In our backyards: Child sex trafficking

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — It started out innocently enough and was a rite of passage. Tanya Street was looking forward to her senior year field trip to a New Jersey amusement park.

“One of my best friends, her friend’s boyfriend had a cousin, and so he said he would take me on that date so I wouldn’t be alone,” she remembers that time in the 1990’s.

Her date was a decade older.  She was a teen mom with an unstable home life. They hit it off right away. After four months together, she had told him her deepest, darkest secrets.

“He was a complete gentleman, he was clean cut didn’t look like what we think a pimp would look like,” Street says.

However, that is exactly what she says he was, and what she thought was the best relationship of her life spiraled into two years of prostitution up and down the East Coast.

“He was a complete gentleman, he was clean cut didn’t look like what we think a pimp would look like.” –Tanya Street

“Once they feel like they have the child’s trust, love and affection and loyalty, that’s when the exploitation begins,” says Fay Chelmow.

Chelmow founded ImPACT People Against Child Trafficking in American Schools after reading a shocking January 2015 report.  The U.S. Department of Education released Human Trafficking in America’s Schools, an expose on a growing issue affecting the most vulnerable members of our community of all races, genders and socio-economic backgrounds.

“Kids with low self-esteem, kids who are looking for family, love, looking for affection, looking for friends,” Chelmow says these master manipulators prey upon the most vulnerable.

Chelmow says it often happens at school or activities related to school, like Street’s field trip, when guards are down.

“I need to be loved and to love.  That’s what I wanted,” Street remembers what she found so appealing about the guy who was a date on her field trip.

She thought they had made a connection, and she told him everything:  how she had been sexually abused, had several sexual partners and a sexually-transmitted disease.  She initially said no when he asked her to work for him, but then he exploited her past to lock down her future.

“He said, ‘So, my girls are at least getting paid for what they’re doing, so who is the real ho?'” Street remembers that conversation that changed her life.  “I felt like he was bringing a truth to me that I was denying.”

While juggling community college classes and time with her baby, Street says she hustled her way through towns along I-95, which to this day is a main corridor for sex trafficking.

03B9A56BEB10413D8F050287FAF5D97A“We can’t pretend that it’s not happening here in Virginia. It is,” says Attorney General Mark Herring.

According to the Washington, DC-based Polaris Project, Virginia ranked number nine last year in calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.  Between May 2015 and May 2016, fifteen teenagers were identified and picked up by the Richmond Division of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Herring says many cries for help are reluctant at first.  “They feel like their pimp is really their protector, and it takes some time for them to really be able to take that step.”

Street admits she clung to the hopes she would rekindle her flame with that older man and get back the feelings they shared during those first four months.  She needed him in her life.

“I didn’t have anyone to say I’m sorry for the abuse that happened to you,” she remembers his appeal.

Two years after she entered the sex trade, Street’s ordeal came to an end.  “I was abandoned on the side of the road somewhere in the DC area.”

A police officer picked her up for prostitution, and she battled that demon for years.  It is only recently that Street heard the word “trafficking” and realized she was a victim, like so many others, and not a criminal.

“I am so passionate about healing, the process of healing.  That’s the courageous part of this of this story, my story.  Being able to face the reality of what happens and deal with those issues so I can really know what it’s like to be happy.”

Chelmow says the community needs to pay attention to certain signs to identify the victims. She says it is common for young people being trafficked to all of a sudden spend time with a new adult or in unfamiliar neighborhoods.  They may also show up with cash and lavish gifts.  Branding is another way Chelmow says traffickers mark their victims.

Chelmow is hosting the ImPACT Virginia Summit on June 11 at Virginia Commonwealth University.  Everyone from law enforcement to parents to educators is invited to attend to learn more about how to detect trafficking in Richmond.

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