(The following story is printed in the January 2014 edition of Foster Focus Magazine. It is an intriguing tale of Human Trafficking.)
Melo was tall and cute and all grown up. He was cool. He looked kind of like a grown-up Justin Bieber. He had the right look, wore the cool clothes, and rocked big, expensive sunglasses—the same kind Kanye West wears. He drove a brand new Camaro with a scoop on the hood. It sounded like a race car and looked like it was going a hundred miles an hour when it was standing still.
Carmelo was his real name, but the people he let in close to him called him Melo. He had his own place. He was 26. He was the guy everyone wanted to be close to, but only a few actually got into his private domain.
I met him at a friend’s house. He was my friend’s brother’s friend. I knew instantly that he was the one for me. At first he acted like I wasn’t even there, but my friend and I came up with about 400 reasons why we had to go into the garage where the guys were hanging out. Finally Melo said, “Hi.” I felt butterflies in my stomach. He looked me up and down like he was sizing me up. Then he looked me in the eyes for what seemed like a long time, and I guess right then he knew he had me.
I liked how it felt to be the one Melo was looking at. I liked it so much that I wanted to show him whatever he wanted to see. I started hanging out at my friend’s house every day after school, hoping that Carmelo would come by. As soon as I’d get there, I’d unbutton one or two buttons on my blouse and roll up the bottom of my shorts; or if I was wearing a skirt, I’d take my underwear off to be sure to get his attention.
Melo started texting me to see if I’d be there when he got there. It didn’t matter if it was in the middle of the school day or the middle of the night; I always texted him right back. He asked me to take a “selfie” so he’d always have a picture of me with him, so I did. But then he said he wanted to see more of me. He told me he wanted a picture that nobody else had—to see what nobody else had ever seen. By this time I would’ve done just about anything he asked, so I gave him what he asked for. If I’d only known then about the pain I was inviting.
As soon as Melo would get to my friend’s house, I wanted to go out into the garage to hang around with the guys. My friend got mad at me because I didn’t want to hang out with her anymore. I didn’t want to go to the mall like we used to do. I just wasn’t into all the dumb stuff we used to find so fun. I didn’t care about any of that anymore.
By that time Carmelo was hanging out with me. He was talking to me about places he had been and things he had done. My life was so boring compared to his. He always had money. I had nothing. He talked about doing fun things; and unless he’d pay for me to go, there’s no way I could ever think about doing the fun stuff he talked about. And when Melo started talking about going away for a while, I did everything I could to get him to take me with him.
My dad left when I was little. My mom says she has no idea where he is. I guess he doesn’t want us to know where he is because he might actually have to help support me. I always think I’m going to hear from him around Christmas or on my birthday, but that’s a stupid fantasy. He’s obviously moved on.
My mom dated several guys, but I didn’t like any of her boyfriends. None of those guys ever lasted around us for very long anyway. Mom worked, so she wasn’t home a lot. When she was off work, she was either out on a date or she was tired and bitchy from having to clean and do laundry. I tried to help, but I could never do anything good enough to make her happy. We either had one-word conversations or we got into a fight. There was no in-between with us.
We lived in a little apartment in a bad part of town. I guess it’s all Mom could afford. I used to see my grandma once in a while, but she drinks a lot so she doesn’t drive much anymore. I was only thirteen, so I didn’t drive yet; and I couldn’t afford a car even if I was old enough to have a driver’s license, so I couldn’t go see her.
One of our old neighbors used to invite me to eat with her family some times. They used to take me with them to their church before they moved away. Their daughter was about my age. We were in the same grade at school. They moved only about 20 minutes away, but I guess they forgot about me because they never came back to take me with them after they moved.
He Loved Me
Then it finally happened. The great Carmelo and I hooked up. We were at my friend’s house, and he said he was going to get something to eat; he asked if I wanted to go along. There hadn’t been anything to eat at my house in a couple of days, so I was hungry; I jumped at the chance to go. After we went through the drive-through, Melo found a place to park. When we were done eating, he started kissing me and touching me, and the next thing I knew, we were doing it. I’d never done that before, but I didn’t want him to know that. He was this experienced, older guy, so I didn’t want him to think I was just some stupid kid.
It wasn’t long before Melo and I quit hanging out at my friend’s house. I’d go there so he could pick me up without my mom finding out, and we’d go to his place. I didn’t think my mom would care all that much, but Melo didn’t want anyone to know about us. He’s a really private person, he said. He took me to eat, which was great since there was never much food at my house. Sometimes he took me to the movies, and one time he took me shopping. He bought me clothes and shoes, and he even paid for me to have long, acrylic nails put on. I knew he loved me because of the way he spent money on me.
