This past week I attended a presentation that left me with chills and a sense of horror. A local Detroit group, Night Angels, gave a presentation about the scourge of human trafficking. Founded by Mel and Twyla Baggett, Night Angels is a Christian based non-profit organization operating primarily on the streets of Detroit, focusing on outreach efforts to victims of human trafficking.
I was shocked to learn that Detroit is the second largest area for human trafficking in the United States. This is due to the close proximity to Canada, where the international shipping waterways are used to bring victims into the U.S. Also, Toledo, Ohio, with its major east-west highways and port offer an easier entry point into the area.
“No one chooses to be a prostitute”, Mel boldly states. He has come to this conclusion based on the experience of ministering to over 3,000 women, men and children. Women make up the vast majority of trafficking victims accounting for 80%. Of that number 50% are children. Another startling fact Mel and Twyla shared with our group is that it is not just an inner-city problem. The affluent suburbs and small cities all have people who are living the life of being sex slaves, and it happens right under our noses. Recently, in the affluent Detroit suburb of Macomb, in a strip mall that I drive by several times per week, authorities broke up a human trafficking business that was fronted by a therapeutic massage parlor. That business is right next to at CVS drug store I frequent.
How do these people become trapped in this modern form of slavery? There are many entry points. There are more obvious ones such as aging out of the foster care system, abusive relatives, drug addiction, victims of rape or incest, or recruitment by gangs. Many of the traffickers that Night Angels have encountered, those who are selling the victims include husbands, boyfriends, parents, pastors, choir directors, teachers, and other authority figures that most of us would trust, based on their positions or relationship to us.
What gave me chills are the stories Twlya shared about the more sinister methods used to enslave victims. She told the story of the wife of a local pastor in the affluent suburb of Troy, Michigan. She was a beautiful young woman who went out for a walk. A white panel van pulled up and she was grabbed and abducted. Immediately, her abductors injected her with heroine. “Heroine is used to control the victims”, Twyla said. It is only a matter of two to three weeks before the victim is so addicted and dependent on heroine that they will do whatever the traffickers wish. These victims lose control. They are isolated. The traffickers often take any identification from the victim and give them a new street name. Treated like cattle, often, victims receive a tattoo or are branded with the trafficker’s mark, indicating who owns the victim. Sophisticated technology is also being used. There are victims who have barcode tattoos that can be scanned.
Twyla said she wished the story of the pastor’s wife had a happy ending. They met her on the streets in Detroit. They ministered to her and hoped that they would be able to rescue her. Sadly, this woman was eventually found dead, in a dumpster, three years after she was abducted and forced into the life of being a sex slave. Often, Twyla shared, the victims are so disgusted with the life they are living that it is difficult for them to accept that they can be forgiven, even knowing they did not choose the life. The damage done by the drugs, forced participation in pornography, prostitution and living in filthy conditions, fear of being beaten or killed for not making their “quota” leaves deep physical and spiritual scars.
All is not lost. They have stories of women that have successfully been rescued and have escaped the life of being a sex slave. One such story is a woman who, by the age of nine, had been in 31 different foster homes. At the age of nine, she ran away from her foster home where she was being sexually abused by the foster father. She ended up on the streets, being trafficked initially into the world of pornography. Often, she was forced to perform at gun point, and always, on drugs. When she was too old for child pornography, she was initially marketed as a “high class” escort because she was still young and attractive. Eventually, when the wear and tear on her body was too much for the “high class” clients, she was put out onto the streets where she was forced to make her quota in cars, behind bars, in abandoned buildings, living in filth and squalor.
This woman was ministered to by Night Angels. She was helped with medical assistance, and given the opportunity to go through drug rehabilitation, which often takes many attempts before the addiction can be controlled. She received job training and learned how to take care of the necessities of life. Twyla happily shared that this woman is now engaged to a wonderful faith filled man. The combination of helping meet the physical needs is important, but Mel and Twyla both admit, without the grace and help of Jesus, and attention to the spiritual life, it is much more difficult. “We pray with them, and we look them in the eyes when we pray with them. We acknowledge that we are there with them. We let them know there is hope”, Twyla shared.
