The Sex Trafficking Victim Who Needs Training Wheels
By Tim Swarrens VIA IndyStar
TIJUANA, Mexico — It is the small things that break a heart.
I am standing in the courtyard of a home for child trafficking survivors. A dozen girls have lined up to tell me their ages and to share their dreams for the future.
They are 16, 15, 12 years old. One wants to be a teacher, one an attorney, another a hair stylist.
The last girl, the one standing closest to me, looks up into my eyes. She is 6 years old. And she wants to become a veterinarian.
Behind the girls is a row of bicycles. The smallest has a pink heart attached to the handle bars. And pink training wheels on the back.
The thought hits me like a punch to the gut: The bike's owner is too young to ride without training wheels. She is not too young to be a survivor of sex trafficking.
Later, I ask Alma Tucker, the founder of this shelter, La Casa del Jardin, about the story of the 6-year-old who wants one day to provide care for sick animals.
The child, Tucker tells me, is the youngest of three sisters at the shelter. Her older siblings were 8- and 11-years-old when they arrived at La Casa del Jardin nearly four years ago.
They were malnourished; covered in lice; and the 11-year-old suffered from a severe vaginal infection, likely caused by sexual contact.
The bicycle was pink. So were the training wheels. Its owner couldn’t ride a bicycle on her own, but she was already a victim of sex trafficking.Mykal McEldowney/IndyStar
A teacher, worried about the 8-year-old’s safety, had called seeking help. Tucker agreed to take the girls into the shelter.
But for months no one knew the full horror of what had happened to them. Not until the day when Tucker, in her office, heard a knock on the door.
It was the 8-year-old. For the first time she told Tucker about the American man who crossed the border on weekends to take the girls to a hotel. He paid their mother $100 for each girl he took away. Their mom used the money to buy drugs.
At first, the man took only photos. But the 8-year-old said that one day he gave her a drink, and she fell asleep. When she woke up, blood was flowing from between her legs.
The child, Tucker says, finally revealed her ordeal not out of concern for her own safety but because she was worried about her younger sister and brother, who were still living with their mom.
No one in a position of authority, Tucker says, had known that the younger children even existed. But soon they were rescued, and the 6-year-old -- the girl who rides with training wheels -- was reunited with her older sisters at La Casa del Jardin.
The man from America, Tucker says, was never identified.
On the day I met them at La Casa del Jardin, the three sisters seemed happy and healthy. They played games together, sang and helped prepare for another survivor’s birthday party. They were children again.
“My heart is full when I see the girls reading a book, singing or dancing,” Tucker says. “That’s what a little girl should be doing. Not going to a hotel.”
A month later, I am standing on the front porch of another shelter for child trafficking and abuse survivors. This time in Pattaya, Thailand.
On the stoop before me is a row of Hello Kitty and Barbie flip-flops. They range in size from small to smaller.
My heart breaks again.
Inside, I am greeted by the 10 girls who live there. The youngest is 6 years old. The oldest four girls are only 11.
As the children play a game with a staff member in one room, the shelter’s co-founder, Jeremy Kraus, leads me through the rest of the house. A Mickey and Minnie Mouse growth chart hangs on one wall. In the bedrooms, dolls and teddy bears rest on the beds.
“We want our kids to dream and to love life,” Kraus says.
After more than a decade managing group homes for abused and troubled children in the United States, Kraus and his wife Jenifer moved from California to Thailand to aid sex trafficking victims. The NGO they founded, Thrive Rescue, opened its first shelter in 2012. It now operates four therapeutic group homes for girls and boys who’ve been abused and trafficked.
Pattaya has long had a reputation as a magnet for pedophiles from around the world. Thai and international authorities in recent years have arrested dozens of men, many from the United States and other western countries, for buying sex with children in the area.
Jeremy Kraus praised local police for their work to identify and rescue trafficking victims. “The Thai government has cracked down quite a bit on traffickers,” he says. “They’ve been very supportive of the work we are doing.”
As we leave the house, the girls wave and smile. Their shoes — the Hello Kitty flip-flops worn by sex trafficking survivors — still sit in a row outside the front door.
On a warm fall day a few miles from the White House, Tina Frundt and I sit on a restaurant deck, discussing the child sex trade in America’s capital.
Frundt is herself a survivor, sold as a girl in Chicago and Cleveland. She now runs Courtney’s House, a program for young female and male trafficking victims in the Washington, D.C., area.
Like other survivors, she is blunt about the duplicity of the sex trade. When I note that many buyers insist they didn’t know the age of their victims, Frundt scoffs. “They know,” she says.
To illustrate, she tells me about one 13-year-old girl who arrived at Courtney’s House. She still played with dolls.
“The men always talk,” Frundt says. “They talk about their wives, their children, their jobs. So I asked this girl, ‘What did the men talk about with you?’
“She said, ‘One of them asked me about my favorite TV show.’
“What did you tell him?
“‘Sponge Bob, Square Pants’.”
Pink training wheels. Hello Kitty flip-flops. Sponge-Bob, Square Pants. These are the things of childhood.
And of child trafficking.
The heart breaks.