Even though a few days might go by in between seeing him, he always came back to me. He never called me in between times, and he never responded to my calls or texts. I figured he was working, so I didn’t bug him about it. One time I asked where he’d been and what he’d been doing, and he got really mad at me. I never meant to make him mad. I had seen him mad at a couple guys one time, and I knew that an angry Melo was something I didn’t want to see again, so I never, ever called, texted, or asked where he had been again.
Looking back on it now, I guess I just wanted someone to love me—really love me. Just for who I was.
Part of the Family
I guess by this time we’d been together about three weeks, which was a long time for me. I was doing whatever Melo wanted me to do. I knew that other girls liked him, and I didn’t want to lose him. He’d ask for pictures, and I’d send them—whatever and however he wanted. And whatever he wanted to do to me, I’d let him. Even when it didn’t feel good or even hurt, it was Melo—so I went along with it. Then he told me he had decided to take me away with him. Wow! I had finally made it! I was the one he chose to go away with. I was so excited.
I ran home and threw my stuff into a big trash bag (I didn’t have a suitcase) and I waited for Melo to pick me up. My mom wasn’t home, so I left her a note saying that she wouldn’t have me to yell at any more because I was leaving. I didn’t tell her where we were going, because I didn’t have a clue where we would end up. And I wouldn’t have told her anyway.
As soon as Melo pulled up, I threw my bag of stuff in the backseat and jumped in. I was just settling in, rocking out to the music and excited to be getting out of town. But then a weird thing happened. We didn’t get very far, when Melo pulled off the freeway and pulled into the parking lot of a hotel where we’d been many times before. What?! I thought we were going on a trip. Now here we were at this old, yucky hotel.
Melo told me to wait in the car while he paid for the room. He came out of the little office, turned toward the car, and called out the room number. I knew I was supposed to wait a few minutes and then go up to that room. I did what I knew was expected of me, but what was different this time was that when I opened the door to that room, Melo wasn’t there. There were three big, scary looking guys all in there waiting for me.
I must have looked confused as I looked around and didn’t see Carmelo. But before I could even ask where Carmelo was or what was going on, the guy closest to the door jumped up, slammed the door, and locked it. One of the guys was smiling at me—a totally creepy smile. I asked what was going on, and one of the guys looked up from the phone he was staring at and turned the phone around. I stopped breathing for a minute when I saw what he’d been looking at.
My stomach dropped when I realized that he was looking at a picture of me totally naked. He had one of the pictures I had sent to Carmelo. And before I could say a word, he started flipping through other pictures…of me. One after the next, all the pictures I’d ever taken for Carmelo, and the ones I’d let him take of me, were all on this guy’s phone. I couldn’t say anything, and I felt like I was going to throw up. Then another guy pulled out his phone, and I saw that the home screen on his phone was of ME. He flipped to one picture that Carmelo had taken and said, “This is what I want—now.” And when he said the word “NOW,” he put his big hand on the top of my head and pushed me down on the bed.
Before I could even wrap my mind around what was happening to me, those guys were holding me down and hurting me. I guess at some point during it all, I kind of blanked out. I remember looking up out the dirty window at the gray sky. I remember thinking that nobody knew where I was, nobody was going to help me, and the only person who I thought cared about me was the one who had arranged for all this to happen.
I don’t have any idea how much time went by, but it must have been hours later when the door opened and Melo walked in. I was staring straight ahead, curled up in the chair in the corner with just the sheet from the bed wrapped around me. I didn’t move when he walked in. I didn’t speak. I just sat there. There was a lot going on in my head, but I couldn’t say or do anything. It was like I was paralyzed or something.
Melo walked over to me and put his arm around my shoulder. He told me I’d done a good job with those guys. “A good job?!” I still couldn’t say anything. I just looked at him. He was telling me how those guys had paid good money for what they got, and how he thought I was going to be great at helping to support the family. “The family?!” I still couldn’t say anything.
Then a lady walked in. She looked about Melo’s age. She was really skinny, wearing a really tight, clingy dress and four-inch heels. She wore a lot of makeup, and her hair was long and curly; she looked like a model. Melo told her to clean me up and teach me how to make some real money. But I could tell from the minute she walked in the room that she didn’t like me. I learned later that she was Melo’s main girl—not me. Since she was his main girl, she was in charge of all the other girls. In “the family,” she was called the “Bottom B—-.” And I could tell right away that she didn’t like it that Melo had been spending so much time with me.
