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Play sheds light on Chicago child sex trade

Fri, Nov 8, 2013

There are 15,000 to 25,000 children sex trafficked or commercially sexually exploited in Chicago and collar countries. The average age of entry is now 11.

There are 15,000 to 25,000 children sex trafficked or commercially sexually exploited in Chicago and collar countries. The average age of entry is now 11.


A child trafficking victim at the Salvation Army’s PROMISE Program at Anne’s House in Chicago was so beautiful that she had been moved all over the U.S. – Miami, Atlantic City, Los Angeles – and tattooed by her pimp each time, on her breast and thigh. She was so smart that she could read a book every night and remember its contents, yet her primary self-worth revolved around her power to attract a man.

Bringing the young woman back from victim, to survivor to “thriver” meant helping her change her priorities, said the director of the Salvation Army PROMISE (Partnership to Rescue Our Minors in Sexual Exploitation) program, who asked to remain nameless out of confidentiality. “It shouldn’t be how short her skirt is or how many men she is going to see that night. It should be how smart she is, how much she has to offer, how self-sufficient she can be because she has built her self-esteem.”

The Salvation Army PROMISE program at Anne’s House and The Dreamcatcher Foundation, which works to prevent sexual exploitation of at-risk youth, will both benefit from the October 10-November 17 production of “Shadow Town,” a fictionalized play about child trafficking in Chicago. The play is written and directed by Mary Bonnett, who is a former theater teacher in a Chicago fine arts magnet school, a Chicago playwright and theater director who founded Her Story Theater in 2009 “to shine a bright light in dark places on women and children in need of social justice and community support.” Bonnett spent two years researching the sex trade in Chicago: interviewing prostitution survivors, law enforcement and immigration officials, social workers, therapists, parents, pimps and johns.

There are 16,000 to 25,000 children sex trafficked or commercially sexually exploited in Chicago and collar counties.

The number has risen “because of our economy, more young people running around not knowing what to do with themselves, looking for a hero,” said Brenda Myers-Powell, a prostitution survivor who started The Dreamcatcher Foundation in 2008. When teaching a hygiene class, a girl reminded her that single mothers don’t have much money left over for basics.

“ ‘Ms. Brenda, food stamps don’t buy that.’ The poor don’t even have money for sanitary products,” Myers-Powell said. “What girl says ‘I want to be a prostitute’ unless something is going on? What had her back up against the wall, her needs not being met so that she had to sell her body?”

An overwhelming majority of sex trade survivors who are stable enough to work with the Salvation Army PROMISE program say they started at home with dad, a stepdad or mom. “The girl is attractive and mom needs drugs and pimps her out,” the director said. Pimps also target homeless runaways who barter “survival sex” for basic needs, Bonnett said. And they zone in on latchkey kids, loners and girls who fell through the cracks of the foster care system.

The internet has expanded the reach of pimps in the last seven years because young people are now likely to have mobile phones in addition to social networking sites, the PROMISE director said.

“If someone’s courting you on the internet, you’re vulnerable, and lonely, and isolated,” Bonnett said. “These guys know which buttons to press. They listen closely to your story and [think] how to manipulate you. They say they will be your boyfriend and rescue you, feed into those little girl fantasies about what love is.”

The average age of entry into the sex trade has also dropped to 11, as pimps and johns try to avoid disease and because of how girls are portrayed in the media. “Youth is everything,” she said.

Life for women in the sex trade is like being a prisoner of war, Bonnett said. They are continually hit in the head by the pimp, controlled by fear and called degrading names until they buy into it. The worst case she encountered was a young woman who was kidnapped and chained to a bed for years in the south suburbs, similar to the three women held captive by Ariel Castro in Columbus, Ohio until they escaped last May.

Opened in 2010, the Salvation Army’s PROMISE program at Anne’s House is one of the few programs in the U.S. aimed at trafficked women age 12-21. Referred from around the U.S., 8 to 10 girls can live in the residential setting as long as they are making progress on life skills training and trauma care. Anne’s House works with an average of 17 girls per year.

“If someone wants to run out the front door, we will not stop them but we will counsel them, find out the main reason they want to leave and keep them from leaving without physical restraint,” the director said.

He acknowledges their trauma of having been a commercial sex object as well as pimp bonding, which he said is akin to brainwashing. A grown woman in a domestic violence situation often returns to her abuser; for kids, the bond is deeper because they have less life experience.

“Our job is to break the trauma bond, slowly introduce them to something else, methodically, patiently have them discover that the boyfriend is not a boyfriend. ‘I don’t deserve to be living under a box getting an STD every month, I deserve better than this. I can be a survivor and a thriver.’ ”

The girls are encouraged to have a moral and spiritual compass, to go to a church of their choice or to services at Anne’s House. They also attend public middle schools and high schools.

One young girl is now graduating from high school, the first in her family to graduate or get a GED. She will likely enroll in community college in order to stay in the program; she has dealt with her trauma as well as her mother’s drug experience.
“She’s got all the tools and self-esteem to do special things with her life. We like to say ‘Mom will always be Mom but that does not mean Mom has got it right,’ ” the director said.

Since 2008, the Dreamcatcher Foundation has reached 1,200 girls in small and large ways. There are toiletries, condoms and information for girls she may never see again, Myers-Powell said.

Other girls need to talk if they have accepted money from an older man who suggested a quick fix and “it’s eating them up inside.” Sometimes that means going out to breakfast if she meets a girl on the street who starts talking. They also go on outings so that Myers-Powell can show them a different side of life.

“We don’t judge, we don’t have any stipulations. If you continue to come, something is setting in, you’re listening,” she said. “Eventually they hear some of the things we’re telling: ‘you can do anything you want. You don’t have to sell your body.’”
Myers-Powell has seen grades increase among girls who once seemed likely to drop out. Roughly 30 to 40 girls she has served over the years are now on the verge of graduating and continuing in community college or trade school.

Myers-Powell herself was kidnapped at age 15, and got out at age 39 when a john dragged her six blocks, tearing the skin off her face. She started to turn her life around thanks to Edwina Gateley at Genesis House and has spent the last 15 years trying to give other women the same love.

Because she was below the legal age of consent when she was kidnapped by two pimps and forced into the sex trade, Myers-Powell was able to prove she was a victim of human trafficking. On August 23, her prostitution record was vacated in Cook County Circuit Court– it disappeared, thanks to the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Crimes Act, which became effective last year.

“The laws have changed to work in our favor instead of against me,” she said. She will now be legally able to adopt her foster child. The change will also allow her to open a crisis center at The Dreamcatcher Foundation, according to the Chicago Tribune.

Clearing their records will help other women who were trafficked as children, and who continued doing the only thing they knew, Myers-Powell said. They will be able to obtain jobs and to work without hearing inappropriate comments from co-workers.

The new law is part of a trend that includes the Predator Accountability Act, passed by the Illinois General Assembly in 2006, which allows sex trafficking victims to sue pimps for civil damages. It will take more of the same, Myers-Powell said, in order to end the demand for prostitution.

“Don’t let anybody ever tell you we got a handle on this,” Myers-Powell said. “But we’ve got the right people addressing it, better than we were. Everybody has got to come in with us. It took a village to raise me, we need a village to raise these other women.”

By Suzanne Hanney
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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