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Suburban groups battle scourge of sex trafficking

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Christine was strolling with some friends through downtown Naperville when they spotted the store. The sign outside said something about traffic. One of Christine’s friends said it must be a driving school or something. Taking a closer look, they saw that WAR Chest Boutique is about helping women and girls who have been victims of human trafficking.

“I said, ‘Well, we have to go in,’” Christine said.

And that, she says, is the moment when she began to find her voice.

Long nightmare

A Crest Hill resident, Christine spent 10 years in the dark and cruel world of human trafficking. It began when she was 14.

“It started out at my high school, actually thinking I was just dating a boy,” said Christine, 25, who asked that her last name be withheld.

Before long, the boy and his friends began placing wagers.

“They would bet on me — who could take me out, who would get me to do this or that with them,” she said.

Victimized by sexual abuse when she was 11, Christine already had been through an assortment of unhealthy relationships, so the attention and what felt like affection were welcome — even after the boys morphed into a long succession of pimps who passed her along, ordering her to do this or that with yet more men.

“If I didn’t, I’d get beaten up,” she said.

It’s a scenario all too familiar to Chris Baker. A burly and heavily tattooed ordained minister, Baker is a tattoo artist and owner of the Ink 180 studio in Oswego, where more than one-third of the tattoos he removes are on the skin of people who have been indelibly marked by traffickers.

On a recent evening, Baker was removing one of the two tattoos that were put on Christine’s skin while she was being trafficked, the name of a pimp in cursive on the tender skin of her inner wrist.

Nicknamed the “on-call girl,” she was often sent out when someone called the pimp for services on short notice and the other girls were all committed. Sometimes she was ordered to random places to meet johns.

“It happens in parks, in the woods, in cars,” she said. “People don’t know that.”

Fully enslaved

Because she was allowed to keep attending school and working her legitimate and lucrative job — as long as she turned over her earnings to her abusers — Christine’s situation was different from most of those preyed upon by traffickers. About three out of four underage prostitutes are runaways, Baker said.

“I’ve heard everything from ‘I was in foster care and was abused,’ or ‘I was abused by my dad,’ or ‘my brother,’ to ‘My parents took away my phone so I got mad and ran away,’” he said, adding that 60 percent of young runaways are contacted by a pimp within 48 hours after they hit the street.

“They know what to look for: the girl in a group who’s hanging back and has little self-esteem,” he said, likening the traffickers to sharks as they close in on a victim, showering attention and compliments. “They smell blood in the water.”

As part of his unorthodox ministry, Baker met with Homeland Security people to share information about his tattoo removal service, which he provides to trafficking victims at no charge. During that interchange, he was shown photographs of young girls victimized by traffickers.

“I’ve got a 15-year-old daughter,” he said. “These girls looked just like her and her friends.”

Now Baker speaks frequently to groups about human trafficking and is working on a documentary about his work. He said that when he appears at gatherings in Naperville brandishing mug shots of young prostitutes after their arrests in some of the city’s hotels, audience members typically are incredulous.

“People tend to think that it doesn’t happen here, because they don’t see it,” he said.

Uncovering secrets

Victims of trafficking have begun receiving help from a variety of sources. In some instances, those bringing relief meet them where they are.

Anne Polencheck runs the New Name ministry, based in Parkview Community Church in Glen Ellyn. The work takes her and other volunteers into places where trafficked women often are forced to work, bringing along messages of encouragement. She said they have gone into DuPage County strip clubs bearing gifts.

“We’ve brought in gift bags filled with candy, mainly chocolate, and some little things, just to show them that we care about them,” Polencheck said.

Over the past 4½ years, the ministry has been to 18 venues in the western suburbs, including DuPage, Kane and western Cook counties, she said — about half of them nondescript massage parlors and the other half strip clubs and other adult-geared businesses.

So far, all of the women they have met are 18 or older. Without exception, all have “horrific abuse” in their pasts, Polencheck said.

“They were trafficked when they were younger,” she said, noting that the patrons were unaware that their entertainment was being provided by former sex slaves. “They weren’t aware that these girls were being sold when they were 14, 15 years old.”

One woman she met, now in her 40s, told her of being hungry and far from home as a young girl.

“These truckers picked her up and bought her a meal, and then they had their way with her and made her continue to do that,” Polencheck said. “They just don’t even realize what happened to them.”

Christine knows what that’s like. Human trafficking involves not just the peddling of flesh, but also coercion, intimidation, extortion and other forms of exploitation.

“Sometimes I would work a 60- to 80-hour week, just to get money for them,” she said, relating how when she disobeyed, the pimps took care to put the bruises where they wouldn’t show when she went to work.

