At just 13-years-old, Deborah Monroe went to a local county fair looking for the love and attention she’d never had.
“My intentions was to run away with the fair,” Monroe said. “The second day at the fair, I met someone very charming, charismatic, actually listened to me, paid attention to me, bought me something to eat.”
In and out of foster care throughout her young life, she thought she finally found what she so desperately wanted – someone who truly cared about her.
“We left the fair together,” Monroe said. “And the next thing I knew we were on our way down to Detroit.”
A home in Southfield is where Monroe and several underage girls stayed – all lured by a man who seemed to care – before being pimped out, stripped of every dime they made, and scared into staying.
“It’s not about sex. It was about capturing the mind and he knew what to do - he was good at it,” Monroe said.
The man was so good at it, that she stayed for years – from her early teens to an adult.
Monroe’s story is a textbook example of how trafficking works.
"There's always some sort of control with the victim. So that may be physical control, mental control or using threats,” Michigan State Police Trooper Will Smith said.
Smith is on the Mid-Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force.
He said trafficking – whether for sex or labor – starts with targeting those who are vulnerable.
Today, many traffickers begin their search online.
“They start with simple things – social media,” Smith said.
Then, the grooming process begins. It’s often filled with promises of a better life, compliments and gifts.
"If they have someone that they've spent some time with and they say to them, ‘I love you.’ And they've never had anyone tell them that they love them, how do you think that makes them feel?” Smith said.
The actual trafficking of that victim always involves at least one of three things – force, fraud or coercion.
Smith sounds the alarm that it’s happening right here in Mid-Michigan.
“Human trafficking does happen and right in our own backyard,” Smith said.
Polaris, an organization dedicated to ending modern-day slavery, estimates there are hundreds of thousands of children and adults being trafficking in the United States.
The number of reports across the nation increases every year. In 2016, it jumped 35 percent to more than 8,000.
Polaris attributes most of that to growing awareness, but Saginaw County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Kanuszewski said another epidemic is to blame.
"The opioid epidemic and crisis is a direct contributor, main contributor to human trafficking of why we're seeing those numbers soar,” Kanuszewski said.
Kanuszewski is also on the Mid-Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force. He’s tracking trafficking cases in our area to get a better picture of how widespread modern-day slavery is.
The task force is continuing its efforts to educate the community, including bringing in speakers like Monroe.
Monroe now shares her story with the world and even in the human trafficking documentary “Break the Chain.”
“At the age of 13, I really didn’t have anywhere to go, I was pretty much homeless,” Monroe said.
From her rocky upbringing, to working for a pimp, to numbing herself with drugs. Finally, at 38, she found the help she needed to mend her trauma, shame and guilt.
Monroe said she’s now found her purpose.
"Being able to go out and help someone else has given my life purpose and it really helped me in my own recovery,” she said.
Monroe said healing others, heals her.
"Being able to offer hope to them is worth it,” she said.
Trooper Smith recommends parents protect their children from predators by keeping an eye on their social media and phone activity.
Several programs and apps offer parents the ability of tracking their child's phone via GPS, blocking certain websites and content as well as monitoring messages. They include mSpy, SpyBubble, PhoneSheriff, MamaBear, Qustodio, TeenSafe and WebWatcher.
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