Trafficked: How Women are Groomed to Become Victims

Human Trafficking
Written by Jason Liebler

In the public mind, the image of a human trafficking victim is one of a foreign national, kidnapped or otherwise coerced into traveling to another country for work or the promise of freedom, only to be betrayed and forced into modern slavery through sex or labor.

This image allows the American public to believe the problem of human trafficking happens outside of our borders. It fails to include the tens of thousands of American citizens who are trafficked.

It fails to include people like Portsmouth, Va., resident — and now victim advocate — Tanya Street, who fell into the trafficking world as a teen mother in the 90s after her trafficker exploited the vulnerability and trauma she experienced in her childhood and promised her the stability and safety she desired.

The uncomfortable truth is that human trafficking is occurring at a staggering rate in this country.

The Polaris Project, a nonprofit, victim-centered advocacy group, reports that in the past 10 years in the United States, more than 40,000 cases of human trafficking have been reported to its National Human Trafficking Hotline. In that same timespan, there have been nearly 180,000 calls, texts and live chats with the hotline. The Polaris Project estimates the amount of unreported trafficking cases in the United States at over 100,000. 

Virginia is ranked 15th in the number of reported cases by state, with California, Texas and Florida topping the list. In 2017 alone, 8,759 human trafficking cases were reported nationwide, with 10,615 individual victims, according to hotline statistics. In Virginia, there have been 1,025 cases reported since 2007, including 156 last year — the lion’s share from Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads.

Women, many of them black, comprise the overwhelming majority of these victims. About a third are minors. In 2016, an estimated 1 out of 6 endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims. And although some trafficking victims are forced to do labor, such as domestic work, agriculture work or so-called “begging rings,” most of the reports are for sex trafficking. The top type of human trafficking reported last year in the U.S. involved escort services, according to the Polaris Project.

For clarity, there is a legal difference between prostitution and human trafficking in the U.S. In general, it’s a question of choice — prostitution is a chosen vocation, where human trafficking is not. But this line is muddied when dealing with specific cases, as there are a number of reports of victims who do not see themselves as victims because of manipulation or coercion. 

Human Trafficking: The Culture

Street is all too familiar with the issue. She’s spent the better part of the decade serving on numerous boards, committees and panels as an advocate for those caught up in the modern-day slavery of human trafficking. She is a member of the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking, which makes policy recommendations to the President’s Interagency Task Force (PITF) to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. The task force was created in 2000 and consists of agencies across the federal government responsible for coordinating U.S. government-wide efforts to combat trafficking in persons.

Street began her own nonprofit in 2010 after difficulty finding services to help her heal after she became the victim of sex trafficking at the end of her senior year of high school. “The resources were very scarce, and everything was very hush, and I didn’t like that,” she says. “I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t like people judging me for something that happened to me.”

For Street, who eventually broke free from her trafficker, healing meant retaking ownership of her life. “It’s about me identifying it — standing in my own power to figure out who I am,” she says. “And it worked.”

Street’s nonprofit, Identifiable Me, soon grew from a healing project for Street to a voice for other victims of human trafficking. Now, Street is working on a documentary that aims to present a different perspective on human trafficking. The film contains true stories of trafficked persons — not to dramatize their experiences but to educate the public and answer questions from the perspective of people who have lived this life.

We traffic our own people,” she says. “I want people to understand the emotional and mental effect trafficking has on an individual.”

The title of the short film, “Groomed,” is multifaceted: It describes not just the grooming of a victim by the trafficker through manipulation and coercion, but also how society grooms its youth through the representation and value of women, sex and power. Street references cultural norms found in music and television, which reinforce a skewed value system for vulnerable young adults.

“It’s media, it’s what we see … how women are viewed,” Street says.

After completion, the film will be submitted to a wide range of film festivals, including the renowned Cannes Film Festival.

Human Trafficking: The Law

Nationally, legislation to specifically combat trafficking did not exist in earnest until after the turn of the century. In 2000, the same year it started PITF, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) provided comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation. It has been continually reauthorized to expand definitions and allocate funds for shelters, outreach and law enforcement.

In 2014, the Preventing Sex Trafficking and Strengthening Families Act was signed into law by President Obama. Just this past April, President Trump signed legislation that rewrites a section of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. Now, websites that host classified ads that are directly linked to prostitution and trafficking cases are liable to state and federal criminal charges. In response, websites such as Craigslist have removed their personal ads sections altogether.

In Virginia, the Hampton Roads Trafficking Task Force was created in 2016 with a $1.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice. The task force’s mission is to combat trafficking in the area by creating synergy between law enforcement and community programs, as well as strengthening the relationship with state and federal agencies. Since its inception, the task force has enacted initiatives to post the human trafficking hotline’s phone and text numbers at rest stops and medical facilities, as well as at established shelters. It also will soon launch a billboard campaign to increase awareness of trafficking in Hampton Roads.

Human Trafficking: The Victims

The Trafficking Victims Protection Act removed the requirement for physical movement of a victim from one place to another to be considered trafficked — anyone coerced against their will can be considered a trafficked person. But how do people fall into this life?

