Early one morning in 2015, Jenny walked out of her bedroom with bag in hand and announced to her mother that she was leaving home. Neither knew at that time that the 16-year-old was about to enter a dark world – sex trafficking – and as her mom, Susan would share that nightmare for almost two years. Then one day Jenny (not her real name) found herself alone in a Fort Worth hotel room, her traffickers having gone away momentarily. She ran (“Caught in a Trap,” Aug. 30, 2017).
Susan (also not her real name) said it’s been five years since Jenny was trafficked. “Our lives changed forever the morning she left,” Susan said. “We have endured years of working through her healing as well as maneuvering the criminal justice system. Her physical pains have faded over time, but the emotional scars stay buried beneath the surface waiting for a trigger.”
Gov. Greg Abbott announced that January is Human Trafficking Prevention month and is encouraging Texans to learn how to recognize the signs of trafficking, which is defined as pressing a person into involuntary labor or services via force. In early 2016, the Fort Worth police department brought this crime to light when it created the Tarrant County 5-Stones Taskforce, an organization that meets monthly with participants from a wide variety of anti-trafficking agencies, many times including officials from city government, prosecutors, and even speakers who have been trafficked. Additionally, the Fort Worth police department has expanded its staff devoted to sex trafficking.
Jenny is now 21 years old. Wanting to show her family and friends that she was strong and independent, she moved into her own place in 2018 in an undisclosed location. She began working in the long-term care field, delighting when she described her day, demonstrating empathy for her patients. Jenny even began researching courses toward a nursing degree, hoping to further her career to a better paying position.
But relationships are a continuing problem and a common one among survivors of sex trafficking. There are always questions from previous friends as well as new acquaintances: Where have you been? Where did you go to high school? When did you graduate?
Jenny initially wanted to get away from it all, Susan said, move somewhere where no one would know her. Both mother and daughter were initially offered a relocation option but declined it. The tremendous amount of work it would take to start a new life in a new area seemed as terrifying as staying in Fort Worth, Susan said. Both mother and daughter would be abandoning the good as well as leaving the bad.
In 2019, with college courses on Jenny’s mind, the unexpected happened. She became pregnant, the result of a short-term relationship. The father is not in the picture.
“After two surgeries to repair the physical trauma of trafficking, Jenny considers the pregnancy a blessing and is excited about becoming a mother,” Susan said. “She moved away from Texas a few months ago and is preparing for her daughter’s birth.”
Jenny agrees with her mom and for the first time felt comfortable sharing her thoughts directly with me.
“At this point in my life, I have stopped caring what people think about what happened five years ago,” she said. “I am a way different person now, more confident, more responsible, with a hopeful outlook for my future and my daughter’s future.”
In 2015, when Jenny was first trafficked, Susan had a management position in the healthcare field, making good money, raising two daughters, all as a single mom. After Jenny’s case was closed, Susan left that job and became an advocate for anti-trafficking efforts. She joined the Fort Worth police department’s anti-trafficking taskforce and became a volunteer to train teenagers, parents, and community members to recognize the signs of trafficking. She began speaking publicly as the mom of a teen who had been trafficked.
Susan worked with organizations such as Traffick911 (traffick911.com) and Unbound (unboundfortworth.org), both anti-trafficking groups, to form The Steam Group (thesteamgroup.org), a nonprofit focused on increasing awareness, supporting families of victims, and increasing collaboration among sex trafficking agencies. The Steam Group is the first organization devoted to helping parents of trafficked youth in Tarrant County.
The work was meaningful, but Susan needed income, a regular paycheck. Unfortunately, the healthcare position she held for so long was gone. Driven by a need to start fresh, coupled with a desire to get away, Susan attended truck-driving school and earned her commercial driver’s license. She is now driving long haul in a semi-truck. In just a few weeks, she traveled across 20 states, hauling meat to western states, including California, and returning to Texas with fruits and vegetables. The final time I spoke with Susan, she was headed to Colorado with 40,000 pounds of bananas behind her.
“I have no idea what the future holds for my daughter and me, but I’m optimistic and excited about the birth of my first granddaughter this year,” Susan said. “If nothing else good comes out of this trauma, my daughter and I are closer than we have ever been. We talk daily about our lives, sharing everything, something I would have never expected from my rebellious teenager five years ago. We have survived, and we’ve moved on with our lives, putting the horror of the past behind us.”