A worn-out Pocahontas doll and some clothes are what Claira remembers bringing with her.
She was 5 years old. Her parents were drug addicted. Social services picked her up from her parents’ South Carolina home. For the next two years, she guesses she stayed in four foster homes.
Claira, who now lives in Alabama and requested that her last name not be used to protect her privacy, was adopted by a couple who knew her mother. Her adoptive father called her “Little Melody,” after her birth mother, and would taunt, “You’re going to end up just like her.”
By age 14, her adoptive parents had divorced, and she lived with her adoptive dad. He cussed at her, drank heavily and once spit food in her face. Soon after, her birth mother died of a drug overdose. Then her birth dad did, too.
After a childhood riddled with sexual and physical abuse, Claira was looking for a way out. Though every situation is unique, her story is a classic example of how human trafficking can happen in the U.S.
Survivors of domestic sex trafficking are most often American-born with a history of abuse. They’re usually young women and girls, but men and boys are victimized too. LGBTQ and foster youth are especially at risk of exploitation, which commonly happens in private homes, at truck stops, in adult night clubs, at motels and at massage parlors.
Claira and her friends met a group of men at a mall. They started hanging out, drinking and playing dominoes. Claira dated one of the men, though she wouldn’t use that term today to describe their relationship.
“Things got rough at home and that opened the door for him to be my hero,” Claira said. She ran away to go live with the man she thought was her boyfriend, who was 23. That same night, she found out he was a pimp who called himself “Life.”
Claira was still a minor and dreaded the thought of going back into foster care, where she knew she would be shuffled from house to house like a piece of used furniture. “Basically, I felt stuck,” Claira said. “Like this is my life now. I have no other option. This is my way out of this hellhole at home.”
Unlike movies about girls being kidnapped, taken abroad and handcuffed to a radiator, human trafficking usually is right in front of us behind strip-mall marquees for massages or in online classifieds — hidden in plain sight.
The Montgomery Advertiser and the Fuller Project for International Reporting talked with experts and survivors in Alabama and across the Southeast to find out what human trafficking in the region looks like.
Many victims don’t realize what they’re experiencing is trafficking, which makes it hard to know how big the problem really is. More than 200 cases of sex or labor trafficking have been reported from Alabama to the national trafficking hotline since 2015, but local studies put the number of cases just in 2017 at close to 1,000. Chances are, many survivors have stories that sound a lot like Claira’s.
By 15, Claira was working as a dancer at strip clubs in Greenville and Columbia, South Carolina, sometimes traveling with Life and his coterie of girls to as far as Florida. She dropped out of school midway through the 11th grade. Life gave Claira a nightly quota of $500, none of which she was allowed to keep. Most nights, she brought in double that through tips and lap dances, but some nights she sold herself to make up the difference, or more often, just to please him.
Not uncommon for sex trafficking survivors, Claira felt her pimp — not the police who at one time raided the club she was working — was her rescuer. “He would say, ‘You’re only going to do this for so long. I’m going pay your way through school, you’re gonna be my wife, you’re gonna do this and that,” Claira remembers. “They were all lies.”
By the time she turned 18 and the threat of returning to foster care was gone, Claira could see the lies more clearly. While Life was away in Atlanta, she packed her bags and moved out. But without family she could count on, a high school degree or a way to support herself, she wound up back in the strip clubs.
A year later, she became pregnant after a fling and moved to Chicago, an attempt at starting fresh. Instead, she got hooked on painkillers and continued working in strip clubs at night while family or friends watched her daughter. After a few months, she returned to South Carolina.
“I just ended up in this vicious cycle of that life,” Claira said. “It was basically me in survival mode, coping by popping pills and then heroin and meth, just to live that life. ‘Cause I couldn’t go into the club or talk to these dudes without getting high.”
Things took a turn when Claira’s drug dealer had a chance encounter with an employee from Switch, an organization in upstate South Carolina that works with survivors of human trafficking, and gave Claira the woman’s card. She didn’t call right away, but eventually she did. “I was tired of living the way I was living,” she said. “I didn’t want that life.”
A year or so later, she checked herself into detox and, in 2016, she was offered a bed at the WellHouse, a faith-based rehabilitation facility for adult female survivors spread over 62 acres of land near Birmingham. She took drug and alcohol classes, received equine therapy, got certified as a dental assistant, and studied the Bible. She went to morning devotionals and began, she says, a relationship with Jesus Christ. She left more than a year later with a job and an apartment of her own.
As is common with addiction, Claira relapsed once with drugs after leaving WellHouse. “I moved into low income, project-type housing, so it was all around me,” Claira said. “And I just wasn’t ready.”
She continued to get help. Today, she’s drug-free and works full time at Subway. On Saturdays, she works as a caregiver for a disabled child. She is interviewing for better-paying jobs as a dental assistant but, she says, most offices want at least two years of experience and she only has six months. She’s considering going to nursing school.
Slowly, Claira is learning to deal with the trauma of her exploitation.
“It’s hard to even think that this really happened to me,” she said. “I’ve been so good at blocking it out and numbing it for so long. The more I talk about it, the more I come to terms with it.”
She wants to make sure the next generation of youth, including her own now 8-year-old daughter, are aware of the dangers.
“They prey on women that come from broken homes, foster care, drug addicts,” she said. “They prey on just broken, normal women.”