WASHINGTON -- Asia Graves looks straight ahead as she calmly
recalls the night a man paid $200 on a Boston street to have sex with
She was 16, homeless, and desperate for food, shelter and
stability. He was the first of dozens of men who would buy her thin
cashew-colored body from a human trafficker who exploited her
vulnerabilities and made her a prisoner for years.
"If we didn't
call him daddy, he would slap us, beat us, choke us," said Graves, 24,
of the man who organized the deals. "It's about love and thinking you're
part of a family and a team. I couldn't leave because I thought he
would kill me."
By day, she was a school girl who saw her family
occasionally. At night, she became a slave to men who said they loved
her and convinced her to trade her beauty for quick cash that they
pocketed. Sold from Boston to Miami and back, Graves was one of
thousands of young girls sexually exploited across the United States,
often in plain sight.
A plague more commonly associated with other
countries has been taking young victims in the United States, one by
one. Though the scope of the problem remains uncertain -- no national
statistics for the number of U.S. victims exist -- the National Center
for Missing and Exploited Children says at least 100,000 children across
the country are trafficked each year.
On Tuesday, President Obama
announced several new initiatives aimed at ending trafficking
nationwide, including the first-ever assessment of the problem in this
country and a $6 million grant to build solutions.
"When a little
girl is sold by her impoverished family, or girls my daughters' ages run
away from home and are lured -- that's slavery," Obama said in an
address to the Clinton Global Initiative. "It's barbaric, it's evil, and
it has no place in a civilized world."
Schools in at least six
states and the District of Columbia have turned their focus to human
trafficking, launching all-day workshops for staff members, classroom
lessons for students and outreach campaigns to speak with parents about
the dangers American children face.
The efforts by high school and
middle-school officials in Washington, D.C., Virginia, Connecticut,
Oregon, Wisconsin, California and Florida come as experts say criminals
have turned to classrooms and social media sites to recruit students
into forced domestic sex and labor rings.
"They are as horrific
and brutal and vile as any criminal cases we see," said Neil MacBride,
the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. "If it can
happen in affluent Fairfax County, it can happen anywhere."
the nation, the stories arrive with varying imprints of the callousness
and depravity of the sex traffickers. One girl was sold during a
sleepover, handed over by her classmate's father. Another slept with
clients during her school lunch breaks. A third was choked by her
"boyfriend," then forced to have sex with 14 men in one night.
people at the fringes of school, runaways looking for someone to care
and previously abused victims fall into the traps of traffickers who
often pretend to love them.
The perpetrators -- increasingly
younger -- can be other students or gang members who manipulate victims'
weaknesses during recess or after school, law enforcement officials
say. They often bait victims by telling them they will be beautiful
strippers or escorts but later ply them with drugs -- ecstasy pills,
cocaine, marijuana and the like -- and force them into sex schemes.
'Too pretty to stay outside'
Graves, who grew up in inner city Boston, her troubles began early in
life. Her mother was addicted to drugs, and a dealer molested Graves as a
little girl. She bounced between living with an aunt, grandparents, an
alcoholic father and a sometimes-recovering mother.
At 16, Graves
was homeless and had been wearing the same clothes for months when a
group of girls who had dropped out of school took her in and cleaned her
up. "They said they were escorts and that they made $2,000 a night,"
she recalled. "I figured if I go out one night, I'll never have to do it
She followed the girls to the "track," a term used for
streets where prostitutes gather. When a terrified Graves only brought
back $40 from begging, the girls abandoned her. The next night, she says
she was alone on a corner in Boston during a snowstorm when her first
trafficker picked her up.
"He said I was too pretty to stay
outside, so I ended up going home with him because he offered me a place
to sleep and clothes to put on," she said.
The man said he wanted
to take care of her but that she would have to earn her keep. "He
showed me the ropes," she said. "How much to charge for sex" and other
Then came the violence. Her attempts to leave were met
with brute force. "He punched me," she said. "He stripped me down naked
and beat me."
In one incident, her captor took a potato peeler to
her face then raped her as she bled. Years later, the light scar remains
just below her left eye. Other violent episodes left her with eight
broken teeth, two broken ankles and a V-shaped stab wound just below her
She stayed, however, and found comfort in other
girls -- called "wife in-laws" -- who went to area schools, got their
hair and nails done together and then worked the streets for the same
man. "You think what you're doing is right when you're in that
lifestyle," Graves said. "You drink alcohol to ease the stress. Red
Bulls kept you awake, and cigarettes kept you from being hungry."
two years, she was sold from tormentor to tormentor, forced to sleep
with men in cities like New York, Atlanta; Philadelphia; Atlantic City;
Miami. She posed for Craigslist and Backpage.com ads and set up "dates"
six days a week for up to $2,500 a night.
A captive Graves did
what experts say others have done: she recruited others. "We'd go to
malls, schools, group homes, bus stations and look for girls who were by
themselves or looked very vulnerable," she said.
For some of the
time, Graves herself remained in high school, attending classes
sporadically in boy shorts, small tank tops and worn heels.
the schools, they thought I just dressed provocatively," Graves said of
the teachers and staff who missed chances to help her. "Now, people are
actually understanding that these girls are victims."
