Getting the word out is the first step in bringing awareness that human trafficking does exist and can happen in your own backyard, a group of activists said in regards to human trafficking in the local Philadelphia area.
“I just thought I was in a bad situation, I had never heard of what human trafficking was, I figured I caused this because if I wasn’t on drugs none of this would happen,” Tammy McDonnell, a survivor and activist for Covenant House in Philadelphia, said at Cabrini University on Wednesday, Nov. 6.
McDonnell uses her experience of sexual exploitation to raise awareness on human trafficking and serves as a survivor advocate to help others escape the life of trafficking and prostitution.
She has grown to be an active spokesperson for anti-human trafficking, telling her story of overcoming drug addiction and sexual exploitation.
At age 21 she got into an abusive relationship with the father of her first child. He controlled every aspect of her life and isolated her from her family. However, she was afraid to leave. Once the relationship ended, she was in and out of treatment, where she met the father of her second child.
She described this “rehab romance” as a “toxic relationship,” but he was “kind” to her.
“At this point, I’m 28 years old, still living with my parents, who then decided to move away from me,” McDonnell said. “I have two kids, a drug problem and realized I didn’t know how to live.”
“The start of everything”
McDonnell lost her house, her kids and was living out of her 2005 Honda Accord with no money. Who knew that selling her car for $800 would be the start of everything.
She ended up being “recruited” and offered work at an auto body shop as the secretary, where the owner offered her a place to sleep in his office; she felt safe there.
“That mask went on for about a month until the money stopped…then the sexual advances had come and when I refused he would then become forceful and would force me to have sex with him…and to whoever else he wanted…it was a living nightmare,” McDonnell said.
“I prayed for my own death. I welcomed that sweet escape,” McDonnell said.
After McDonnell had escaped her trafficker, she traveled to New Jersey where she stayed in Atlantic City for some time. She ultimately found her self back in Philadelphia and entered a crisis facility. During recovery, she was recommended to work as a survivor advocate for Covenant House in Philadelphia, where she still currently works today.
“I’ve been sober for four years and 30 days,” she said. “I had no idea I was a victim of human trafficking. I just thought I was in an abusive situation.”
McDonnell has worked hard to accomplish all that she has. She is currently attending school and working for the outreach program. As part of the outreach program for Covenant House, McDonnell helps connect with the homeless youth and providing a safe space for them to get help.
“I have a passion and I have a purpose, I need to follow this path that I am on. I was picked out of my darkest days and placed on this path and I don’t want to stray,” McDonnell said.
The discussion panel was led by Lindsey Mossor, Maggie Sweeny, Connie Marinello and Habibah Smith, all women who play a crucial role in advocating and bringing awareness of human trafficking.
Connie Marinello, a detective for Upper Merion Township Police Department, said the first step is bringing justice for women who are forced into prostitution.
“It’s got to start with the cops because we have to understand that these women that we are arresting are not criminals. They are victims and we have to go after the sex buyers,” Marinello said.
The panel stressed the importance of having those conversions and educating youth and adults to understand myths and red flags of human trafficking.
“A myth I’ve always dealt with is that these women and girls want to be there,” Marinello said.
Traffickers commonly use force, fraud or coercion to submit victims to perform these sexual acts. A common way traffickers coerce women is through creating the illusion of a trusting relationship.
According to the Human Trafficking Hotline, 56 percent of prostituted women were runaway youth. Pimps also coerce individuals who have experienced violence and trauma in the past are more vulnerable to future exploitation.
Warning signs an individual is being trafficked:
- Physical abuse such as burn marks, bruises or cuts
- Sexualized behavior
- Withdrawn, depressed, distracted or checked out
- Brags about making or having lots of money
- New tattoo (branding)
- Older boyfriend
“The more awareness we bring the more we are going to shed a light on it,” Maggie Sweeney, program manager and forensic interviewer for Mission Kids Child Advocacy, said.
There are not enough people educated on the red flags of human trafficking or what to look out for. Students and community members were urged to speak out to others to further educate.
If you suspect anyone is in a human trafficking situation there are sources,
- Call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888
- Go to www.humantraffickinghotline.org
- Inform your local police department