Then, without saying another word, Melo left. “Chile,” the Bottom B, grabbed me by the hair and dragged me into the bathroom. She turned on the water and threw me in the shower. She told me to get cleaned up in a hurry because it was about time I started earning some money for the family. She had this big bag of makeup that she left on the counter of the bathroom and told me to fix myself up—and to be ready in 20 minutes. Then she left.
My brain was finally starting to come out of the fog, and I was thinking about ways to get out. If I walked out the front door, she might see me. I was on the fourth floor of the grungy, old hotel, so it was too far up to try to climb out the window. I thought that maybe I could find a back door somewhere in the hotel, and then just start running—to where I didn’t know because I didn’t know exactly where I was. But I knew I couldn’t get very far because I could barely walk. I was in so much pain, and I was still bleeding a little.
When I was almost done putting on the makeup she’d left, standing in the bathroom with a towel wrapped around me, I heard the hotel door open. I looked out of the bathroom door hoping to see Melo. I wanted him to tell me what was going on, but I was shocked to see two more guys walking in. I closed and locked the bathroom door and stood there, again feeling like I was going to throw up. How could this be happening?
Those guys started calling me to come out of the bathroom. They were calling my name—“They know my name too?” Pretty soon they started sounding mad. I still couldn’t make myself say anything. I wanted to tell them to leave, but I just couldn’t talk. One of them started pounding on the door. I didn’t know what to do. I was so scared. I didn’t want to open the door, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn’t open the door. So, I opened the door and stepped out of the bathroom.
When those two guys left, Chile came back in. She started screaming at me and hitting me, saying I hadn’t given those guys all they had paid for. I was in pain. I was bleeding. I don’t know what I was supposed to do. I had come out of the bathroom—I didn’t know what else she expected me to do. She was screaming that I was supposed to act like I liked it. She told me how mad Melo was going to be and that if I thought she was mean, just wait for what Melo was going to do to me. It was like a nightmare. I kept thinking that maybe I would wake up and this would all be a bad dream. She kept hitting me, and when I reached out to block one of her hits, she grabbed my arm and dug her long, pointed nails so far into my skin that my arm started to bleed.
Just about that time, two more girls came in. One of them had been beaten up so badly that her eye was swollen shut. The whole side of her face was swollen and messed up. She just stood by the wall looking down, but the other girl had a belt that had pointy metal things coming out of it. She wrapped the belt around her hand and started hitting me with it. It hurt so bad every time she hit me. I was crying and screaming for her to stop. Chile finally told her to stop. Chile and the girl with the belt left, but the one who’d been standing by the door stayed in the room with me. She sat down on the bed and asked me how I felt.
I just started crying. Finally someone cared about how I felt. She told me how her face had gotten messed up. She missed her period, and Carmelo and Chile had beaten her up because now she was going to cost them time and money. They were taking her to Planned Parenthood for an abortion the next day; she said that all the girls go there because they don’t ask any questions. Chile and Melo told her that she was supposed to make sure that I didn’t leave the room. Melo told her that being a “guard dog” was all she was good for—at least for a while.
I mostly listened while she talked about “the family.” There were nine of us in the family. Melo was so much better than a lot of the other “boyfriends” she’d had. Melo didn’t beat anybody up for no reason—when we got beat up, we deserved it because we’d done something wrong or hadn’t done enough to help the family. She said that at least Melo gives us what we need and makes sure that the guys don’t hurt us too badly. I was having trouble paying attention to what she was saying because I kept thinking that this was all crazy—Melo was my boyfriend, not hers or anyone else’s. Sure, I’d known there were other girls, but I was his real girlfriend. But as I listened to this girl, whose only open eye seemed to dart around the room like she was all jumpy, I began to realize that I’d been tricked.
I must have fallen asleep at some point while she was talking because when I woke up, the room was dark and she wasn’t there. My stomach was growling, and I realized I hadn’t eaten anything in a long time. I started opening up the few drawers in the grungy little room to see if anyone had maybe left something that I could eat. I wanted to get dressed, but the bag that had my clothes in it was gone. The makeup was gone too.
I looked out the window and had a weird feeling. As I watched the occasional car go by and saw a couple of people talking on the corner down the street, I realized that the world had gone on. The Earth was still turning; people were still out there going to and from work; and nothing had stopped just because of what was happening to me. I wondered if my mom had seen my note. I wondered if she was worried about me. I wondered if maybe she had called the police and asked them to start looking for me. Probably not. Mom probably just figured I would eventually come back and then went on to work. What could she do anyway? She didn’t know where I usually hung out or who my friends were. None of my friends would have any idea where I was. Melo had told me to never tell any of my friends where he and I went, so I never had. In fact, some of my friends didn’t even like me anymore. They didn’t invite me to go with them anymore because they said that I never wanted to do anything with them anymore. Melo was my whole life.
