Friday, 29 April 2011

Student at Washington University shares her story about human trafficking

By Mike Rush
St. Louis (KSDK) - On the Washington University campus, Katie Rhoades blends right in. She's just another student working towards a better future. But it's Katie's past that may give you pause.
"I was picked up by a pimp when I was 19," said Rhoades.
She's the victim, she says, of sexual slavery.
"Part of the trap is that I didn't imagine that there was a way out," she said.
Katie's way in was about 10 years ago. She says she was a runaway, suffering from depression, abusing drugs and booze and working in topless bars in Portland, Oregon. But she wanted out, wanted to get clean. One night, a woman came into the bar saying all the right things.
"She kind of offered me a way out of that situation and offered to take me to California," Katie said.
Within days, Katie was living in San Francisco. She says she was wined and dined at first by the woman and her boyfriend. But the boyfriend turned out to be a pimp.
"Not too long after that, his main girl, his bottom girl, she was in charge of showing me how to make the money that I needed to make," said Katie, "and that involved prostitution."
She was sold through night clubs and escort services. Katie didn't know what to do. She was in a strange city, cut off from her family and friends and living in a large house with other girls under lock and key.
"I wasn't allowed to leave on my own. I couldn't even get out. Whether we were inside or outside the house, the alarm was on." Katie said. "I was told when to eat, when to sleep. When I was working I couldn't say 'no.'"
Although it didn't happen to her, she says she saw plenty of other girls get beaten. And more of her freedoms were at stake if she didn't make her quota of $1,000.
"One point I made $800 in 30 minutes, which was probably about four guys," she said.
If you think Katie's story is unique, think again.
"It's going on, but it's well-hidden," said FBI Special Agent Billy Cox, based in St. Louis.
Cox says human trafficking numbers are hard to tabulate. Victims, he says, often don't trust authorities or they're too afraid of their pimps to talk. While Cox and his team may investigate seven human trafficking cases a year in Metro St. Louis, he believes sex slavery is much more widespread.
"You could go out there on the internet and start looking at advertisements for girls, just say in the St. Louis area, and you could see anywhere from 20 to 50 a day," Cox said.
Pat Bradley heads International Crisis Aid, headquartered in St. Louis. He's raising money to build a safe house in St. Louis for victims of the sex trade.
"If we had a home for 20 girls, that we opened the door tomorrow that would house 20 girls, I have been told by different sources I'd be filled in an hour," Bradley said.
Katie's way out began when she went into treatment for her drug problem and away from the grasp of her pimp. She's now 30, working on a graduate degree in social work and willingly showing her face and tell her story to NewsChannel 5 as a face of human trafficking. She's not ashamed of her experience, but empowered by it to raise awareness and hopefully effect change.
"I think shame and silence and embarrassment is what keeps this hidden," said Katie. "If I don't talk about it then who else is going to?"
Katie also volunteers for a local group called "The Covering House," an organization raising funds to provide a safe house for victims of sex slavery under the age of 18.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in St. Louis tells NewsChannel 5 local sex trafficking cases mostly involve underage runaways exploited into prostitution. The office is in the process of forming a task force to investigate how prevalent human trafficking is in our area.

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