Sold up and down the East coast: hidden world of sex trafficking moves close to home

By Leanne Hamilton

Executive Editor

By Leanne Hamilton

Walking into a nightclub in Massachusetts, Jasmine Grace, 19,  found herself chatting with an older man. He offered to buy her a drink, which Jasmine accepted, seeing the expensive jewelry hanging from his neck and adorning his knuckles. They parted ways, but conversation between the two continued after that night. 

     Having just graduated from cosmetology school, Jasmine  explained to him that she wanted to work in a salon. After lavish dates and exciting new opportunities, Jasmine said yes to entering a romantic relationship with this man she had met. He told her that she could own a salon with his help as a businessman. He sent her to massage school and hired her to work for him. However, the money he spent was now suddenly expected to be repaid.

      “Being 19, I wasn’t a young teenager, but I was naive,” Jasmine said. “It was definitely something I didn’t think would happen to me, it wasn’t something I asked for. It completely changed my life.” There was no way Jasmine was going to be able to repay the money he had spent on her. She moved in with him in order to work off her debt. He told her the best way she could pay him back was to do a few favors using her body. He sold her to men up and down the East Coast for five years, from age 19 until age 24. Throughout those five years the best way Jasmine could cope was by turning to heroin and addiction.

According to Polaris statistics, in 2018 the highest number of sex trafficking survivors in the United States was 243. Often there is violence and abuse against those being sold, this number represents the survivors, but not the overall number of those that were trafficked at this age. These 243 survivors were trafficked at the ages of 15-17 years of age. Also according to Polaris statistics, in 2018 the numbers reported to the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline illustrated that 7,126 women were trafficked and 2,378 minors were trafficked. Jasmine was one of many, and the threat has evolved.  

This statistic illustrates sex trafficking survivors in the United States in 2018, at the age they were at the time trafficking began. 243 sex trafficking survivors reported being between the ages of 15 and 17 when they were first trafficked.

Cited: Polaris. “Number of Sex Trafficking Survivors in The United States in 2018, by Age at Time Trafficking Began.” Statista, Statista Inc., 30 Jul 2019,

That’s why college students, including those at St. Michael’s College, are on alert. A few weeks back, before the campus had cleared out, two women dressed in neat blouses made their way onto St. Michael’s. They approached female students, inviting them to join the Bible Club they ran at their church. Many of the female students were startled by these seemingly nice women and reported it to Public Safety. News of the women’s presence on campus spread quickly, as did the rumor that they were part of the sex trade. This turned out to be a false alarm, but situations that are dangerous exist in every community. 

These numbers illustrate the number of human trafficking cases reported to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in the United States in 2018, by victim demographic.

Having worked with survivors of sex trafficking, Sister Pat McKittrick, the community health coordinator at the University of Vermont Medical Center and the source that referred me to Jasmine’s story, knows sex trafficking happens here in Vermont. 

 “We have seen both, sex trafficking and labor trafficking in the area.”  McKittrick said in an interview at the O’Brien Community Center. “There are people that are really just working on that now ” said Sr. McKittrick. For law enforcement it’s a difficult call to make. Oftentimes, when they want to get involved, they put the person they are trying to save more at risk. “If you try to rescue someone, you take the risk of killing them. The law is stepping in on the trafficker’s profit. They count on this person to be trafficked and make this big profit for them. Trying to make them leave will often encourage them to hurt them. The traffickers see them as their property” said McKittrick.

In labor trafficking, people will work longer hours than they are supposed to and when it comes time to be paid, the traffickers will then tell them they owe for food, lodging, and transportation so they dock more of their pay, McKittrick said. “So then you end up with maybe a fourth of what you get.” 

