It’s Okay to Be Broken But Don’t Let It Break You
K* is a mother of four. When her daughter was 15, she was sold by a female trafficker into sex trafficking. She was missing for 9 months. This is her story of how she found her daughter and has become a national leader while struggling to rebuild her life and keep her children safe.
People who have not found their child being sold for sex online do not understand what that feels like in that moment. It broke me to see her there, naked. She was 15 years old. I felt like I lost myself at that moment. It’s been seven years, and I am still finding my way back to myself and my family.
Along the way, I’m learning how to fight for myself, for my children, and for family who has been through this horrible crime that they call sex trafficking.
Here are some things about me. When I was a little girl, my dad was killed. I watched my mom struggle when he died and later when my sister died, too. I lived in a house full of rage. When I was 15, I got pregnant with my son. I vowed to protect my children from the pain I had been through as a little girl. I wanted to stop this cycle of abuse that was in my family.
When my daughter was four years old, her father was killed by a gang who also shot up the funeral home. I saw in her a rage growing that scared me because I knew it from my own story. At first, it was little things, like tearing up tiny pieces of paper into small pieces over and over again. Then, the fights at school after she got sick of being picked on by the other girls. In the 7th grade, I got a call from the school that my daughter was found having sex inside the school bathroom with a boy. I couldn’t believe that happened and I felt helpless. I decided to send her to a reform school to try to set her straight. It only made her more angry and more hurt.
Then, one night during her freshman year of high school, she wanted to go to this party that I thought sounded like it would be full of drugs and alcohol. I suggested instead that she and her friends come over here instead. That night, they snuck out and my daughter never came back.
She was missing for nine months. I roamed the streets looking for her. I had to go to the morgue three times to identify a body that the police thought could be her. Each time, I thought I was going to die myself. I really felt like the police were not taking me seriously.
One night, I was watching the news and I saw this report on TV about girls being sold on Craigslist. So, I decided to look. I didn’t find her, but then I kept googling about Craigslist and I found another website, Backpage.com. It was so fast. There she was. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew my daughter. My husband, her stepdad, said it couldn’t be her. I tried to go to sleep, but I got up and started searching again. I tried all kinds of stuff, but when I typed in the phone number from the first advertisement, 20 advertisements came up. That is when I saw her face there on my screen along with her naked 15-year-old body. I started to scream, “there she is!” We called the police.
You have to fight for your child because no one will do it better than you can. The police said they were looking for her, but they had a process. I was asking them, “what process is more important than getting my child away from those people?.” I called them constantly. I kept thinking as the days passed about all the horrible things that could be happening to her. The police tried to keep me calm, but if your child is missing you just go crazy. I decided to go get her myself. So, I texted the number and arranged a time to meet my own daughter and potentially even the people who had her. This could end up badly, but what was worse than my own child being raped constantly?
My husband drove me to the train station and we waited in the dark, unsure of what we would see. Then, I saw my daughter get off the train and she was with two other people. When she was alone, I texted her and saw her look down at her phone. As she walked toward my car, I got out and ran toward her. My husband said not to go, but I just ran. She looked up, shocked. I think she was ashamed, but I just grabbed her in my arms and pulled her close to the car.
All I cared about in that moment was that I had my daughter back. I thought that was the end of our fight, but was only the beginning. When she came home, she was really out of sorts. I got her clothes and food and just kept smiling at her. I was over the moon happy. It wasn’t until later that night when she was in the bathtub that I came in and saw the depth of what they had done to her. She screamed for me to leave, but I knew my baby needed help. The scars and tattoos were all over her body, and head was shaved bald and covered in cigarette burns that had become infected. She was really, really ill.
I looked at her and said, “What can I do to help you right now?” She said, ‘Mom, I want you to make them pay. I want ALL of them to pay for what they did to me.” When she said that, I knew I had a purpose.
That is why we decided to go after the owners of the website that facilitated the sale of my daughter. I spent six years suing them, advocating for them to be held accountable, and make sure they didn’t get away with what they had done to my daughter and thousands of more victims.
You might be reading this and think that I am a superwoman for this advocacy. Yet, I am here to tell you that I was fighting for my own life. My daughter’s rage was explosive. She was running away from group homes where I was trying to get her help. I would sometimes sleep in the hallways of the detox programs just to keep her safe from running away again. She was addicted to pills and lashing out at everyone, especially me. I was desperate to keep her safe. I was also scared for my own safety. I really didn’t know what to do.
If you are a parent of a child who been victimized by sex trafficking, you are a victim, too. You are also a survivor.
I have learned to ask for help even if I am ashamed. I have seen the stares when people know what my daughter has been through. Everyone would immediately look at me and wonder what was going on with me or in my house. I understand that in some way, but I needed love and support. Thank goodness I found a parent mentor from TEAM HOPE from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. You need someone who understand what you have been through.
I am working now and trying to build my own work to help parents who have been through this horrible situation like I have been. We need each other. Children need their parents.
I am learning to trust myself again. That is the hardest part, really. I am also learning to trust my daughter will learn how to take care of herself, too.
Time does heal. I am still struggling to hold down a job and get my family back together. I have lost so much. Sometimes, I really do feel overwhelmed. I also feel like I have walked through hell and come out alive.
I have a mission.
I am going to use my pain to help others. That is what makes me feel powerful again. If you are reading this and feel like it speaks to you, just know you are powerful, too.
*K has chosen to not reveal her identity.