The Perfect Family Picture, Redrawn
A post by a mother of a teenage survivor of sex trafficking
By Nacole S.
Our family was just very normal. Our son is the oldest and we have two daughters. Then, when our youngest daughter was 15, everything changed. She was always a very curious and strong-willed child. She was in soccer and doing well in school. Then, one day, it all changed. She disappeared.
There is no one golden key to helping you, your child, and your family heal from the pain of sex trafficking. However, my family has come a very long way in healing. I am sharing this for parents who are struggling and parents who want to learn more.
The first time that Natalie left home, she was trafficked out of a homeless shelter for kids and sold online. The police took our missing person’s report and really took her disappearance seriously. We got the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s support and soon there were fliers and people actively searching. We got her back in a month.
When she came home, she was so different. She was angry, hurt, scared. Her friends did not want her around and she felt isolated and lonely. Her trafficker sold her countless times on Backpage.com. We tried to understand, but we were hurting, too. We didn’t feel like we had time to even think.
When she ran away again, it was a completely different experience. You have to advocate for your child. I kept a journal with me all the time to write down dates, people, and numbers. The police said she would just come back. They labeled her a “habitual runaway.” The police didn’t want to search for her the way that they had before, and I really had to advocate for her. After 45 days, I learned that her case had not even been reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. She was gone this time for months. The detective who finally found her took her to the hospital. My fifteen-year-old daughter had just been sold for sex and abused severely by a dangerous trafficker. All the hospital did was give me a little pamphlet about domestic violence.
We had to help ourselves put the blame where it actually belongs. Her trafficker went to jail. At first, our daughter was still really caught up with her trafficker. He really made her feel like he loved her. She didn't want to talk to the police, and we basically had to lie to her to say if she didn’t talk she would stay in the detention facility that she was taken to after she was trafficked. It was awful. I felt horrible, but I was begging for help from the courts to not let her go because I was scared she would disappear again. We were desperate for help and the courts and all those lawyers and detectives. All of that disappears and you end up on your own.
When she came home, it was much worse than before. We didn’t have a roadmap. It was like the picture of our family as we knew it was gone. We had to rebuild.
I think that what really saved us more than anything was having survivors and mentors for myself, my daughter, and my husband. My daughter was connected to a young woman who is a survivor of sex trafficking who really understood her. The police department luckily had that as a resource, and it’s critical. You can’t do this alone. She didn’t have to explain her story or feelings because her survivor mentor really got it. That is critical.
After my daughter had been home a few months, she really was struggling with post traumatic stress and depression. Her survivor mentor helped her find a residential safe home program where she could spend time with other young girls who were trafficked. It’s been seven years and she is still in touch with several of them today. Having people understand is critical because that is how you can truly begin to not blame yourself.
I had a mentor, too. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has a mentoring program that trains parents who have had a missing or exploited child to offer scheduled mentoring and support to parents who are struggling with the same issues. I really needed that help, and so did my husband. We each had a parent mentor.
We had to think outside the box to save our family. We actually had no idea what we were doing, and that is scary. Yet, it’s normal. We decided if our daughter wanted to party, we would make our house the place where she partied. It was crazy for us, but eventually it kind of worked. Our daughter slowly started wanting other things in life and the acting out of anger started to be better.
My daughter was angry at herself all the time. We also enrolled our daughter into wrestling classes. This is also pretty out of the box, but now she had a place to get her physical aggression out not harm herself or others!
The hard work of counseling is important to do. You just have to make it work for you and your family. Our other two children also were really struggling to understand what happened to their sister. My oldest son was away in college and felt he had to be perfect to make up for all that was happening. Our other daughter was acting out and angry. She and her sister fought a lot. All of my children suffered because other parents and kids stopped wanting to be around us. They were afraid that it could happen to them, or they just did not understand.
In counseling, we all got to vent. We needed a safe way to be angry and fight, honestly. My son actually got so mad at my husband that he hit him. Our counselor helped us through all of this. It took eight years, but I think I can finally say that our children are close again.
These are just a few lessons I learned as the parent of a child survivor. Our journey is not over. Healing never ends. That’s okay. We have each other.
One of my favorite quotes is “eat; don’t be eaten.” In my last year at the group home, I decided that I didn't want to be eaten by the things or the people of this world. Instead, I want to eat and to help others eat. Through my trauma and my own healing process, I realized I had found my life’s purpose and stepped into my name - “Nia.” I am committed to helping others flourish, strive, live, and love to the best of their abilities. We are all strong. And we will all rise.