Sometimes her earnings would be used to buy little gifts for her.

“I thought it was love. I didn’t realize until later that it was my money,” she said. “You’re kind of brainwashed while this is happening.”

Hand-holding

It takes work, and plenty of support, to break free from traffickers for good.

“There’s an issue where so many go back into the life after they’ve been saved, within the first year, because that’s all that they know,” said Kimberly Spagui, director of Attorneys Targeting Labor And Sex Trafficking. The nonprofit operates out of Administer Justice, an Elgin faith-based organization that provides legal services to low-income populations.

For trafficking victims who have been freed, there is a gap between their needs and the available resources. Spagui said most agencies refer girls to social services that can help them, but ATLAST takes them by the hand and accompanies them. She said she not only goes through their legal concerns but also attends to their employment, housing, transportation — essentially building a life infrastructure that will help keep them out of the cycle.

It’s a cycle that has deep roots in Western culture.

“The biggest thing that I see as a lawyer is demand and supply. If we can somehow criminalize the purchasers, the promoters, the pimps, the madams, and increase the penalties, then maybe we can cut the demand,” Spagui said. “If they could somehow understand the consequences, then maybe they would be deterred.”

Arrests for solicitation of sex have waned considerably in recent years. Illinois State Police records show that in 2007, there were 770 arrests of would-be patrons, but by 2011, the number had dwindled to 95.

Glimmers of hope

There are reasons for optimism, however. Legislative changes are showing an understanding of the problem, including an amendment to the state’s juvenile code enacted in 2010 that recognizes trafficked minors as victims of abuse, and collaborative work among police departments and prosecuting agencies is beginning to bring about changes across jurisdictions.

Jack Blakey, who heads special prosecutions for the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, said teamwork is crucial to cutting the incidence of trafficking. He spoke to a room full of participants, many of them police officers, at an April 22 forum on the topic at Benedictine University in Lisle that gathered panelists involved in social services, law enforcement and advocacy for victims

“You all have a human trafficking problem,” Blakey said. “Everyone has a human trafficking problem in the Northern (Illinois) District.”

Although it used to revolve commonly around a pimp and his collection of enslaved victims, the business of selling trafficked children and adults is now more often thriving as gang activity. As a commodity, Blakey said, many gangs now prefer humans to drugs.

“You can sell a kilo once. You can sell a child over and over,” he said.

Talking it up

Another hopeful sign is the growing awareness of human trafficking and its ubiquity. Ashley Pitariu, who runs the WAR Chest Boutique in Naperville and helped Christine begin speaking to groups about her experience, has begun to see a heightened understanding of the issue. She considers it everyone’s job to address it.

“I think it’s important for people to realize that it’s not out in the open. It’s hidden. You probably won’t see it,” Pitariu said.

She says talking can help start the process of healing.

“I think a lot of times we’re very closed off, when we’re passing people on the sidewalk or if we’re getting our nails done…. Just ask people about themselves, and if there seems to be something strange going on, try to probe gracefully and graciously deeper,” she said, advising to see if they appear evasive or uncomfortable talking. “Those are indications that something is off or wrong, or that they can’t talk about it.”

Human trafficking is on more people’s radar these days, she said.

“When we first opened three years ago, it wasn’t nearly as talked-about,” she said. “When people hear about it, they want something to be done.”

U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, who hosted the forum at Benedictine, sees opportunity in that. He said once people become aware of an injustice, they move to address it.

“It jars them, and it unsettles them, and … they are provoked to act,” the Wheaton Republican said.

‘Inexpressible joy’

Provocation leading to action is key for Christine, who wants to use her faith in God, and her newfound voice, to bring other girls and women out of the darkness. She understands that being forced to do horrific things equipped her to help them process what has happened to them as well.

“Eventually I’d like to have a fully supported position as a motivational speaker for human trafficking,” she said. “Sometimes I get choked up and emotional, but at the same time, it’s part of my healing, part of my growth.”

She understands from experience that the stories told by trafficked women and girls are horrific and people often want to believe they’re lying. This is the first time she has shared her full story.

“It’s one of the scariest things I’ve ever done, because I’m exposing myself. I’m vulnerable. I’m putting it out there,” she said.

Some of her former pimps are behind bars, and one was shot to death. Others are undocumented and remain operating in the shadows. She knows those still on the street might recognize her in the photos, but she doesn’t fear them anymore.

“I’m not worried, because they’re going to get caught,” she said, stressing that following God has given her the divine backup she’ll need to pursue her new mission.

“It’s unexplainable, this inexpressible joy that I can’t explain to people … but if I don’t have that joy, how am I ever going to help other people?”

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