From India to Vermont

Trafficking happens globally, because people in that industry are seen as replaceable. With drug trafficking, you need to replenish your product. However, with women and men if you keep them healthy you can sell them over and over. Adrie Kusserow, professor of Anthropology at St. Michael’s College, has visited India in order to help prevent modern day slavery and human trafficking in India. “Trafficking is part of modern day slavery. And modern day slavery is very different from the old slavery, ”  Kusserow said. “This kind of modern day slavery is based on poverty, not as much on race. Humans are seen as disposable because there are plenty more poor people on the globe.” 

 Jasmine may have been able to avoid the man she met in the nightclub if she had recognized his money as a profit from some illegal business and turned him down. “There were definitely red flags, but because of how I grew up and where I grew up, and the culture of our society, I ignored them or glamorized them,” explained Jasmine, who now does outreach work to prevent the same situation from happening to other young people. “Now I tell teenagers, ‘Don’t date the drug dealer’. If he has fancy stuff or a fancy car and doesn’t come from a wealthy family, he’s probably a drug dealer. Why we think that’s ok I don’t know, it’s just our culture.” 

Similar to the lures used in Jasmine’s case, traffickers often offer something desirable such as a job, drugs, or money. “Most traffickers try to visit poor homes and trick them into thinking they are offering the girl a job in a city, like working in a biscuit factory or being a waitress. It could be the only way this girl thinks her family will be able to eat and pay bills for sickness,” Kusserow explained. “Many of the traffickers drug the girls by slipping something into a Coca Cola so that they will sleep while crossing the border and simply wake up in a brothel.” 

Traffickers take to the internet in order to find girls they can traffick. They look for profiles of young females that look lonely or troubled. “In the Darjeeling hills, Facebook has become a problem because traffickers will befriend a girl and get to know her first virtually,” Kusserow explained. “In the U.S. many traffickers have girls that are from other countries that cannot reach out for help. They fear they will be arrested for illegal residence and they also don’t speak the language so they are even more disempowered,”  Kusserow said. “Sex trafficking’s commonality worldwide is about poverty and vulnerability and debt. Most traffickers will say that women have to pay off of a debt, but then the debt is impossible to pay off.”

Young and vulnerable

We may think that only those with a rough past or a drug addiction are vulnerable to human trafficking. “I wanna let college kids know, especially girls, that this happens in other ways by the Sugar Daddy/Sugar Baby movement across college campuses,”  Jasmine warned. “There are sources out there that connect affluent older men to young innocent girls with college debt. The men promise to take care of their debt and other things for companionship, which is false. They are looking for way more than companionship.” 

“Men are even posting the fliers that are advertising on campus. The younger you are, the more vulnerable and more at risk. It’s the vulnerability they look for,” Jasmine said.

 “Social media is a large platform for them now as well, because that’s where everyone hangs out. It’s the number one place they find the people they exploit and it’s the number one place they advertise for sex buyers. It’s not happening on the streets anymore, so it’s hidden in plain sight.” 

 McKittrick emphasized the same point to me as we sat in the lobby of the O’Brien Community Center in downtown Winooski. She told me the story of a young woman around 21 years old, the same age of many St. Michael’s students, and how McKittrick believed the woman was trafficked right here on the border of Winooski/Burlington.

 “She was on a corner and I used to see her holding a sign that said ‘anything will help’. I asked her if she’d like some of my lunch and she told me she was starved. I started to go see her a little bit more often and talk to her and said ‘So what’s your story?’ and she said ‘Well I’m on heroin, I need $80 a day for my habit and I have to collect for my boyfriend.’ I said, ‘Why’re you collecting for your boyfriend?’ and she said ‘Because he’s a felon and is afraid the police will pick him up.’ She was ok with doing what she could do for the money and I think she was mostly panhandling for the money at that time,” McKittrick said.

“She was young and smart, so I asked her: ‘Wouldn’t you like to get off the street and get your life together?’ She had only been doing this for two years. And she said that she really did. So I told her we could talk to someone. The next day she told me she mentioned it to her boyfriend, and that her boyfriend doesn’t like her talking to me because he doesn’t think she’s ready to leave yet. I told her ‘What do you think he means by ‘you’re not ready to go’’? And she explained that if she goes, his drugs go and that she’s afraid he will hurt her mother.”

