Aerial view of the Dowagiac campus

Human trafficking survivor speaks at SMC

10/02/2019 - 10am
Theresa Flores

Slavery still exists in the United States. It hides in plain sight as human trafficking, doing brisk business second only to drug crime. Michigan ranks sixth behind California, Florida, Texas, Minnesota and Ohio.

Southwestern Michigan College led off its Academic Speaker Series Sept. 26 with Theresa Flores, author of The Slave Across the Street, about being trafficked for two years as a teen unbeknownst to family and friends in an affluent Detroit suburb. Seven-year-old Southwest Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force co-sponsored her appearance.

Flores, a Columbus, Ohio, social worker, founded SOAP (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution). The Michigan Senate in 2015 enacted Bill 584 that included “Theresa Flores’ Law,” extending the statute of limitations for human trafficking from six years to 25.

“Eighty percent of victims are women,” she said. “Fifty percent of all victims are children. Twenty percent are men and boys. We have 1.3 million missing and runaway kids in our country who will be trafficked if they’re not rescued within 48 hours. The average age of entry is 13.”

People assume she survived kidnapping and removal to a foreign country, but that only happens 3 percent of the time. “Thirty-five to 45 percent of all people trafficked in the United States are by a family member,” Flores said. “I talked at a high school in rural Michigan. A 14-year-old came up to me and said her mom sold her to the landlord to pay the rent. What are you supposed to say to that? Sixty-two percent, like myself, got tricked.”

College students are especially vulnerable. “Traffickers know college students are poor, so they’re going to offer you something,” Flores said. “College students are away from home. I have a son in college. Parents aren’t calling every night to make sure you’re tucked in bed. Most roommates don’t have your parents’ phone number. If you don’t come home it might be 24 hours before they freak out.”

Flores recalled a soldier, 31, picking up a 14-year-old girl at the mall, then forcing her into prostitution. Instead of 99 years in prison for human trafficking of a child, or even 20 years for molestation, it was reduced to 10 years deferred probation.

“If he’s a good boy for 10 years, it gets wiped off his record like it never existed,” Flores said, “sending the message she doesn’t matter. She’s going to live with this trauma the rest of her life.”

“The only way to stop human trafficking is to go after demand,” Flores said. “It’s a misdemeanor and usually about a $150 fine if you get caught buying somebody or selling yourself. Ninety percent of prostitution arrests are females. We need to see them as victims and go after the person trying to buy another person and give him a $5,000 fine and jail. If we get tougher on demand, supply would go away, too.”

The former Indiana resident grew up with three younger brothers. “My mom did not beat me. My dad did not molest me. I was not promiscuous. I ran track, was a good kid who went to church every Sunday and my grandfather was a judge, none of which exempted me. Freshman year we moved from Flushing to Birmingham, which was different than any place I’d ever lived. It was fast-paced. Everybody was rich.”

A cute guy in a black Trans Am showered the perpetual “new girl” with attention as he dutifully groomed her for several months. One February day he offered her a ride home. “Warning bells went off in my head” when he turned toward his house, but she trusted him. The soda he offered was laced with drugs. “I didn’t tell my mom because I thought she’d be angry I disobeyed and went with him.”

At school, photos surfaced she needed to “earn back.” Several nights a week she snuck out of her house at midnight, barefoot and in her pajamas, through the family room sliding door.

“I was delivered to beautiful homes all around the Detroit area like a pizza,” returning home at 3 a.m. “Nobody had any idea something like that was happening. My grades dropped from A’s and B’s to D’s and F’s. Maybe they thought I was having a hard time at a new school. I was falling asleep in class. They threatened to kill my family and followed me home from school. They knew where I was at every moment.”

The 16-year-old fought despair with faith God would send an angel. An elderly black woman pouring coffee in a diner asked, “Can I help you?”

“She saved my life,” Flores said. “She called police and they took me home. If you see something suspicious, be someone’s angel.”