holding hands

Every night, thousands of teenage girls in Dallas are tucked safely into bed, but about 400 get ready to go to work, arduous nights of selling their bodies to appease their pimps

Robin probably would have been a CEO in another life. She has the business acumen of a Wall Street broker and a keen sense of client relations.
Unfortunately, her industry of choice is illegal.

“Some call me an escort, some call me a hooker — it all means the same thing,” says the bubbly 19-year-old, who regularly sells herself on the Internet. “I am glad I do this work online, it’s so easy today with Craigslist and all the other sites. I’d hate to be out standing on the street.”

Like record stores, “street walking” prostitutes largely have been pushed out in the digital age. Instead it works much like ordering a pizza online. Robin posts when she is available, and men almost instantly fill her inbox with replies. Most nights, the petite brunette has her pick of clients.

“Finding guys who want me has never been a problem,” she says absentmindedly scrolling through the two dozen responses she received from last night’s post while sprawled out on the pink floral comforter of her bed in her White Rock Lake area apartment, which would fit perfectly into a little girl’s bedroom.

In many ways, Robin is a little girl, just one that didn’t get to grow up like little girls should. Born to a mentally ill mother, she ended up in foster care after a neighbor reported seeing her shivering day after day without a coat to keep her warm in the harsh Midwestern winters where she was raised.

At first foster care was a step up, a place where her unmet needs were finally addressed. Then, she says, a relative of her foster family began molesting her at age 9. Her blue eyes cast down as she shrugs off the memory.

“Crappy things happen to everyone, right?” she says.

By 13, she was using any drug she was handed to numb the pain. At first, her dealer seemed like a friend, someone who protected her and made sure she had what she wanted. Then he started pressuring her to perform sexual favors in exchange for more drugs.
“He took such good care of me it didn’t seem like a big deal to do it for him,” Robin says. “You do it a couple of times and you start to go numb.”

She began to see herself as an object, not a human. Knowing that her young age made her more desirable on the streets, she soon began selling herself. She met a man online who agreed to fly her to Dallas. No one seemed to notice when she ran away.

She worked for a pimp for several years, a man more than twice her age who beat her and raped her, but also gave her a place to stay and food to eat. Eventually, she made enough money to move in with a friend she met on the streets. Defiantly, she speaks out about what she does for a living.

“This isn’t new — girls have been making money this way for years. Why shouldn’t I?” she questions. When asked what she would do if she could do anything in the world, she rolls her eyes.

“What do you want me to say? President? That’s just not me,” she says, voice thick with cynicism. “Do I like doing this? Not especially, but it’s what I choose to do. I’m not some victim.”

Amanda Jones used to think like Robin. Just like Robin, she was sexually abused at home, before turning to the streets as a teenager. She was trafficked for the first time at 15, and spent the next nine years caught in the web of prostitution for a pimp’s financial gain.

“I didn’t ever see myself as a victim,” Jones told KERA radio in an April interview. “You’re just trying to survive at that age, so you don’t see yourself as a victim.”

Jones is now a successful accountant, living in Dallas in a life that is unrecognizable from her time on the street. It wasn’t easy and it didn’t come overnight, but she found support from neighborhood nonprofit New Friends New Life, which works solely with female victims of human trafficking and the sex industry. Offering classes, job training, counseling and even childcare, the organization seeks to give these women the tools they need to regain control of their life on their own terms.

“We meet the women where they are,” says Lauren Haskins, development director for New Friends New Life. “No one is court-ordered to be here. The women who come here, they’re looking for change.”

On any given night, about 400 teens are trafficked in the commercial sex trade on the streets of Dallas, according to New Friends New Life’s research. The vast majority come from broken homes, girls who slipped through the cracks by neglectful or abusive parents. But others come from good traditional homes, lured into prostitution by manipulative predators, more and more commonly through social media.

Human trafficking by the numbers

The estimated number of teens trafficked every night on the streets of Dallas

The average age an American girl enters the sex trade

The average cost of a trick in America; girls are often required to bring in $1,000 a night

The number of hours on the street before a runaway teen is approached by a sex trafficker

Of teens who end up trafficked were abused at home

New Friends New Life, located in the Lake Highlands area, is always seeking volunteers, who can help with childcare, teaching or offering work experience. Find out more at newfriendsnewlife.org.

Classes at New Friends New Life cover business and life skills in addition to healing emotional scars. (Photo by Rasy Ran) Classes at New Friends New Life cover business and life skills in addition to healing emotional scars. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

“A big trend right now is boyfriend pimps. They’re the ones who say ‘I love you, I’ll take care of you’,” says Haskins. “Anytime you’re involved in any commercial sexual act under the age of 18, you’re being trafficked. You’ll hear us say this a lot, but a child cannot choose to prostitute herself.”

Situated in a non-descript office building near Central Expressway, the address of which is kept confidential to protect clients, New Friends New Life is working to combat human trafficking from all sides. In addition to helping women reestablish themselves after fleeing the life, they work to educate at-risk youth to be savvy and protect themselves from predators; and they look at demand, encouraging men to consider the potential impact of their actions.

“I think the majority of people know human trafficking exists, I don’t think the majority think it’s happening in their backyard,” Haskins says, explaining that her group has worked with girls from a wide swath of neighborhoods and socioeconomic backgrounds.

They are a standing fixture at the Letot Center in Northwest Dallas, a crisis intervention shelter for runaways, children taken by the Department of Family Protective Services and other wayward youth. They work with girls, hoping to catch them before they fall through the cracks and give them the tools needed to avoid street predators. They know, once a girl is back on the street, it’s only a matter of time before she’s at risk.

“After 48 hours on the street, the average runaway will be approached by a trafficker,” Haskins says.

Children’s playroom at New Friends New Life. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

Children’s playroom at New Friends New Life. (Photo by Rasy Ran)

In addition to education, the organization focuses on pushing laws that fight sex trafficking. They’ve set their sights on “johns,” men who are rarely punished for their crimes in Texas, they say. The nonprofit is lobbying for stricter laws that would bring specific consequences to those who pay for sex.

“We see statistics that 85 percent of those buying commercial sex with children get a suspended sentence, they never see jail time, they never even have a jury,” said New Friends New Life CEO Katie Pedigo in the KERA interview. “That’s something we as a community have to say, ‘No more.’ For there to be true systemic change, we all have to come together and say, particularly with a minor, we are not going to look away, we are going to insist that it be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

The Dallas Police Department was recognized nationally for its diligent and delicate handling of child prostitutes. In 2005 the “High Risk Victims” unit was developed specifically to help repeat runaways get into counseling and away from their pimps, seeking to nip child prostitution in the bud. It proved so successful, in 2007 Congress green lit a $55 million program that would have allowed other police departments to create similar units modeled directly after Dallas’ system (it was later dropped from the federal budget amid a dispute with President George W. Bush, according to a 2009 New York Times article).
New Friends New Life works closely with Dallas police and speaks highly of their continued efforts to fight trafficking on the streets. But it takes investments from all sides.

That’s why New Friends New Life works from Congress to the classroom, hoping to pull back the veil on this black market industry to make trafficking part of a wider national discussion.

It’s a discussion Robin is conflicted about. She acknowledges there are girls who are abused and enslaved every day, but doesn’t feel she’s ever been one of them.

“My choices are my choices,” she says emphatically.

As she lines up her night of work, four men and counting, her thoughts return to New Friends New Life. “Maybe I should check them out,” she says. “It’s not like there’s a retirement plan in this business. And I’ll be washed up by the time I’m 24.”