Grounds for Justice for Lost Girls
Sixteen-year-old Lilly is perched uneasily on a grimy barstool 300 miles away from home. It’s the sixth city she and her female “friend” Val have visited so far this year. Cruising around the sticky floor and smoky haze of the room, Val searches and finds a man eager to assault Lilly in exchange for money. A little scared and numb from the lifestyle, Lilly does as Val says, night after night, day after day.
It wasn’t always like this. Although her relationship with her mother grew increasingly difficult over the years, Lilly once had dreams of doing great things with her life. Somewhere along the way she lost sight of that amid the peer pressure and shaky family and community support systems and the odds of a good life got slimmer.
By the time Val approached her and promised to take care of her, she was in dire need of love and attention and followed along with whatever Val wanted her to do. In a very distorted way, Val became a mother figure to Lilly, providing her with food and a place to live, and fed a growing addiction to crystal meth.
Lilly’s story is a true account of human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery, occurring in Northeast Texas. It’s a horrendous practice by people finding a way to make money at the expense of other people — often children — and becoming increasingly pervasive in the region.
“It is the buying and selling of a person,” said Missy Zivney, co-founder of Tyler’s anti-human trafficking organization, Refuge of Light.
“Child sex trafficking is very prevalent in Northeast Texas,” Zivney said. “This is something that’s going on at every one of our hotels here, and it’s not just women that are 18 and older. These are children who are not being identified. They have fallen through the cracks.”
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center there were more than 5,000 cases reported in 2014 with Texas having the second-highest number of incidents by state just behind California. The organization’s hotline received more than 21,000 phone calls and there are thousands more incidents that go unreported each year.
As Zivney began to learn more about this problem and discuss it with her parents, they decided to form an organization to try to help victims of human trafficking and in 2010 they soon established a long-term safe home – Refuge of Light -- to provide physical, mental, and spiritual healing to victimized girls under age 18.
“The Lord just impressed upon us that we needed to formulate a non-profit, Refuge of Light,” Zivney said. “If a child has made an outcry, if there’s indicating factors that are just stacked up so that we believe that this child has been trafficked, we take the steps to provide the resources for healing, provide the resources for a placement. That’s our focus.”
Human trafficking largely affects disadvantaged children who are runaways, are in Child Protective Services programs or are in the foster care system. However, this tragedy can harm all people across any demographic.
“There can be kids that come from very well-to-do families that are disadvantaged just because of the demographics in the home,” Zivney said. “Across the board, it reaches all demographics.”
Shockingly, it’s often the families that are responsible for leading their own children into the lifestyle.
“Honestly, what we see more of here in East Texas is children who are in their own homes that are either being sold by their mother or their fatherr,” Zivney said.
Other situations where children are pulled in to lives of forced prostitution happen in a variety of ways.
“What (traffickers) do is they start finding ways to position themselves in this child’s life,” Zivney said. “All they have to do is hang out around the places where these kids surface. They start noticing patterns, they start noticing that this kid’s by themself all the time or this kid’s wearing the same clothes two or three days in a row. Then they start this process of befriending them, winning their trust, luring them in.”
The Internet is a hotbed for human trafficking predators. They friend teens and watch for signs of any problems and then swoop in to “save the day.” In one case in North Texas, 14-year-old Hope had an argument with her mother. She posted “I hate my mother” on social media and within seconds a woman messaged her and said Hope could stay with her and they’d have fun together. The woman then showed up at Hope’s house and picked her up. From there they went straight to a motel and Hope was assaulted that night and the woman and her male accomplice took her to Amarillo and out of state where she was assaulted by roughly 30 men for money in just a few days. They also photographed her and posted those pictures online to solicit people to have sex with her for money.
Hope was rescued after about three weeks and her captors are now in prison. She has a long way to go before she heals from this trauma and has a chance to build a good life.
Zivney knows this story all to well.
“(The female traffickers) realize there’s a breakdown in the family, they step in, and they’re going to be the hero,” she said. “They say, ‘I’m going to take care of you, I’m going to bring you into my home.’ And then, the next thing we know, they’re taking them from bar to bar all across the state of Texas and they’re selling these girls.”
Tess was another child who experienced a breakdown in her family and eventually found her way to Refuge of Light. Her trafficker was her own mother, a drug addict, who sold her daughter’s body to fuel her addiction. Subsequently Tess had unimaginable things done to her just short of murder. She was ultimately arrested for a crime she did not commit and lived in a constant state of survival mode at just 15 years old.
These are just a couple of girls Refuge of Light is helping to gain self-esteem and move forward to building better lives for themselves.
To support the endeavors of Refuge of Light and the SafeHome, Zivney opened Grounds for Justice coffee shop February 14, 2014, at 2318 E. Fifth Street in Tyler.
Besides good coffee, tea, and gift items Grounds For Justice also contains a research center so the public may educate themselves about how to stop sex trafficking.
There are a few key factors to look for when suspicious that a girl is in trouble.
“Probably their conversations with their friends are a little bit older and definitely more sexually-oriented,” Zivney said. “They talk of a boyfriend who’s 10-plus (years) older than them. ‘Are these kids showing up with new purses? Are they showing up with things that you know that their parents can’t physically buy them, and they don’t have the means to do that?’ Immediately, that’s a red flag. I would just tell people to report, report, report. What does it hurt for you to call a hotline number if you have a suspicion about something? You could save a child’s life.”
To report a potential child sex trafficking case, call the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, 800-THELOST or report online at missingkids.com. To help at-risk youth before they may be preyed upon educate them not to reveal personal information on social media and encourage them to ask for help. Grounds for Justice offers counseling and mentoring services.
For more information on how to support Refuge of Light and help girls like Lilly and Tess, visit refugeoflight.org and visit Grounds For Justice in Tyler.
*The accounts in this article are about actual victims and traffickers. Names are changed for the victims’ privacy and protection.
Healing Unchained — Human Trafficking (viewer discretion)