The question was asked, “Why don’t the victims just come with you when you offer to help them? Why would they not take the lifeline you offer?” Mel said that it is a matter of both trust and fear. Often, victims are lured into the life by someone who offered them trust and help. Many times, the “owner” or trafficker of the victim is nearby, watching the interaction with the Night Angel staff. That can present a dangerous situation for both the victim and the staff. They tell the story of one woman they stopped and talked to. They gave her a sandwich and water. As they drove away the trafficker came out of a doorway and took the sandwich from her. Mel drove around the block and stopped and gave her another sandwich, with the same result. The third time around, the trafficker came out and revealed that he wanted to get out of the life. That was a bonus rescue.
When Night Angels first started ministering in Detroit, the police were a little bit hostile to the ministry. Mel said that the police were not trained to deal with human trafficking and looked on the victims as prostitutes. Arresting the victim does not get to the source of the problem, they must get to the traffickers. Eight years later, Mel happily explains that the relationship with the Detroit Police department and local courts is very strong. They have come to view the victims as unwilling participants and now work with Night Angels in arranging for help and referrals to resources to rescue these people from sex slavery.
“Parents, watch your children and monitor their on-line activity,” Twyla admonished the group. Traffickers are very good at grooming kids on-line. Many victims are lured to meet their new on-line friend, only to become enslaved.
One example they shared was of a high school girl in one of the nicer suburbs. She was an athlete, good student, had a strong family and church life. After a soccer injury, this girl required surgery. She was prescribed the drug Vicodin for the pain during recovery. After her prescription expired and the Doctor would no longer provide her the medication, she was able to buy Vicodin in the parking lot of her high school. She became more and more dependent, and her supplier recruited her into making pornography to pay for the drugs. Once in that world, her supplier introduced her to heroine, and she became another victim of sex trafficking. They share these stories to raise awareness that victims come from all areas. “These girls come from all over the Detroit tri-county area, State of Michigan, many states surrounding Michigan, and throughout the greater United States. These girls come from every ethnicity, socio-economic group, and background that you can imagine. Human trafficking is not only a Detroit problem; it is a Birmingham, Mount Clemens, Grosse Pointe, and Troy problem. We have met girls from your suburb, your social circle and your ethnic background. Traffickers know no bounds to find their victims.”
Raising awareness of the epidemic of sex slavery in one of the core missions of Night Angels. “There are more slaves in the world today than has ever existed. Although Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States back in the nineteenth century our country today has become the platform for traffickers everywhere. One can argue about human trafficking related statistics because they aren’t accurate but many respected organizations and individuals indicate that there are millions of slaves in the world today and that the number of slaves in the United States today is probably approaching one-million.”
Mel estimates that the sex trafficking business is worth over $150 billion. Money is the name of the game. Depending on where they are working, the typical victim is required to earn $500 to $1,500 per night. If they do not meet this quota they are beaten, starved, and often sexually abused by their trafficker. The victim is not allowed to keep any of the money, and to make matters worse, are forced to find a way to pay for their drugs; many turn to selling drugs to other victims to support their addiction. Mel said that most of the girls they encounter dress in layers, because everything they own is carried with them. The isolation they are forced to endure makes it hard for them to escape, and with the additional yoke of drug addiction, Mel says, the traffickers do not need handcuffs or ropes.
While Night Angels ministry is localized in the Detroit, Michigan area, human trafficking is a nationwide epidemic. This story could be told in every major city, every affluent suburb and every small town in the United States. Be aware! Know that anyone can be abducted or coerced into slavery. Women especially need to be aware and alert to their surroundings. If strange men are lurking about where you park your car, or in freeway rest stops, mall parking lots, or if you notice something suspicious about your car or surroundings, make sure you get a colleague or friend to be with you. “When in doubt, call 9-1-1” advises Twyla. Slipping drugs into the drinks of young ladies in bars and night clubs is another tactic used to capture a victim. Don’t pull over if another vehicle bumps into your car, instead drive to a well crowded public place to avoid a “smash and grab”.
While most victims are women, Mel shared that transgender men often receive the most money for sex acts. Traffickers are always on the lookout to recruit a transgender man because they will bring in more money than a straight man or woman.
Why did I feel it necessary to write about this presentation? To raise awareness. To get the word out to parents, siblings, friends, grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers, pastors and anyone else. Keep your eyes open. Talk with your kids about the dangers of on-line activity with people they do not know. Better to have your sons and daughters upset with you for being too much into their business than to lose your child to the world of pornography and prostitution. That won’t happen here…but it does. Over 3,000 victims have been ministered to just in the Detroit area in the eight years since Night Angel’s founding. Be vigilant!
To learn more and to support the ministry of Night Angels, visit their website: Night Angels (nightangelsdetroit.com)