Christine McDonald refuses to be defined by the pain and humiliation she endured.
“My trauma isn’t my only identity,” she said. “I am an individual and a professional, a certified counselor — and I also happen to be a survivor of human trafficking.”
The internationally recognized speaker and author offered jarring insights into her 22 years of being trafficked as a sex worker in Missouri.
About 125 people — many from the fields of ministry, education, mental health, medicine, law enforcement, crime-victim advocacy, and child and adolescent services — heard her speak at a two-day Stop Human Trafficking Conference sponsored by Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMo).
Human trafficking is modern-day slavery — the buying and selling of human beings for forced labor or sex work.
Ms. McDonald also spoke at length about her long road to escaping and eventually becoming an advocate for victims of human trafficking.
Her autobiography, Cry Purple, sells about 10,000 copies per year.
“I started out being trafficked by mother at age 8,” she said. “I was in and out of foster homes. I ran away when I was 15.
“Over the course of two decades and a year, I was arrested 114 times and sent to prison seven times,” she said. “I was in the Emergency Room more times than I could count — from beatings, food and sleep deprivation, hallucinations. I’ve been checked into the psych ward.
“Through all of that, I was never identified as a victim of human trafficking,” she said. “Not once did anyone asked me, ‘What’s happened to you?’”
She noted that Missouri is one of five states where people trapped in prostitution can be charged with a felony.
“The traffickers are not going to jail, the buyers are not going to jail. But the victims of sex trafficking are sent to jail, because people don’t see them as victims,” she said.
Homeless and addicted to cocaine in the depth of her brokenness, she spent weeks trying to detoxify in a drug-treatment facility.
“The drugs are a symptom, a coping mechanism,” she said. “How am I supposed to process that I was sold for $2,500 by my own mother, raped almost every day of my life, that I’ve been branded with cattle iron, that I had been forced to dig my own grave?”
For years, she thought her favorite color was blue, because that’s what other people chose for her and told her to wear.
“They don’t give you a choice about anything,” she said. “You have no say over when you can eat or sleep if there’s someone deciding whether you live or die every single day.”
Most law enforcement, medical and substance abuse-treatment personnel don’t know how to recognize human trafficking survivors, let alone help them, she said.
“We’re missing these people in front of us every day,” she said. “We don’t facilitate an environment that’s safe for people like us to share what’s going on.”
“Be a seed-planter”
Repeatedly betrayed by people she should have been able to trust, Mrs. McDonald continued to be beaten and forced to sell herself several times a day to customers who seemed not to know the harm they were inflicting on her.
What amazes her still was that people all around her didn’t notice what she was going through.
Most who did see had no idea how to help. Because of the level of control her traffickers had over her, some who tried to help just got her into more trouble.
She was difficult and tended to lash out at those who got too close to her. In spite of that, one woman looked out for her and gave her food, knowing that she was underfed and always hungry.
One day, the woman noticed that Ms. McDonald had been beaten. The woman invited her into her air-conditioned office, pulled the blinds, locked the door and let her get some sleep.
“She met me where I was,” said Ms. McDonald. “She was the one who planted the seeds for my exit and recovery. If you want to help, it takes a relationship and relationship-building, on their terms and not yours.
“Sometimes, you have to be okay being a seed-planter,” said Ms. McDonald. “You might not get to see the result. But you can be that seed-planter like she was for me.”
She talked about ways to help people who confide that they are survivors of human trafficking.
She emphasized the need to offer a safe environment for people to share — or not share — their story over time.
All of their power to make decisions has been systematically taken away. So it’s important for people to listen without reacting and offer support without an agenda.
“Sometimes, ‘holding space’ is the best thing you can do. It’s so simple, but don’t do it. We always want to jump in and try to fix the situation, but most of us don’t know where to begin.”
She said the average age of entry into the sex trade is 13 to 15, and that 80 percent of adult victims of human trafficking were victims of sexual abuse as minors and were first trafficked as minors.
Day after day, year after year, the effects of the trauma build up, making it more difficult for victims to agree to accept help.
“We can’t make a distinction between worthy and unworthy victims,” she said. “A victim is a victim. We have to embrace and love them.”
It starts with people simply being better to each other.
“Do not judge people,” she said. “Don’t tell them they’re throwing their life away. Don’t call them addicts and prostitutes. These are people in pain. They are victims of human trafficking.”
She is confident that the buying and selling of people into the sex trade and forced labor can and will end within her lifetime.
“I believe we as a society can morally evolve and every one of us can be part of it,” she said. “Coming to things like this is how we start.”
“Power in the voice”
The Stop Human Trafficking Conference also included two panels made up of women who are building new lives, speaking out and helping other people escape the same sort of human trafficking they endured.
The women told of how they got lured into being trafficked — mostly in central Missouri.
They recounted the control and manipulation that was heaped on them, as well as the barriers to escaping, the challenges they have dealt with as surivors, what helped them and what did not.
One panelist said the best way to help someone escape from a trafficking situation is to have a trafficking survivor speak to them.
“That survivor can relate to that person where she or he is,” she said. “Were going to know where the pain is. But it’s going to take a certain amount of trust.”
“The more people recognize the signs and find ways to help, the word gets around and maybe more people can be saved,” said another panelist.
“There is trauma and you have good days and bad days,” said one of the women. “Every situation and day is different. But there is power in the voice.”
“Support without shame”
“Lay your personal bias aside,” said one of the panelists. “Anything condescending or judgmental you have going on, you have to set that aside. We can pick that up in a millisecond.
“The main thing is to let that person proceed at his or her own personal pace,” the panelist continued. “Don’t judge them. All you have to do is build a relationship. ... Build trust and let her understand this is a safe place. ‘You can come here whenever.’”
Another panelist emphasized that when working with people who are suffering, “It’s no longer about me.”
“Be able to slow down enough to hear what they need in that moment,” she advised. “It may not be what we think they need, but it’s what they need in that moment.”
Another panelist pointed out that the shock and terror on people’s faces when they hear personal stories of human trafficking is heartbreaking to a survivor.
She talked about giving “support without shame” when helping survivors — because helping people who have been trapped in these situations is messy.
Other speakers at the conference included a former undercover police officer and a representative of the Missouri attorney general’s office Stop Human Trafficking Task Force.
Detective Andy Evans with the Boone County Sheriff’s Department Cyber Crimes Task Force noted that most young people who are drawn into sex trafficking are lured via the Internet or social media.
“If you’re not paying attention to what your kids and grandkids are doing online, you need to start paying attention to that,” he said.
Calling evil what it is
This was CCCNMo’s third annual Stop Human Trafficking Conference.
Conference organizer Jake Seifert, development director for the Jefferson City diocese and former CCCNMo director of mission advancement, noted that human trafficking is happening in every corner of Missouri.
“These people are the hidden faces of our society,” he said. “This is happening right under our nose, and we’re not seeing it. We are encountering both the victims and the abusers every day and we don’t even know it.”
He urged anyone who suspects that a person is being trafficked to call the attorney general’s Stop Human Trafficking Task Force hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. George parish in Linn and Our Lady Help of Christians parish in Frankenstein, said the conference reinforced for him of how the suffering of one member of the Body of Christ hurts all members.
“It was a reminder that there is great evil in the world that must be called evil, and of the little evil that we all do that enables it,” he said.
He said accepting the speakers’ suggestions for helping trafficking survivors on their own terms, on their own timeframe, is challenging.
“We tend to want to provide a remedy right now,” he said. “Yet, the patient suffering that goes into building trust is essential for overcoming evil according to God’s plan.”