I guess a couple hours went by as I sat there in the dark just staring out the window. Then I heard a key in the door. It was Melo. Right away I could smell that he had food with him. He threw the bag on the bed, and I tore into it. I nearly inhaled that hamburger and fries. Melo told me that now that I was a part of the family, I had a responsibility to earn my keep. I had to earn $500 a day. And if the guys I was with gave me any money directly, I had to turn it over to him or Chile right away. Under no circumstances was I to keep even $1 of the money I earned. He would buy everything I needed, and he would take care of me to make sure that nobody ever hurt me. This sounded more like the old Melo.
I told Melo that it was painful and that I was scared. I was hurt that he had shared my pictures with strangers, but I didn’t tell him that. I didn’t want him to get mad at me. As he pulled a pill bottle out of his pocket, he told me that he had something for me that would take the pain away. He poured out a few pills and put them on the nightstand. He handed me two of the pills and told me to take them now, which I did.
Melo didn’t stay long after that, but before he left, he laid out all the ground rules. Before I could see him again, I had to earn $5,000. That was more money than I’d ever seen. I didn’t know how it would be possible, but I was willing to try. I wanted him to love me and be proud of me. Not long after the door closed, I must have passed out.
More guys showed up. Chile came by with some things she wanted me to wear that she said would help me make more money. Some of the other girls came by to tell me how to make good tips. Some of the guys wanted rough, weird stuff. Some of them just seemed like sad, lonely guys who just wanted to be with someone—anyone. Some of them showed me kinky stuff on their phone and asked me to do that. I don’t know how many days went by because I quit keeping track of the days and nights. I tried to keep track of the money, but it was hard to do since they had all paid before they came up to the room. Finally Melo showed up and told me to get dressed and come with him.
I thought I was finally getting out of this dirty place, but all Melo did was move me from one yucky hotel to another. He said that we had to move every so many days to make sure that the cops didn’t find us and ruin everything. I thought that at least the view out of the window might be better, but the view out of the window of the new place was the brick building next door. It was worse.
Living the Life
In order to push through the pain and keep doing what these guys wanted, I kept taking whatever pills Melo left for me. When there were no paying customers, Chile came by and told me to get dressed; she’d take me in the car with the other girls to get some “paying customers.” We’d walk around showing as much skin as possible. When a guy would stop, we each would try to persuade him to pick us. We were all part of the same family, but we were all in a weird kind of competition. We all wanted to prove to Melo that we were the most valuable girl in the stable.
One night when we were walking on one of our “regular” streets, a van pulled up. The woman in the passenger seat reached out with a little gift bag in her hand. I was afraid to take it, but she smiled and said, “Here, take it. I want you to have it.” I took the bag and slowly opened it. There was a little shampoo bottle, a little bottle of fingernail polish, and a ring with a big, fake stone in it like a little girl would wear to dress up. And there was a note. I pulled the note out and read it. It said, “I want to help you. If you want to leave, meet me at the corner by the liquor store next Friday night at 12:30 a.m.”
When I looked up, the van was gone. I watched the tail lights fade away. Just a few seconds later, while I was still standing there, Melo drove up with Chile in the passenger seat of the Camaro—the seat where I used to sit.
Chile jumped out of the car, ripped the little gift bag out of my hands, and yelled at me to get in the back. Melo drove like a race car driver to the hotel, yanked me out of the back, and nearly dragged me into the room. They both began pounding their fists into me and yelling about not talking to anyone. I was trying to tell them that I didn’t talk to anybody, but they wouldn’t listen. While he was hitting me, Melo was screaming about me being his and how he better never see me talking to anyone like that ever again. To make sure I was paying attention, he was going to leave me something to remember this conversation by. He took out his knife and sliced a line about an inch long right next to my left eye.
The next time I saw that van, I took off the other way. I didn’t look in that direction, and I told the other girls not to either. Those people were responsible for the ugly, infected scar on my face. There was no way I was ever letting them get near me again to take me away. Besides, take me away to what? My mom didn’t care about me; she probably hadn’t even tried to find me. My friends had moved on. And nobody at school missed me. This was my life now. This was my family. This is where I belonged. All of us girls were like sisters. Finally I wasn’t alone anymore. We shared clothes, shoes, and makeup. In the mornings, after a busy night, we’d all hang out in one of the hotel rooms and talk about some of the stupid guys from the night before. If I ran out of pills, one of the other girls would give me some of hers. We took care of each other.
