The young woman on the front row had dark hair and kind, expressive eyes. As I gave my presentation, I sensed something unusual about her. She wasn’t so much listening as absorbing my words, as though something I said reached deep inside her. Why would a talk on human trafficking have that effect?
As the director of a social work membership organization, advocacy became my favorite part of the job. In our latest project, we fought for more progressive anti-trafficking legislation in my home state of South Carolina where, according to the nationally renowned Polaris Project, we sat in the lowest tier. I’d been asked to present at the 2015 foster care parent association meeting, a group I’d hoped to educate about how traffickers target vulnerable kids like foster children. As many as 60% of trafficking victims have history with the child welfare system.
When I explained that there were more enslaved people in the world than ever before and turned my focus to examples of labor trafficking in our state, the woman raised her hand. “Uhm. It’s weird. But I think—I mean maybe—I think my mom was trafficked.”
Dead silence. All heads turned to her. I closed the distance between us and asked gently, “Why do you say that?”
And the story spilled out of her. When her mother (I’ll call her Maria) was a teen, she lived in Mexico in a poor farm family. Her parents struggled to pay the bills and keep the children clothed and fed. A friend of a relative approached her mother, offering a “great opportunity.” He had a successful farm in South Carolina. He would bring Maria to America to work for him. “He said he’d pay her fair wages that she could send back to her family. In a year, she could make enough for all of them to come to the states. It was hard and Mama was very brave to leave her family and go to new country–with a man she didn’t really know.”
The farm work proved harder than Maria expected. The man demanded that she work sixteen-hour days, and the “fair wage” turned out to be pocket change. Sensing she’d been duped, Maria demanded to return to Mexico. “No,” he replied. If she tried to leave, he would call immigration and have her arrested. He locked her in the lone room where she slept. Soon he started visiting her at night, demanding more from her than picking peaches. She lived six months of hell under this trafficker.
“Mama ran away,” her daughter said. After her escape, she worked on another farm that paid her what she deserved. This allowed her to build her life. Fast forward thirty years: Maria is married. She’s started her own business. She has grown children, including this sensitive young woman who’s dedicated her life to taking care of foster children.
“I didn’t realize that’s what happened to her,” the daughter told me, in tears. “I knew he did terrible things, but I didn’t realize she’d been trafficked.”
“I didn’t realize” were words I often heard in my work. They applied to me, too, back when everything I knew about human trafficking came from episodes of Law and Order. My first awakening occurred when asked to be a guest lecturer at a local college. I mentioned the beginnings of our anti-human trafficking advocacy when a student raised her hand and said, “You mean, like that girl they found in the trailer a few miles from here?”
I researched the case and learned about a Mexican teen kidnapped and brought to Columbia, SC, where she was held by sex traffickers and forced to have her body violated up to 10 times a day. She managed to quick call to her sister in Mexico. The sister contacted Immigration and, thanks to a persistent agent who convinced the terrified girl to trust him, she was rescued. Three of the traffickers were arrested and convicted. One escaped. I did some work with a police detective assigned to the case who told me he was haunted by the man who got away. “How many other girls has he ruined?”
Over the years, I’ve heard scores of survivor stories. The adopted teen who always felt insecure, targeted by a pedophile in Texas who wooed her for months via the internet. When he sent her a plane ticket, she snuck out of her home, took a cab to the airport, and boarded the flight. Her terrified and determined parents, with the help of a dedicated special crimes deputy, uncovered her whereabouts. Had law enforcement failed to meet her plane when she arrived in Houston, she’d have disappeared forever.
For every Thank-God-they-saved-her story, there are scores of tragic ones. Girls and boys lost into a horrific life of victimization. Women who suffer unspeakable crimes at the hands of their traffickers and johns. I’ve met some of these survivors. For many, their trauma expressed through addiction, depression, and self-destruction. The human soul does its best, but sometimes unfathomable pain leads to dark solutions. For others, though, recovery is channeled into helping other girls, to doing all they can to end this horrific crime. Those brave survivors have inspired me in ways I can’t express.
Much has changed since I began writing The Orchid Tattoo. Trafficking has gotten much more media exposure. Parents are learning the importance of vigilance and monitoring their kids. Schools, police, and social service agencies know the warning signs and work hard to keep kids safe. Anti-trafficking laws are more progressive, dealing out harsh punishments for traffickers while accepting the trauma and victimhood of those who were forced to work for them. Even in South Carolina, we passed legislation (2015) to make our laws some of the strongest in the country.
Yet the crime persists. When news broke about the sex crimes on Jeffrey Epstein’s private island, the country—and perhaps the world—was stunned by the audacity and reach of Epstein’s operation. We recognized the names of politicians, world leaders, and actors with ties to him. We saw the photos of the young girls Epstein and Maxwell recruited. How could this happen? How did it continue for so long, even after his initial arrest?
I began writing The Orchid Tattoo years before the Epstein story broke. The project allowed me to explore the lives of people enslaved by traffickers, to dive into their humanness and the spirit to survive in so many of them. It also challenged me to look into the souls of the traffickers and those who work for them. While it is a work of fiction, I hope it exposes deeper truths: the ugliest scar on humankind is the continued enslavement of the most vulnerable among us. Yet our greatest strength remains the spirit to survive and recover. My goal for The Orchid Tattoo is to entertain readers and educate them about how domestic trafficking can and does happen close to home. And to celebrate the resilience of the survivors. They give me hope that one day there will be no more victims of this horrendous crime.