanie says.
The closest such place was 3,000 miles away. But Stephanie was willing to go. To escape the nightmare.
Stephanie has rebuilt her life, with strong support. Yet, as she often tells audiences, she likely would not have been tricked into the horror she endured if she, her youth leader, coach, or even her mom had known how the traffickers work. The signs were very evident.
Stephanie is one of two girls who tell their story in ‘Chosen,’ a gripping documentary from Shared Hope that opens hearts and eyes to the tragic dangers of sex trafficking and educates youth to recognize the danger signs. This 20-minute film tells the shocking true story of two all-American teenage girls tricked into trafficking. Both were manipulated. Both were exploited. Both were chosen.
“My journey has made me strong enough to be a voice for others,” Stephanie says today. “My faith in God and His way of making beauty from ashes has emboldened me to speak on their behalf.”
Shared Hope International is a global community dedicated to protecting our children on a local level. We’re thrilled to be working alongside the Clark County Sheriff’s office and Southwest Washington Churches on September 22nd to train parents, youth workers, community leaders, and teens how traffickers operate and how they can protect themselves and their friends. We invite those in the Northwest to join us for this event. In equipping our entire community with the proper knowledge and tools, we at Shared Hope believe we can protect our children before they come to harm.
We also invite you, our global community, to support our local efforts by giving to Shared Hope International as a part of Give More 24 on September 22.