The Slaves Next Door

Affluent suburbs are no refuge from human trafficking

Dec 30, 2008 at 2:06 pm

Five FBI investigations into human trafficking are underway in Greater Cincinnati alone. Despite that, the Ohio Legislature is getting pressure from lawyers not to pass a law that would define modern-day slavery and make it a crime in Ohio (see “De-Criminalizing Victims,” issue of Nov. 12).

More cases are out there, but the resistance of local law enforcement and the fear built up in victims by their traffickers keep this crime invisible, with slaves walking past us on the street every day.

A case in point is the story of Theresa Flores, who went from being a self-described “average American teenager” living in the Detroit suburbs to living as a slave between the ages of 15 and 17, keeping her plight secret from her family.

After writing a book about her ordeal, The Sacred Bath: An American Teen’s Story of Modern Day Slavery, having sold the move rights and agreeing to appear on the Today show in February 2009, it would seem that Flores — now living in Columbus — is comfortable talking about her past. She isn’t.

“This is the hardest part,” she says, describing how the transformation took place. “We had moved to a rich suburb and there was a bunch of different kind of kids that I wasn’t used to and I was told they were ‘off limits, you can’t date this other group.’ I was really attracted to one of the guys in that group, and I thought that was just ridiculous. I went to school with this guy. We even went to the same church.

“He asked me if I wanted a ride home from school one day. He said, ‘I need to go home to my house and get something.’ All these red flags, all the things your parents teach you, went off and I ignored them. … Unfortunately, they were accurate that day. He drugged me when we got there, just offering me a pop. It tasted funny and smelled funny but being naive … I was date raped.”

The eldest of four children in a Catholic family, Flores says there was “an unbelievable amount of pressure” not to have sex before marriage. Her mother said that if she became pregnant she’d be kicked out of the house.

“A couple days later he told me he needed to talk to me and said that his cousins had been there during it and that they took pictures of it,” Flores says. “Being stupid, I didn’t understand what he meant. He said, ‘They want you to earn them back.’ I still didn’t understand what he meant. He said, ‘They want to meet with you and they’re very dangerous and if you don’t do this they’re going to show these pictures to your dad and everybody at school.’ Nobody would want some pictures like that posted.”

The blackmail escalated to death threats against her as well as her family. A dead bird in the mailbox was one of the many reminders. Sometimes she’d get a note telling her to leave class to “meet up” with someone, but usually it was after school or a phone call at night telling her where to go.

“I was missing a lot of school because I’d been up the whole night — I’d gotten a phone call at midnight and told to appear,” Flores says. “I’d sneak out and sneak back home around 4:30 in the morning and get two hours sleep and have to get up for school.

“What I had endured in those few hours with them was very physically abusive. It was very difficult to even walk to school the next day sometimes.”

Now in her forties, Flores only recently discovered that there’s a name for what happened to her: She was a victim of human trafficking. A social worker, she attended a conference about human trafficking two years ago. When she heard the definition, Flores was shocked: the use of force, fraud or coercion to transport, harbor, sell or employ a person for the purposes of forced servitude (see “Of Human Bondage,” issue of Feb 13).

“Here I am, an educated woman, and I had no idea what I went through was human trafficking,” Flores says. “I knew it was terrible, I knew it was horrific, nothing you could ever imagine, but I didn’t know that was what it was called. And I thought, ‘If I didn’t know that and I lived it and I’m educated, then there’s probably a whole lot of other people that probably don’t know anything about this either.’ ”

Knowing she was one of the lucky to have escaped, Flores wants the “miracle” of her survival to be an opportunity for others to learn.

“The administrators and teachers at my school were very afraid of this group,” she says. “Today they’d probably be called a gang. The teachers never confronted these guys. I had a couple incidences when school security guards saw me being shoved up against a wall or a locker and never did anything.

“The bell ringing and the teacher coming out and saying, ‘Theresa, you need to get in here for class.’ And the guys who were there with me saying, ‘She’ll be in when we’re finished with her.’ She said, ‘OK’ and went back in the class.”

Her father’s job transfer to Connecticut enabled Flores to escape plans for her to become “the girl” of one of the leaders of the crime ring and be sent out to some of their bigger clients. After ignoring that part of her past for more than 20 years, Flores is turning her tragedy into triumph.

With few people qualified to provide accurate information about human trafficking (see “It Happens in Cincinnati,” issue of Aug. 20), Flores quit her day job to keep up with the demands of worldwide speaking engagements about human trafficking: 32 speaking engagements, nine college lectures and assorted TV and radio interviews in 2008 alone.

The movie based on her book doesn’t have a release date, but Flores will appear on the Today show Feb. 12 and MSNBC will air Sex Slaves in Suburbia Feb. 14.

“It occurred to me that there was nobody speaking out about this,” Flores says. “People don’t believe this is happening … because people are afraid and ashamed to come forth and talk about it. I thought, ‘This is what I need to do. I need to show them what it looks like.’ ”