“She was trying to get into a facility but unfortunately at the time there were no openings within the facility. I gave her my number and I received a text from her the next day that she met a man, from Burlington, and to not worry about her because he will help her detox. I tried to tell her I don’t think it’s safe but to stay in touch. “A week later I got a text from her that he’s taking her across country, for free, and helping her detox. She’s a week clean. I started to wonder if I was so jaded that I didn’t trust anybody. Then I got a text that she was in Niagara Falls, and then she was in Detroit. That didn’t sound so good and nothing about being clean and sober. A few weeks went by and I didn’t hear from her, and then I got the text that said ‘I’m in Atlanta.’ I knew then she was being trafficked. A lot of times they manipulate their drugs, as the withdrawals get terrible, they will do anything. So the traffickers will say ‘Well you have to sleep with this one to get your drugs’ and I think they were manipulating her drug habit. Then she got back, I don’t know how she got back, but she did. And then I was told she overdosed and passed away. That was really sad.”

How to break the sex trafficking grip

Jasmine was able to fight her way out of the sex trade. Among the men that would come see Jasmine, there was one that would come and never touch her. He often overpaid the cost of the visit. Jasmine would take the extra money he paid her and hide it in a plant, no one ever checked the plants. The rest would go to her trafficker. When she finally had enough saved up to pay off the debt, Jasmine took a large leap of faith and contacted this man who had been coming to visit with her. She asked for his help to get her out and he did. He helped her get a job. She was able to move far away from the man that trafficked her, get clean from heroin, and now is happily married with two kids. 

It isn’t simple or easy to break free from the hold of trafficking. As Professor Adrie Kusserow explained, many traffickers use family as a means of leverage to keep people from speaking out or leaving the industry. Sister McKittrick has seen the same tactics involved in trafficking here in the U.S. “They’ll say to them ‘You don’t want to do this? I know where your sister is, I’ll get your younger sister to do it’ so they scare them into staying, ” McKittrick said.

How can you help?

Sister Pat McKittrick is part of a program at the hospital to help survivors of trafficking, and to help medical professionals identify and approach someone who may be trafficked  “The reason we started this at the hospital is because we found out that about 85 percent of people that are trafficked actually see a healthcare provider while they are being trafficked, but go unidentified,” said Sr. McKittrick. No one picks up that the underlying problem is not the UTI or STD, but that they are being trafficked. “So now we have things we ask people to look for when training the nurses.” 

They often have bruises in different stages, maybe some broken bones, stories that don’t match up, or maybe a pimp present that won’t let them speak for themselves. You can request a urine sample from them for example, and have one or two minutes to ask them if they need help. While most won’t speak up the first time, if they continue to come back you can build trust with them. “People want to rescue. We never talk about rescuing. It could get someone killed,” explained McKittrick. Therefore these trainings walk through the proper steps of getting someone the help they need with the least amount of risk.

 Below are a few sources and organizations that can guide you how to help bring awareness. There are educational programs at the O’Brien Community Center where volunteers can help set up the different panels and webinars. They have a panel for human trafficking that invites sources like police or healthcare workers to give variety and express that this is a problem. As well, there are webinars that focus on important information about trafficking. One they have coming up, is what happens if someone is being trafficked during COVID19, where person to person contact is not allowed making it even easier for them to be isolated. If anyone has specific interest in human trafficking they can visit the O’Brien Center tied to the City of Winooski website (listed below) and will be redirected to Sister Pat McKittrick or someone in that department. There are also plenty of other volunteer options besides trafficking available.  

Sources:  –City of Winooski, Vt volunteer options –Sr. Pat McKittrick has given permission to source her email if you wish to directly contact her, be specific if it’s for trafficking interest. Please be professional.–Bags of Hope website –Jasmine Grace’s website –private foundation that empowers and cares for survivors and those vulnerable to Human Trafficking