Everything was going along OK. It wasn’t a great life, and it wasn’t glamorous like what was in the movies; but hey, a couple of my mom’s boyfriends had tried to take what they wanted for free. At least now I was getting paid.
The guy who changed everything turned on the light when he walked through the hotel room door. He stopped when he turned around, and he really got a good look at my face for the first time. He said, “Uh, you’re so young…” He just stood there, like he was having second thoughts about the whole thing. He seemed like he didn’t know what to do. I told him that it was OK, but that he’d already paid and there were no refunds.
He sat down on the bed, but when I started to take off my clothes, he told me to stop. He said it wasn’t right and that I was better than this. I looked down as I was trying to put my clothes back on. But when I didn’t hear anything more—he had stopped talking in mid-sentence—I looked back up. I was shocked to see tears rolling down his face.
The guy said that he wanted to help me get out of here. That he could take me away right now. I just stood there; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was thinking, “Mister, you have no idea what you’re talking about. You’re going to get us both killed.” When he reached for his wallet, I thought he was going to give me a tip and leave, but he pulled out a card. Written on the card was this information about Freedom Place: “Between 100,000 and 300,000 kids are sex slaves in the US. The average age of a sex slave is 12 or 13. (I had just turned 14.) Freedom Place is a residential center for rescued trafficking victims.”
I stood there holding the card and thinking about what it said. I’d never thought of myself as a slave. Slaves were from a long time ago. There were no slaves now. Then the man said, “You don’t have to live like this. There is a purpose for your life. I want to take you to Freedom Place. They’ll take care of you. You can live there and go to school and have a good life.” I wanted to say something, but nothing would come out. I just wanted him to do what he’d paid for and leave. I realized that time was going by and that Chile would be checking up on me soon. If this guy didn’t leave soon, I was going to get beaten again.
The man started talking again, telling me about the girls at Freedom Place who are just like me. He said that the staff at Freedom Place is great, and that there are people who have lived through the hell I’m living and who know how to help me. I don’t know what came over me or why I believed this guy, but without ever saying a word, I just reached for the door and opened it. He jumped up and walked me right out into his car. I could have been going from bad to worse. I really didn’t know if this guy was a murderer or the good guy he claimed to be. I guess it was because of the card that I was still holding that I followed.
By the time I got to Freedom Place, I was completely addicted to drugs. I was afraid those people would judge me and want to kick me out. But instead they helped me to overcome my addiction to drugs and told me that I was worth the effort. I was so miserable, and they took care of me. I had panic attacks because I needed the drugs so badly. But they patiently helped me through every minute with individual therapy and group therapy every day.
I went to school every day. We had Bible study every afternoon, and every night we had a different activity. On the weekends we would go to the movies or to the zoo. There were people who taught us how to ride horses and how to take care of them. And every Sunday we’d go to church.
The therapy helped me overcome the fears I had of Carmelo coming to find me. Everyone told me how safe we were at Freedom Place and that no one could get to us. I wanted to believe it, but after all I’d been through, it was hard to do. When Carmelo was arrested, my therapist showed me the newspaper article. And when it came time for his sentencing hearing, they drove me to the hearing. I got to watch the judge put Melo in jail. It was then that I finally began to believe that I was safe. More importantly, I realized, sitting there in that courtroom, that the whole time I’d been at Freedom Place, I actually felt guilty that I wasn’t back there on the street with the other girls, helping to support the family. Seeing Carmelo hauled off to serve prison time helped me believe that he really had been wrong and that it really was OK for me to be free from him.
There are lots of girls who are out there on the streets, alone and needing help. They seem to be out there at younger and younger ages. Human trafficking is a big operation right here in the United States and too many people are blinded to its reality. The girls living that life need someone to listen, someone to love them, and someone to care enough about them to help them change their lives. That’s what Freedom Place does.
My life will never be what it once was. I’ll never be a child again. I’ll never be innocent again. I’ve seen things that most people never see—and never should see or experience. But I have a new normal. I have a good life. And I have hope for my future. What I’ve been through has made me a strong, resilient person. The most important thing is, I’M FREE.
(This story is the compilation of the stories of girls who were rescued from child sex trafficking. Freedom Place is a real place in Texas that receives no government funding. To help the rescued victims, go to www.freedomplaceus.org.)
This was the most difficult article I’ve ever written. I prefer to talk about hope-filled futures and strength-leveraged success. But until we begin to take an honest look at what’s really happening to children, typically within a 30-minute drive of wherever we live in the US, we’ll never eradicate this heinous crime. There was much more I could have told, but if I had, you wouldn’t be able to sleep tonight. –Rhonda Sciortino, Author