AUBURN, Maine — The going price for a Maine girl on the countrywide sex slavery market is between $2,500 and $3,500, said Sgt. Tim Ferris of the Portland Police Department on Thursday.
Details like that helped hammer home the point that modern-day slavery is here in Maine during the second annual Not Here Conference that began Thursday in Auburn.
Local and national experts on human trafficking descended on the Pine Tree State for two days of talks and workshops starting Thursday at the East Auburn Baptist Church. Friday’s portion of the conference was scheduled to take place at Central Maine Community College nearby.
“What we have learned from talking to women is that Maine is a fertile ground for trafficking,” Ferris, who co-chairs the Greater Portland Coalition Against Sex Trafficking and Exploitation alongside Katie Kondrat of Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, told a morning crowd of more than 200 people.
That message echoed comments Ferris and others had made during interviews with the Bangor Daily News for a story on the issue earlier this month. But on Thursday the sentiment was buoyed by some of the country’s top authors, caregivers and investigators, who said small cities and towns all over the nation, just like those in Maine, are waking up to the reality of local human trafficking.
“What we’re hearing from the cases that are coming out now is that not only is it becoming recognized as more and more of a problem in Maine’s bigger cities, like Portland and Lewiston, but it has also spread into the rural communities, where they have runaways, lower income populations and other very vulnerable groups,” said Bill Legere, co-founder of the conference and a nurse practitioner at Central Maine Medical Center.
Sex slavery survivor and author Theresa Flores said she was ensnared by traffickers at the age of 15 while living with her parents in an upscale Michigan community of about 20,000 people, not at a run-down bar or homeless shelter in the inner city.
Flores told conference attendees she later would learn she was one of 100,000 juveniles being trafficked in America, and that at 15 she was, on average, brought into the slavery ring at a young age. The average age of entry into prostitution, she said, is 13 years old.
Flores said when she was in high school, an older boy flattered her and told her he liked her. So she accepted a ride home after school, and accepted a soda during what was promised to be a quick stop at his house on the way. The drink was drugged, and Flores said the boy raped her.
A few days later, the boy said his older cousins took compromising pictures of her while she was passed out, and were threatening to give them to her strict father or local church leaders if she didn’t “earn them back.”
That began a routine in which the boys would call her in the middle of the night and demand she meet them in an alleyway, where they would pick her up and transport her to the side doors and basement dens of upscale homes in the area.
“I was taken in, and sometimes tied up and sometimes tortured, and waited man after man after man until they were finished with me for the night,” she recalled.
Flores said she would be dropped back off at home before her parents woke up, and she would try to get a few hours of sleep.
“Then I went back to school for the day and did it all over again,” she said.
Flores said her traffickers menaced her by driving slowly alongside her while she walked her younger brother home from school, loitering at the fast food restaurant where she worked, calling at the homes where she baby-sat, putting dead animals in her mailbox and threatening to kill her family.
On her worst night, the boys didn’t arrive to pick her up in the alley. Instead, men she believed were from the larger organized crime group the boys worked for pulled up. Flores said she was drugged, beaten and driven farther from home than before, to a motel in inner-city Detroit, where she was dragged by the hair to a small room filled with about two dozen men.
“It was announced in the room that, ‘This is what the boss has provided for you all to enjoy,’ and I was put up on an auction block,” she recalled Thursday. “I was auctioned off over and over again until I literally passed out.”
The following morning, she woke up naked, sick and without money or identification. Flores said she found the pajamas she had left her home wearing several hours earlier soaking in the bathtub, and put them on anyway. She walked until she reached a diner, where a waitress giving coffee to nearby homeless people at around 5 a.m. saw she was hurt and called the police for help.
“She took one look at me and she knew. She knew the signs, she recognized the red flags, and she asked me something nobody had ever asked me, ‘Can I help you?’ Just a simple question,” Flores said. “That’s not where my story ended, but that’s when things started to change for me.”
She said her story is likely being played out by other traffickers and other “Theresas” here in Maine, which has many of the qualities trafficking rings look for in states to work: People can get out of the state within two hours; it has an international border; and there are many targeted communities such as colleges and universities or immigrant groups, where young people can be culturally isolated from the surrounding towns and on their own for the first time.
“It’s not out there; it’s right here,” said conference speaker Anita Kanaiya, executive director of Oasis India, an organization battling human trafficking in her native country.
Once a woman or girl — or boy, in some cases — is captured or coerced by traffickers, Flores said, the clock is ticking. She said the average woman survives about seven years on the sex trade market before she overdoses on drugs she is forced to take, she commits suicide or is murdered.
By that metric, Flores, who was first sold as a sex slave at the age of 15, is lucky to have lived beyond the age of 22.
Despite the scope of the problem, there remains little awareness of it, and woefully inadequate numbers of programs and laws focused on solving it, Arwyn Jackson told conference attendees.
Jackson is executive director for outreach for Amirah Boston, an organization working to provide trafficking survivors with safe shelter and recovery counseling. She said that despite Central Intelligence Agency estimates that 1 million Americans are enslaved today, there are fewer than 700 beds available nationwide at dedicated shelters for survivors of trafficking.
None of those beds are in Maine, where law enforcement officers and social service providers have said they need programs that provide survivors with places to live away from potential retaliation from traffickers, as well as trained counselors and therapists to help those individuals recover.
Others at the conference Thursday talked about the importance of raising awareness about trafficking, so that people arrested as prostitutes can be more widely viewed as victims than as criminals.
Kenneth Morris Jr., founder of the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation, said his organization aims to provide middle and high schools with educational curriculum teachers can use to teach students about the history of slavery and how to avoid perpetuating it today.
Morris, the great-great-great-grandson of Douglass and great-great-grandson of Booker T. Washington, said children and teenagers must be made aware of the dangers not only to protect themselves, but also to ensure they don’t grow up and pay for sex or victimize others.
He said his group is collecting signatures on its Proclaimation of Freedom and making curriculum materials available for free through its website, www.FDFF.org/change.