Periodically, I want to present people who are following Jesus but take a path different from mine or yours. This week I sat down with Kyla Conlee, a woman of guts and grit, to delve deeper into the epidemic problem of sex trafficking here in the United States. Warning: Because of the nature of the subject this post includes the honest and brutal realities of working on the front line of sex trafficking.
Tell us a little about yourself.
KC: I grew up in a strong Christian home in Jackson, Mississippi where my dad was a full-time police officer and President of the Mississippi Right to Life. The doctors encouraged my parents to terminate their first pregnancy after discovering my sister had spina bifida. They did not and that one decision influenced my dad for life.
He would frequently bring young, pregnant girls to our house for a safe place to live until the baby was born. Back then parents would kick their daughter out of the house if she got pregnant before marriage. I witnessed this everyday mission field right in my own backyard.
When I turned 18, I moved to Nashville and helped develop a young adult worship service called Kairos. The Kairos ministry was traveling to Los Angeles to work with the homeless and wanted me to go along. They said they would pay so I went! When I came back God flipped my heart upside down and inside out. Six months later, I moved to LA. I thought I’d be working with the homeless, but they assigned me to a Safe House living with victims of human trafficking.
The first girl I met was sexually abused by her dad at five years old then he started selling her to other men. At age 10, she was sold to a pimp for $2000. She was 42 by the time I came and still had a copy of the contract between her dad and the pimp. She had been enslaved in the business for 30 years!
The pimp would lock her in cages and read scripture over her but put his name in place of God’s: “I, Tony, will never leave you nor forsake you.” She finally got away from him.
It’s hard for these women to leave their abuser, though. She had an attachment to him even though he was violent. She really believed she loved him and he loved her. It was the only kind of love she had ever known.
What is success for these girls?
KC: Every day a girl stays out of this life is considered success. A girl called one day to talk and recall the time she tried to kill herself. I remembered walking into a bloody scene, the ambulance ride, and trying to sleep on a hard hospital chair. But she remembered me singing Amazing Grace over her in the hospital bed. She just wanted to say thank you. This is a form of success. She is no longer enslaved but is divorced with children and working as a bartender. That may not look like success to you or me but it is for the victim now survivor.
What is the usual profile for these girls?
KC: Pimps prey on girls with low self-esteem. Typically, the girl has endured incest in the home where the provider/protector turns and preys on the child instead. The pimps are taught to prey on those with vulnerabilities. A Romeo pimp will come in and sweep the girl off her feet and becomes the boyfriend she never had. She becomes loyal to him. Later, she realizes she’s been duped.
One girl from a small town in Alabama met a guy online. He wooed her by sending pictures of engagement rings, flew her out to LA, and slept with her. She thought she was going to dinner afterwards, but he quickly turned and told her everything she needed to do with other men that evening.
What is a typical day for you?
KC: When I worked in Los Angeles there was no typical day. Besides the safe house, we visited the emergency center 30-60 minutes away, responded to calls 24 hours a day, attended court, helped with rescues or interviewed with the police. But every week we’d spend 15 hours of outreach with the girls on the streets of Orange County and Los Angeles.
The traffickers had an organized system called “The Game” or “The Life.” We would drive into the area and observe their game and the lingo. Johns purchase the girls for a sex act. Pimps own the girls. Even the girls have a pecking order. The girl who is closest to the pimp is called the “Bottom” and she gets special privileges like cigarettes.
On the weekends, we would sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic with all the other John cars. When it was our turn we’d pull up and talk to the girls. They told us it made them feel bad when people came out and prayed for them, so we’d give them gifts bags of feminine wipes, candy, hand sanitizer, and lip gloss with our phone number on it. Because we were nice they called us the church ladies. Some would later call to talk or ask for money. Sometimes a girl would call if she was beaten and hiding away from her pimp.
One girl who was beaten called from a bathroom in a Big Lots. We called the store manager and LAPD, but she disappeared. Sometimes the girls called back later and let us know they were okay. Rarely, did we call the police, though. The minute a girl turned 18 she was considered a criminal. It was then her responsibility to tell the officer she was a victim. This rarely happened, though, because the average age to entry in “the life” in the United States is 12-13. By the time they were 18 they’d had a long history with law enforcement, and it was not good.
However, police are starting to take a victim-centered approach. Instead of arresting them, they are now asking if they need help.
Currently, I’m writing policies and procedures and setting up a Safe House for the Salvation Army office in Washington D.C. We will open on April 1 this year.
What can the passerby look for that should cause red flags?
KC: A girl who was once poor may all of a sudden appear with new shoes, makeup, or designer clothes. Pimps will brand their girls with a tattoo. It was popular in LA to get tattoos on the face or neck. If the tattoo had the word “Daddy” or a crown (pimps see themselves as king), that was a red flag.
If you have any suspicion, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center at 1-888-737-3888 and give them the information.
What about the Johns and pimps? How do they get into this horrific business?
KC: It is interesting to note that the only known purchasers of sex are males. This issue begins and only ends in the hearts of men. Many Johns consider sex a hobby and would rather pay for it than have an emotional attachment or relationship with a woman. Pimps can come from very wealthy backgrounds or grow up in the hood where the people around him made money trafficking.
What is a usual day for a girl in sex trafficking?
KC: Anything. They get moved around from state to state typically living in cars and hotels. When a girl starts out, the pimp gives her a dollar quota to meet each day. If she makes the quota easily, the pimp ups the quota. The girls become street savvy and learn to work slow.
One time I discovered a McDonalds near Disneyland was fronting as a sex trafficking business. Men would go around the drive-through and call out the girl they wanted. A girl would then come out the back door by the restrooms. I stormed that restaurant one day and talked to the girls in the restroom. I called everyone I could think of to stop the madness but nothing ever happened.
What does it take to get girls out of sex trafficking?
KC: Nothing you or I can do will get them out. It’s a choice they have to make–even if they are kidnapped or forced. Because the girls I worked with were 18 or older they were considered an adult. It’s hard for them to leave the only life they have ever known. Emergency shelters provide a safe place for a couple of days so they can decide, yes, I am ready to learn about the opportunities outside of trafficking.
One girl who had been in the long-term program two or three times, sat in my office after she had been brutally raped, her pinky dangling, beaten, exhausted and pregnant. This was life or death for her. I told her, “It’s time for you to leave LA, at least for a time. If you don’t, you aren’t going to live much longer.”
She’d been in this life since age 12 but she was 19 or 20 by this time. Previously, her pimp had pushed her in the street and she was hit by a car. The doctors inserted metal rods and staples up her leg, but her pimp made her work. She never had the staples removed so infection set in. She healed then went back out again. I sat with her in my office for 16 hours the last time she came in trying to convince her to leave. Finally, she agreed to get in a program in Alabama (because she had seen the movie Sweet Home Alabama).
What can we do to help support the efforts to stop sex trafficking?
KC: Even with the awareness, the problem has grown more challenging because of websites such as Backpage.com. You can call your senator and urge them to vote for the “Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act of 2017” which will crack down on these websites.
Look for a local task force or coalition on sex trafficking in your area. Be warned, though, this population is not easy to work with. Because they have been manipulated they’ve learned the art of manipulation.
The Salvation Army provides Kyla a small salary which she supplements through donations from concerned citizens like you. If you are able to support Kyla, click here.