Illustration | Laura Mattei
BY LYNN OLDSHUE/LYNN.OLDSHUE@GMAIL.COM
Rachel Cain was crowned “Baby Miss Alabama” and “Dixie Sweetheart,” winning 48 trophies in beauty pageants by the age of eight. She dreamed of being a dancer or an actress, not a stripper.
Life went downhill for Rachel as she was winning crowns and titles. Her father started molesting her when she was 5 years old and her mind blocked most memories — the good and the horrific. Photographs of a smiling child in pretty dresses are the only reminders of the child she was and the girl she could have been.
Rachel’s parents divorced when she was 5. Unable to protect herself or her younger sister and brother, the sexual abuse continued during her father’s visitations. Rachel was powerless against the man who was supposed to protect his family and a mother who refused to listen. She tried to numb the pain, and became addicted to drugs by the seventh grade.
“The abuse went on for six years,” she said. “Did my father think of the hell he would put me through for the rest of my life? This is not a victimless crime.”
It was a crime without punishment or rehabilitation for her father, who also raped her mother and their 18-year-old neighbor. Rachel believes he had many more victims in Mobile because “a man who abuses his own children will abuse someone else’s.”
“Pedophiles and predators get away with this because no one speaks up,” she said. “Shame and humiliation silence victims. I didn’t share my story until two years ago because I thought no one would understand.”
Filled with anger toward her parents and rage at the world, Rachel was labeled a bad kid and often ran away from home. She describes herself as a mean teenager who “raised hell” at school and adolescent centers, but no one asked why. With no one to trust and no adult who cared, Rachel was on her own at 16 and pregnant with her first child.
Two years and an abusive husband later, Rachel used a fake I.D. to dance at strip clubs in Mobile. Raised as a sex object, stripping seemed the only way to support two children and care for her younger brother and sister.
Rachel moved to Atlanta to dance at the Gold Club, the most prominent strip club in the city. Her sister, Kasey, followed. Rachel made approximately $1,000 a night, three nights a week. She’d make $11,000 one really good night. Money was easily spent on kids, clothes, drugs in the club and rent.
“I was young and dumb thinking I was on top of the world making good money, but ultimately it was destroying me,” she said. Rachel refused prostitution and performing sex acts, but was drugged and sexually assaulted by a Gold Club customer before a bouncer stepped in.
“Prostitution and sex trafficking. Being drugged, raped or abused by customers. Doing shots and drugs just to get through the night. All of this is life for dancers in the clubs,” she said. “That life gets to you, no matter how strong you are.”
Girls Rachel knew committed suicide. Others like her survived, but the scars on their wrists are reminders of failed attempts to end their lives.
“I tried to kill myself nine times,” she said. “Deep down, I wanted to end the pain, not my life. Driving my car into a tree at 60 miles an hour was the last time I tried to die. Walking away from that crash I realized God had a better plan for me.”
Kasey stopped dancing when she became pregnant with her first child, Sarah. She created a nonprofit, 4Sarah, to help women out of the sex industry and sex trafficking. Leaving the money of strip clubs was harder for Rachel, however, until that final attempt to end her life.
Rachel got clean, quit dancing, changed careers, and now owns her own tax preparation. “Kasey’s prayers were answered,” she said. “But it took a lot of time and healing because of the trauma and my mental-health disorders.”
As the Alabama Outreach Director at 4Sarah, Rachel is expanding services and intervention programs from Atlanta into Mobile. In April of this year Rachel and her team started visiting strip clubs and walking the streets, talking with dancers and prostitutes about surviving childhood sexual abuse, drugs and the sex trade.
“So many people around us are going through hell,” Rachel said. “We must give them hope and help them survive.”
Many victims going through hell are too young to speak out. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
At St. Mary’s Home in Mobile, 90 percent of the children, male and female, have been raped or sold for sex by a family member or someone they know, said Jill Chenoweth, former director of development at St. Mary’s Home.
“We are upset when a child is kidnapped and raped by a stranger, and we go after him with a vengeance,” Chenoweth said. “We should be just as upset when it happens in a child’s home by family or someone they know. I have worked with vulnerable children my whole life and people still don’t want to talk about what is rampantly happening in all of our communities, even ‘Old Mobile.’”
Prior sexual abuse, foster care, running away and homelessness are the biggest risk factors for sex trafficking, according to Shared Hope International, which works to end sexual slavery around the world. Gay and transgender youth who aren’t accepted by their families are also at high risk.
All of these risk factors are present in South Alabama. More than 6,850 children in the Mobile Public School System are homeless, living in motels and shelters, or doubled up with friends or family members. More than 200 children are identified as homeless in the Baldwin County Public School System. Approximately 500 children are in foster care in Mobile County and 200 in Baldwin County.
Children not protected from adversity will suffer, said Dr. Teena McGuinness, professor and chair of the Department of Family, Community and Health Systems at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She was previously a professor at the University of South Alabama School of Nursing for 10 years.
