NEW YORK — New York is unfortunately known as one of the most popular places in the country for human traffickers.
For victims, breaking the cycle is often dangerous and complicated. CBS2’s Lisa Rozner spoke to a survivor who is helping them through a unique Bronx-based program.
“I was recruited at the age of 16. When I was 18, my trafficker kicked me out of my house. When I was 24, I met a second trafficker,” said Gigi, who does not use her real name for security reasons.
She says she was first sex trafficked in Manhattan, but it wasn’t until ten years later, when she was sold to someone in Connecticut, that she was able to break free for real.
“I ended up in Connecticut on a Thursday, but Sunday morning at 2 a.m. I escaped with four other women,” she said. “It’s human capitalism and it’s been happening since the days of the Christian era.”
Dr. Veronica Ades co-founded the EMPOWER Clinic for survivors of sex trafficking at Jacobi Hospital in 2013.
She says she noticed that many Latin American women were being targeted.
“So someone pretended to be a boyfriend and then said, I got you here, I don’t have any money, you have to do this,” Ades said. “There were people who came from Asia, especially China, thinking they could get a manicure job or something and then they would be forced to go to a brothel. I saw people from Europe, Eastern Europe, often thinking they were coming for modeling jobs.”
19-year-old fugitive Carina Slusser from Pennsylvania was last seen at a Queens motel in 2017. Police say her 24-year-old pimp is now in jail, but it’s a notorious example of how which Americans are just as prey to manipulation, especially, says Ades, in cases of “unstable childhood situation, lots of people in foster care.”
“Child abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, poverty,” Gigi said.
When a person seeks help, EMPOWER provides services from OBGYNs and psychiatrists, as well as therapy. An economic empowerment specialist helps with things like resume writing, and today Gigi is the peer care navigator who walks alongside survivors for any services they seek in public.
“Build their confidence and learn what their voice sounds like,” Gigi said.
The pandemic reduced in-person outreach, but expanded EMPOWER’s teleservices.
“We found the silver lining and it’s what most people are comfortable with electronic communication,” Ades said.
Ades says it’s still a challenge, however, for people in abusive relationships who don’t have a private space. It is too dangerous for staff to intervene, so all the organization can do is raise awareness of its existence.
Gigi says that for her, there were financial and personal security reasons she couldn’t escape, but there was one thing that got her through the toughest times.
“There were difficulties and obstacles and challenges, so it was difficult. I think for me, one thing was that I had faith,” she said. “What I show our clients is that there is a possibility for you to live your dreams.”
There is a National Human Trafficking Hotline which you can contact 24/7 at 1 (888) 373-7888. Volunteers speak over 200 languages. You can also text “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733.
For more information on EMPOWER, visit theempowercenter.org.