By Jenny Seo
“I was in terror. This was basically all that I was fearing,” says Glendene Grant, the mom of Jessica Foster, an alleged sex-trafficked victim who has yet to be traced since March 2006. Jessica Foster was born in British Columbia, Canada, grew up in a normal family, had many friends, and it was not until she met Donald Vaz, a suspected trafficker, during high school when her life started to take a toll for the unexpected.
It’s always glitz and glamour in the beginning. At age 17, Jessica went on all-expense paid trips to Florida and New York City after befriending Vaz. Despite her parents’ plea to stay in Canada, Jessica followed her friends to Las Vegas and eventually ended up never leaving. At age 21, she met her “fiancé” Peter Todd in Las Vegas and moved in to live with him. In March 2006, traces of Foster disappeared completely. Grant, Jessica’s mom, believes that her daughter was sex-trafficked.
“Nobody invites someone on a trip paying for everything and buying her gifts left and right without some kind of motive,” says Grant. Grant believes that these men were grooming her through “love-bombing” since she was 17.
Love-bombing is the deliberate show of affection towards an individual or a group. Many assert that this action is used for the desire to recruit and gain trust in people. This is one of the effective tactics in luring girls into modern day human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the illegal trade in human beings for the purposes of forced labor, sexual exploitation, involuntary servitude and other forms of modern-day slavery. Human trafficking tends to be associated with third world and poverty-stricken countries, but it is seemingly becoming more prevalent in the United States as well. It is estimated that 14,5000 to 17,500 people, primarily women and children, are trafficked to the United States annually.
Ana (a pseudo-name used as she declined to reveal her real identity) was a victim of love-bombing and its coercion into human sex trafficking. Ana is in her early 20s. She grew up in the Dominican Republic and she came from a decent middle-class family. Working in hospitality while taking classes at a local college, Ana met her husband in her teenage years. Ana has not given a name to her husband. Her husband and she were madly in love, she says. Ana mentions how her husband took her on dates, bought many gifts for her, and lavished her with attention.
Ana says her husband moved to the states right after their marriage to find better a paying job. He agreed to let her attend school in the states, as long as she agreed to move with him in the coming months. Like Jessica, Ana followed her husband to the United States, guided by love and hope. However, Ana never enrolled in school.
“My entire world shattered when I realized what was going on. I kept asking myself if this was a dream,” says Ana. “He made a promise to me … he made a promise to protect and love me.” Ana was trafficked by her own husband, who forced her into exploitation as soon as she moved to the United States. It was all a ploy.
After resisting to prostitute herself, she was beaten and raped repeatedly by her now ex-husband and other men running the trafficking circle, until she complied. “He told me that I needed to make money because he brought me here to the United States with him and if I wanted to do what was right, I would do this and make money,” Ana explains. She has not given further details beyond this.
Grant also described how the love-bombing process worked. “They always do the boyfriend routine, make you fall in love very quickly to earn your trust by treating you like a princess. Then all of a sudden, they flick a switch and then he’s like, you owe me. If you love me like you say you do, you would do this for me,” says Grant.
It was in late 2010 when Ana was arrested by police and allegedly charged on accounts of prostitution. Fortunately, Ana found help with Restore NYC, a not-for-profit organization that helps human trafficking victims in New York. Restore NYC has connections with various courts in Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn, having the strongest tie with Queens Criminal Court. A typical case involves a woman being arrested on prostitution charges, then being brought before the judge.
The judge on average gives the woman an alternative to incarceration or community service, which is having sessions with Restore. Through these sessions, Restore says 98% of the women were trafficked.
“It’s really sad because the majority of these women are frequently beaten or isolated. A lot of these women are ‘broken’ until they say they are ready to sell themselves,” says Gabrielle Tang, a Policy staff member for Restore NYC. “Our vision is to provide safe housing for these women along with counseling and other forms of economic empowerment, visas, legal assistance, medical assistance, and counseling,”
When Ana first started sessions with Restore NYC, it was noted that she slept all days for days on end, was depressed, and contemplated suicide, say workers at the safe house (the name is confidential for victim protection) she was staying at.
A complex issue that arises for these women is that many either lack in English language skills or have no one to turn to, which is why many turn back to prostitution as a means of getting by. “They will go back into prostitution because they don’t know anyone in the states, have no support, and the only person “taking care” of them are their traffickers,” notes Tang.
Grant also believes that her daughter Jessica was purposely isolated as well. “Jessie was lured in by love. I can only imagine that they used guilt to have her repay what she ‘owed’ them,” says Grant. “She was moved to be far away from her family and friends. This was all part of their plan.”
Many traffickers use guilt as isolation and manipulation to drive these women into selling themselves. “A lot of people are smuggled over into America and because they have been smuggled, the smugglers and traffickers tell these people that they need to sell their bodies in order to repay their debts,” says Tang.
In 2010, the United States included itself as a problem country in the Trafficking and Humans report published by he U.S. Department of State. “Education is one step towards fighting this crime, and many Americans are oblivious to what’s happening right under their noses,” says Grant. Among the few in power, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton is making efforts to combat human trafficking. Last year, she released the State Department’s 10th annual review of efforts to combat human trafficking.
At present, Glendene Grant is actively fighting to educate people about human trafficking in addition to telling Jessica’s story. “Awareness needs to be accounted for. We need to educate people that this doesn’t just happen in the movies. My daughter was taken away from what she thought was love,” says Grant.
After receiving counseling services from Restore, Ana has improved spirits, with a focus in her life moving forward notes Tang. She is awaiting her work permit and is excited to work and experience the freedom that her ex-husband never gave her in the States. Though Ana has not been in the States very long, she is picking up English very quickly and will enroll in ESL classes with the help of Restore.