HOUSTON - For a majority of Human trafficking victims, it all begins with what appears to be friendship.
As part of Human Trafficking Awareness month, a local group focused on ending sex trafficking recently premiered a short film made by Travis Plunkett that focuses on how a victim is groomed. Photojournalist Darlene Faires talks with some of the women behind the film and their hope that awareness will prevent someone from becoming a victim.
Stephanie Clawson with Missionaries for Hope was one of the driving forces behind the film “Groomed”, she explains. “This is a very real issue. Traffickers are smart, they're using what our students are using to gain access to them. So this film is just to show, you know, what's going on. It's a film, just showing a first-person perspective of this young lady who has a healthy friend group and she has a healthy family. Through the course of friending this unknown gentleman online and going through the steps of grooming, you see the deterioration of her relationship with her friends with her parents. And ultimately, you see her willingly walking out of her home and getting in the car of this man that she had met online."
"For the past four years, we've just been doing hours and hours of outreach and intervention and we've heard hundreds of stories from women who have been exploited or women who have been prostituted. And it just kind of hit us, like, what if we reach them before they get involved in the sex industry? This is what's out there, this is what's happening, this is how you keep yourself safe. When this film kind of came up and we met with Travis, we thought that it might be a lot more impactful if we had some input from some women that have come out of the industry,"
"He said he could help me and I believed him."
Jessica Henry is a human trafficking survivor, she explains that she meant someone who praised her singing and dancing and used her desire to become a performing artist to entrap her.
“He told me that he had a connect and he could help me and I believed him.” She tells FOX 26 News that as soon as they left Galveston County he changed. “It was like his demeanor changed. He wasn’t so sweet.”
Jessica’s reaction the first time she watched the film, was strong, “That’s explosive, and it’s truthful, that’s exactly how it played out, just that way.”
Rebecca Cary the founder of Hands of Justice is also a trafficking survivor, “I was particularly manipulated by this gentleman and for me to believe that he cared about me and he was going to take care of me. And that's what they're experts at doing.”
She continues,” It’s not just certain people that are being victimized it is a lot of anybody being victimized. I was a normal child from a normal family to be sucked into something like this and to be preyed upon easily and people don’t get that."
Stephanie Clawson and her group Missionaries for Hope want the film to not just stay in Galveston or Harris counties but that it will be seen, "statewide, it goes nationwide this isn't just a Houston issue this is a national and a global problem and that is truly our hope for our film."
Travis Plunkett is the filmmaker behind the movie. He is 19 years old and a student at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington. Stephanie Clawson's parents who attend the same church in North Idaho that Travis goes to became the connection for the project. The Church of Faith raised the money for the project.
For information about screening the film contact Stephanie Clawson at Missionaries for Hope.
Grooming is the process of befriending and building trust with a child or sometimes the family of a child. The trafficker will take a special interest in the child to create a relationship. This relationship could be that of a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship, a mentor or a friend.
Traffickers target victims who have some noticeable vulnerability: emotional neediness, low self-esteem, or economic stress. Teens are more vulnerable to flattery, attention, affection, and gifts as a means of coercion, especially if there is not a strong safe attachment at home.
Social media and apps with private messaging features make it easier and faster for traffickers to identify their victims. Gathering information about the victim is key. This can be done through casual conversations with the victim or with parents or friends.
Signs that a sex trafficker may be grooming your child
The information gained allows the trafficker to fill a need in the victim’s life, making the victim dependent on them in some way: buying gifts, being a friend, beginning a love relationship, or buying soft drugs and alcohol. This is why many times a trafficker may look like a “boyfriend” to unsuspecting friends and family. The trafficker creates times to be alone with the victim. The trafficker will also begin to have a major role in the victim’s life and attempt to distance the victim from friends and family. In isolation, the trafficker has more control over the messages the victim hears and is better able to manipulate them.
Then the abuse begins - The trafficker begins claiming that a service must be repaid whether money spent on cigarettes or drugs, car rides or mobile phones. It may even begin with requests for illicit images (sexting) that are then used to threaten the victim. In most cases, the trafficker demands sex as payment for such services.
In many cases, the trafficker maintains control of the victim through threats, violence, fear, or blackmail. Many victims show loyalty to their traffickers even after they’ve been recovered because of the insidious nature of the manipulation and the trauma bonds that are formed.