I want to answer the question, ‘Why do they stay?’ ‘What’s missing in their lives?’” says Street. She refers to her experience as a trafficked person at age 18 as a “perfect storm.”

“Everything that happened in my life pushed me into the arms of my trafficker because he was safe, and loving, and all the things I didn’t have a healthy grid for,” she says. For Street, who had been sexually abused by a family member from age 7 to 14, the love and support seemed healthy to her. She called him “Daddy.”

He later beat her up.

The banner “Stranger Danger” is not too effective when we consider that most trafficked victims in the U.S. are not trafficked by strangers. In “In Plain Sight,” another documentary that Street participated in, she describes a situation where a young girl is at the mall every weekend and meets a guy who looks like he has a lot of money and has pretty girls around him. After a couple of these interactions — a conversation or two — the young girl no longer considers him a stranger. But in reality, the guy is a modern-day pimp.

“Traffickers are very wise in their choices,” Street says. “I remember in my own trafficking story, he said, ‘I knew it, I knew you were the one.’ And this was four months after the day he met me. It was a business deal — I was an investment. In his mind, he didn’t see me as a human with my own rights. His thing was, ‘How can I control her body to get her to a place where she would do anything I would ask her to do?’”

“Now [the trafficker] can take over what society has already done,” she adds. “If this young one has been sexually abused already, abandoned, isolated, made to feel ashamed, [the trafficker] can take those valuable pieces and use it for [his or her] own benefit. They’ll tell her she’s valuable.”

Trafficked persons do not usually see themselves as victims. Street describes the trafficked/trafficker relationship as a team, and the self-worth of the trafficked person comes through the work. “We’re thinking, ‘But I brought in so much money for us. My trafficker is dressed well, we have a nice car, we stay in great places — I did this for us.’”

Human Trafficking: The Next Steps

On Nov. 20, 2017, Maeem Lateef Odums of Portsmouth was sentenced to 40 years in prison for sex trafficking by force. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Odums “used a combination of extreme physical violence, threats of violence, and threats of kidnapping Jane Doe 1’s children, and other forms of control to cause her to perform commercial sex acts.”

“Everyone worked together — the judges, the prosecutors, law enforcement, everyone worked together, in our city!” Street says. “It’s really about people being open to making sure victims get access to appropriate care.” Jane Doe had to testify against her trafficker in court, and the groups also worked to keep her safe.

This is the future — local, state and federal agencies with similar motivations coming together to empower victims. The Portsmouth case can serve as a template, but “we still have ways to go,” Street says.

What Can We Do?

There are local task forces and community advocacy groups in Hampton Roads that need people and donations. Street stresses the importance of identifying organizations that are victim-centered in their approach through advocacy and rehabilitation as much as prosecution and awareness. Building a network of survivors and advocates to create the safe places is paramount to empower victims and combat traffickers.

“I’d like to see more effort in having a survivor’s voice in the discussion because we are no longer under the control of our traffickers, but we also know how they work,” says Street, now a married mother of three. “So I appreciate looking at victim services — how organizations are working with victims, to make sure law enforcement is trained properly in treating victims as victims — but also finding creative ways to help understand how a trafficker thinks and how to dismantle the business side of this.”

Are you a victim of human trafficking or suspect someone who is involved? Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or text 233733. Chat live with a person at humantraffickinghotline.org.


Do you know someone at risk? Here’s what to look for:


Recent migration/relocation

Substance use

Runaway/homeless youth

Mental health concern

Involvement in the child welfare system


The following is a list of potential red flags:

Common Work and Living Conditions:

Is not free to come and go as he/she wishes

Is unpaid, paid very little or paid only through tips

Works excessively long and/or unusual hours

Is not allowed breaks or has unusual restrictions at work

Owes a large debt and is unable to pay it off

Was recruited through false promises about his/her work


Poor Mental Health or Abnormal Behavior:

Is fearful, anxious, depressed, submissive, tense or nervous/paranoid

Exhibits unusually fearful or anxious behavior after bringing up law enforcement

Avoids eye contact


Poor Physical Health:

Lacks medical care and/or is denied medical services by employer

Appears malnourished or shows signs of repeated exposure to harmful chemicals

Shows signs of physical and/or sexual abuse, physical restraint, confinement or torture


Lack of Control:

Has few or no personal possessions

Is not in control of his/her own money or identification documents; no financial records or bank account

Is not allowed or able to speak for themselves (a 3rd party may insist on being present and/or translating)



Claims of just visiting and inability to clarify where he/she is living

Lack of knowledge of whereabouts and/or of what city he/she is in

Loss of sense of time

Has numerous inconsistencies in his/her story

Note: According to federal law, any minor under the age of 18 engaging in commercial sex is a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of the presence of force, fraud, or coercion.

About the author

Jason Liebler

Jason Liebler is a Portsmouth native with a more than a decade of
experience as a writer and public schoolteacher. He lives in Richmond with
his bikes and bass guitars. When not at work, he can be found behind a
book and a cold beverage.

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