BUFFALO, N.Y. — No doubt, when you hear the term “sex trafficking” or “sex worker” you probably have an image of a certain type of girl. And although it's true that girls in the foster care system are the most at risk, experts now say girls in the Suburbs and even rural areas are more vulnerable than ever. And that is Jessika's story.
2 On Your Side's Maryalice Demler sat down with her mother recently. Nacole S. was in Buffalo to take part in a fundraiser for Mona’s House; a residence in the Queen City which helps victims of sex trafficking recover from their unique and complicated trauma. Demler asked her to share her family’s story.
"In 2009, we were living the American dream. We had three beautiful children who were all successful in school."
Nacole and her husband of almost 20 years were raising their son and two daughters in a suburb outside Seattle, Washington.
"My youngest was 15. She was in the orchestra and played the violin. She played both varsity and junior varsity soccer at her high school as well as on a travelling rec team."
Jessika was a confident honor student who was involved in music and sports at her high school. She seemed like a friendly, outgoing, good-natured teenager. So I asked Nacole if she was a happy kid or was she troubled? Was there anything she was struggling with personally?
Nacole claims there were no red flags that told her that trouble was on the horizon. Their life was just normal.
That was until March of 2010, when one day after school a friend handed Nacole a letter from Jessika.
"This letter was a five page, beautifully written letter explaining, in her words, that 'she needed to go find herself.’ And if we loved her we wouldn't go search for her. And she would be back."
While Nacole set about calling police and reporting her missing, Jessika made her way to a homeless shelter for teenagers in Seattle where she met a young woman who quickly offered to be Jessika’s friend.
"And told my daughter, 'look, you're out of the house, you have no rules. Let's go get drunk. Have you ever gotten drunk?” (No, she had never gotten drunk.) ‘We can stay up until midnight, we can smoke pot, we can do all these things that she had never experienced."
And this new so-called friend, in a matter of just days, began grooming the naive 15-year-old into the very dark world of child sex trafficking. She was raped, held captive in a basement and made to walk the streets of Seattle.
Jessika eventually managed to escape. And when police returned her to Nacole ten days later she didn't recognize her own daughter.
“Everything about her had changed. She had long brown flowing hair when she left and now it is very short and choppy and red. Her nails are done, she had on makeup."
And the shock and awe did not end there. Jessika did not want to prosecute the people who held her and she didn't want to talk about her ordeal. Secretly, she was staying in contact with her traffickers by cell phone. And two months later, Jessika disappeared again. She was gone for 47 days when Nacole got a phone call from Jess on her birthday.
"She told me that she was being hurt and that we wouldn't want her anymore... that she was a bad daughter."
I asked Nacole if that was something the trafficker was telling her…an idea that someone was putting into Jessika’s head? Her response is that those are the types of things traffickers tell their victims to keep them.
“And it’s one of those lies that a young child is told and unfortunately believes.”
Nacole said he phone call was bittersweet because she knew her daughter was alive and up until then she didn’t know whether she was alive. But Jessika was being hurt and she couldn’t help."
But that phone call did help. And also an email that Jessika sent later allowed police to track her down and set up a sting, using a now-defunct website called Backpage.com, which was known for selling underage girls.
After 108 days as a sex trafficking victim, Jessika was recovered by police and returned to her parents.
"We really needed professional help and I worked very tirelessly to find it. It is not an easy road to recover a child or a family that has been through this tragedy. But somehow we have managed to put most of the pieces back together, by the grace of God. It's become a miracle.".