Raising 'the compassion bar'
journey eventually led her to work for Fair Girls, a non-profit based
in Washington, D.C. One of several organizations working to educate
schools and students about the issue, Fair Girls has designed a
four-hour lesson plan called "Tell Your Friends" for high school and
"I want to raise the compassion bar so
that any girl who becomes a victim is never seen as a girl who asked for
it," said Andrea Powell, executive director of Fair Girls, which
launched the curriculum in 2008.
The model reaches more than a
1,000 students a year at a dozen schools in Washington, as well as young
people in homeless shelters and foster homes.
Polaris Project, a
non-profit that runs the national human trafficking hotline, has
received 58,911 calls since December 2007. At least 2,081 callers have
identified themselves as a student and 341 callers identified as school
Globally, the International Labor Organization
estimates that about 20.9 million people are trafficked and that 22% of
them are victims of forced sexual exploitation.
The growing number
of human trafficking cases handled by U.S. Attorney MacBride's office
-- 14 in the last 18 months -- reflects the domestic trend, experts say.
one case this year, Justin Strom, 26, a gang member in Fairfax County,
Va., was sentenced to 40 years in prison for forcing girls from local
high schools and a juvenile detention center to work as prostitutes.
familiar echo of these crimes reaches the other side of the country,
too, says Alessandra Serano, an Assistant United States Attorney for the
Southern District of California.
"You can sell drugs once," she said. "You can sell a girl thousands of times."
search of Backpage.com's adult section reveals thousands of ads for
young women claiming to be escorts, strippers and massage therapists.
The women in suggestive poses and little clothing offer good times for a
price. "Multiple Females Multiple Hours." "Sexy White Chocolate."
"Delicious Petite Blonde Barbie."
Advocates such as Powell say
such websites depict modern-day slavery. She scrolls through them often
looking for new girls to help. Fair Girls works directly with victims to
find them jobs, housing, lawyers and medical resources. They've gone
from serving 20 girls in 2011 to 50 this year -- all with a limited
"We just don't have the resources for all these girls," Powell said. "But we can't turn them away."
classroom lessons, staffers define trafficking, show a video about
experiences and ask students to react. As 50 Cent's "P-I-M-P" song
thumps in the background, students are asked what they think traffickers
and victims look like. They then talk about abusive relationships and
how to avoid them, and they are presented with resources they can use if
they are being exploited.
A few weeks ago, at Bell Multicultural
High School in Washington, nine girls sat around a long wooden table
talking about trafficking with Graves, who teaches at 12 public high
schools in the District of Columbia.
"If you want attention and
you see that you're getting it, you just follow your feelings," senior
Araceli Figueroa, 17, said. "It's sad."
Graves knows. She can
still see the face of a fellow victim whose body she identified. The
girl's body had been discarded in an Atlantic City drain pipe.
Connecticut, Love146, another non-profit focused on trafficking, teaches
Fair Girls' "Tell Your Friends" curriculum in 11 schools, said Nicole
von Oy, the group's training and outreach coordinator. They've talked to
more than 4,000 students in schools, shelters and other places using
that curriculum and other initiatives.
Others hope to spread the message to more students.
2006, the U.S. Department of Education has focused on the problem and
worked on training with several schools, said Eve Birge, who works for
the agency's Office of Safe and Healthy Students.
In doing so, they collaborate with the White House, the FBI, the Departments of State and Justice as well as other agencies.
"For a lot of these kids, school can be the only safe place they have," Birge said.
With their help, schools tell teachers, social workers, counselors and others to look for the signs of a possible victim:
-- Multiple unexplained absences from school.
-- A repeated tendency to run away from home.
-- Frequent travel to other cities.
-- Older boyfriends or girlfriends.
-- A sudden ability to have expensive items.
-- Appearing depressed or suffering physical injuries.
Escaping the 'invisible chains'
For Katariina Rosenblatt, who spoke at a recent training session for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, the issue is personal.
years ago, traffickers in Miami tried to sell her virginity for $505.
She was only 13. She ran from them then but fell victim six months later
when a classmate's father sold her during a sleepover.
14 to 17, she says she was drugged, abused, raped and trafficked by
several people including that father's friends, a neighbor who ran a
trafficking house, and man who offered her a role in a movie.
Rosenblatt, now an adjunct professor at Trinity International University, runs a non-profit called There Is H.O.P.E. For Me.
give you money, drugs and a fun time, but in the end they want your
dignity and your self-respect," she said. "It's invisible chains that
these kids are tied with."
Graves understands. At Fair Girls, she
works directly with victims and unwinds her long, painful story with the
hope that it will lift these tortured souls.
After she suffered a
miscarriage during a beating in July 2005, Graves finally went to
police and worked with the FBI and state attorneys to get six men
charged with human trafficking. All pleaded guilty or were convicted of
conspiracy or sex trafficking. They were sentenced to four to 25 years
The agencies helped her get housing, and officers even
today check on the now poised young professional. She's earning a
political science degree and says she wants to start a non-profit much
like Fair Girls.
One recent afternoon, her low hazel eyes pierced
through a busy Washington street and focused on a young woman's face she
recognized from Backpage.com. She paused.
Graves sees trafficking when no one else can.
main priority is making sure no child has to go through what I went
through," she said. "If I can save one girl from not going into it or
one girl who has already been in from going back, then I'm already doing
more than enough."
(Polaris Project's national trafficking hotline number: 1-888-373-7888)