“Physical and sexual abuse in childhood have the greatest negative impact on adult health,” she said. “It is traumatic, and most keep the secrets inside and never get help. It rewires the brain and they have increased risks for learning disabilities, depression, suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. These kids need mental health care. Trauma can look like psychosis.”
Doctors, lawyers, teachers, coaches, priests, preachers, uncles, brothers, fathers and grandfathers are sexually abusing children in Mobile and Baldwin counties and are creating that trauma, according to Sgt. Joe Cotner. He is a member of the special crimes unit, child abuse detail, with the Mobile Police Department and leads the team of detectives at the Child Advocacy Center (CAC) in Mobile.
“Most children don’t want to talk about what happened and are scared to speak out against family,” he said. “They don’t know if an exchange of something of value was made to have sex with them, and the abuser is certainly not confessing. That makes it hard to find the cases of sex trafficking in families.
“Child abuse is a secret everyone keeps,” he said.
Children are brought into the CAC after sexual or physical abuse. Some are close to death or fearing for their lives. Multiple agencies, from the district attorney’s office and law enforcement to the state’s Department of Human Resources, work together under one roof to bring healing and justice to the child. After months of therapy, Cotner said children run through the halls with laughter and hugs. That is the reward for a system that works.
“We see 950 to 1,000 cases a year of sexual abuse, and Lifelines Counseling Services spends $12,000 a year on taxis to get these kids to therapy to help them heal,” CAC Director Andy Wynne said. “Only 12 percent of sexual abuse is reported. The ones that aren’t reported keep me up at night. We need to do more to reach them.”
Care House is Baldwin County’s child advocacy center, with the same philosophy of coming together to save one child at a time. Shelves in the lobby are filled with snacks, toys and teddy bears to comfort the victims of abuse. The staff at Care House worked with 463 children in 2017 and 2018, conducting 304 forensic interviews and 1,153 counseling sessions.
“Ninety-five to 98 percent of our cases are sexual abuse,” Care House Director Nikki Whitaker said. The number of children needing Care House services increases every year and an office expansion was just completed to make room for the growth. “Baldwin County does not want to believe things like this happen in our paradise, but we have kids from million-dollar homes and trailer parks.”
Children running away from abusive homes or to the dream of a glamorized life is an issue in Baldwin County, Pam Savage, director of Baldwin Youth Services (BYS) said. BYS runs three group homes in Baldwin County. Youth are brought in by their families or law enforcement to prevent them from running again. BYS is for intervention, however, and not a facility that locks kids in.
“They disappear from us or run again after they finish the program,” Savage said.
Runaways like these are easy victims for traffickers and predators, according to Savage. Girls are running from BYS to 20- to 30-year-old men, and there is not enough information to find the men or to know what happens to the girls. Hardened by years of abuse and neglect, girls come to BYS believing they are mature and in control, but they are vulnerable and gullible. “Searching for love, they are easily baited and trapped,” she said.
Savage tells each child they have value and are created by God to be loved and unique. They break down, she said, because no one has ever told them they are important. Their fathers are gone. Their mothers tell them they aren’t wanted. Some parents refuse to pick up their kids from BYS.
“If you think you are worthless and nobody cares, what does it matter if you have sex with 800 different guys?” Savage asks. “To the girl who has been abused, love and sex are the same thing.”
In 2018, four girls between the ages of 14 and 15 were brought in separately by law enforcement to BYS. Part of an alleged sex ring in Foley, they were reported as prostitutes or promiscuous, not victims of sex trafficking. Federal law says a child under the age of 18 is a victim of sex trafficking, not a prostitute.
“Sex trafficking is still foreign to many first responders and we are educating them where we can,” Savage said. “It may not be on their radar now, but we have all the pieces in Baldwin County, starting with childhood sexual abuse.”
Every woman who has entered the Rose Center in Mobile and Hope Haven in Baldwin County, shelters for victims of sex trafficking, was sexually abused as a child.
Hope Haven has helped 50 victims, 35 from Mobile and Baldwin counties — girls who feel unloved, worthless and hopeless with nowhere to turn.
“We are a judgmental society that doesn’t want to know the reasons why a woman is a prostitute or a victim,” Donna Armstrong, executive director of Hope Haven, said. Hope Haven provides shelter and services for adult victims.
“You don’t know what that child was like before abuse, trafficking and prostitution began,” she said. “The sexual assault was not her fault.”
Counselors and prosecutors say this judgment affects courtroom verdicts. Prosecutors and counselors tell of “slam dunk” cases of sexual abuse and assault, lost because one person on the jury chose not to believe the victim.
“A child can be abused at 9 or 10, but the judicial process takes years and she looks like an adult when the case goes to trial,” said Chandra Brown, executive director of Lifelines Counseling in Mobile. “There is no sympathy from the jury and no justice for the now older child.
