Atlanta (CNN)The pathway leading to the dark corners of human trafficking began in the fluorescent-flooded hallways of a Florida middle school.
Sacharay, which is how she wants to be known, was 14 years old and looking for a friend.
“I used to get picked on a lot about being dark-skinned. I started wearing glasses and was called ‘four-eyes.’ And then they knew because I was so sensitive, they knew it was getting to me,” lei disse.
But when an older classmate approached her and offered to be her friend, Sacharay thought maybe her fortunes had finally started to turn.
“I thought she was like my best friend because I could tell her everything. One day she asked if I wanted to skip school and have fun, you know, so we went to the barber shop. When I was there, she introduced me to these guys,” said Sacharay, adesso 19.
One of the men, in his mid-30s, immediately took notice of Sacharay. He soon began courting her with gifts, paying her compliments and offering advice on the daily dramatics of adolescent life.
“If me and my sister would be arguing, he’d be like, ‘You can’t get into an argument with your sister like that.’ He was more like a dad, but then again we had sex, so it wasn’t. It was just in the communication and how he talked to me,” she recalled.
It was child rape.
But this subtle, subversive mix of romantic love and parental care can create havoc in the mind of an adolescent, said Anique Whitmore, a forensic psychologist in Atlanta.
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“What we know about sex crimes is that it’s not about sexual pleasure. It’s about control,” said Whitmore. “What is similar to some of those girls that I work with is their self-esteem or lack thereof. You either become vulnerable to a man on the street or a man you meet in school. You become vulnerable because you’re looking for attention.”
Struggling, but stronger
Sacharay has her own tattoos dating back to the time she was being exploited.
Her journey away from exploitation started at the doorstep of a sanctuary run by the nonprofit organization The Living Water Center.
The organization provided her with two things that didn’t seem possible just a few years ago: a GED and a job.
“I used to hate looking in the mirror at myself,” said Sacharay. “I still struggle, but I can say I’m stronger, I’m wiser and I can honestly say I do love myself. And I have hope for myself.”
Sacharay now has a new focus, and a new tattoo on her forearm that says “Free to Be Me.”
But for every Sacharay, there are countless young women still trapped in this dangerous and illegal trade.
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