“Some women think, ‘If I accept it happened to her, then I have to accept it happened to me and deal with myself,’” Brown said. “It is easier to say she deserved it and walk away. There is no one who ever deserves this.”
Brown said the judgment is worse if the victim has been on drugs, was a prostitute or doesn’t look acceptable to the jury. Defense attorneys use the victim’s past and appearance to create doubt. The perpetrator charged with rape or sexual assault sometimes goes free because one person on the jury chooses not to believe the victim. “He is free to rape and abuse again,” she said.
Some perpetrators were themselves victims of childhood sexual abuse.
Lying in a hospital bed in Mobile Infirmary wearing a yellow wristband that read, “At Risk,” Ray prayed doctors would end his seizures. A registered sex offender who did six months for sexually abusing his 6-year-old stepdaughter, Ray told of his own childhood moving with his mom, aunt, sisters and cousins into his grandfather’s house. His grandfather, once jailed on pedophile charges, raped his daughters and grandchildren living with him.
“I felt trapped,” Ray said. “Even if I had said something, no one would have helped me. My mother was being raped, too. It hurts (now) to see my kids because I am homeless and not the dad they need me to be. Drinking is the only way to relieve the pain and let go of the memories.”
Angel broke her family cycle of abuse and poverty by refusing to have children. Wearing a blue jumpsuit in Mobile Metro Jail in March on a charge of disorderly conduct, she tells of a difficult life with no one to trust. “I didn’t want kids because I don’t want them to have the same life as me,” she said.
Angel was 8 years old when the man her mother married began raping her. He continued for seven years and silenced her with threats of being taken away. Her abuser was also the savior who provided her homeless family a place to stay. Angel spoke up in high school, but was blamed for the abuse. “My mother chose him and I was shipped off to a group home for teenagers,” she said. “I became a lonely child with hatred for my family.”
At 19, she ran away to California with her boyfriend. He spent her money, leaving her alone with no one to call. A stranger offered her $200 for sex, and prostitution became a way to survive. Two months later she joined a pimp who provided protection and companionship “like a boyfriend.” Her quota was $1,500 a night and she stayed out until she got it. She was jailed approximately 20 times for prostitution and solicitation, mostly in California.
Angel said most prostitutes enter the life out of desperation, survival or escape, not by choice. Her johns were often married white men criticizing their wives and paying for sex acts their wives refused to do. One paid $250 to lick mud from the heels of her feet. To do her job, Angel pretended she was somewhere else, avoiding thoughts of the man inside her and the fear of what he could do.
“Prostitution is a disgusting, dangerous way to make a living,” she said.
Broke and isolated girls are targets. Angel’s pimp called her in prison, asking her to recruit incarcerated women. Pimps sit outside courthouses and soup kitchens waiting for vulnerable girls to walk out. They search bus stations for the runaways with no place to go.
“Pimps call runaways ‘little stragglers,’” she said. “They want the throw-away girls no one is looking for who will depend solely on them. That was me.”
Angel gave her pimp all of her money for protection, but was kidnapped, beaten and abused by the johns. The pimp left with the money he claimed to be saving for her. “Once again, I was broke, alone and starting over.”
Shared Hope International says there is no difference between a trafficker and a pimp who uses force, fraud or coercion to profit from the sexual exploitation of another person.
Out of the life and now employed in an office job that uses the communication skills she learned in prostitution, Angel fights the urge to go back when money gets tight. She thought prostitution was her choice, unaware she was a victim of sex trafficking.
Angel said people still see her as a “dirty, slutbag female,” even though she left prostitution a few years ago. “I thought I would never trust a man, but I have a boyfriend who loves me for who I am,” she said. “However, I am in jail now because we got drunk and had an argument at Mardi Gras.”
“Dirty, slutbag female” is no longer how Angel sees herself. The “Love Yourself” tattoo on her right wrist is positioned so that anyone she reaches out to can read those words.
After all the “bullshit” she went through, Angel said has learned to love herself. She wants other girls to learn that, too.
“I tell girls, ‘You are a star and you need to shine bright, no matter what others did to you or think about you.’ I was a prostitute and a victim of abuse. Now I am a survivor.”
If you suspect human trafficking or need help, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888 or text “help” to 233733 (BE FREE).
4Sarah’s Building Survivor’s Benefit Dinner is Saturday, June 15 from 6-8 p.m. at Rise Church in Mobile (6363 Piccadilly Square) to support outreach and intervention programs and education scholarship opportunities. Tickets are $20 in advance through Eventbrite or $30 at the door. Call 251-230-5576 for more information.
For information on becoming a foster parent: http://dhr.alabama.gov/services/Foster_Care/Intro_Foster_Care.aspx
This is the second part of a five-part series on human trafficking in South Alabama.
Read part three, “The Dangers of Technology and Pornography,” in the next issue of Lagniappe.
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