SALT LAKE CITY — It took Stacy Lewis 10 years after leaving "the life" to realize and understand that she had been a victim of sex trafficking.
But when she found her voice, it was powerful and it was strong.
Friday she performed a monologue she wrote titled "10 Years and One Day" with fierceness and tenderness. Her voice raising and then lowering, she spoke of the children she saw working in the streets and of the sun that taunted her while she was forced to work only in darkness.
"While it took 10 years to fully understand that I was a victim, it only took me one day to believe in the sun," she said. "God was in the light all along. … I escaped my prison while all the vampires were asleep."
Lewis was one of eight "survivors" who took the stage on the last day of the 2012 Trafficking In Persons Symposium that was held this week in Salt Lake City. Law enforcement officers, prosecutors and leaders from various nonprofit organizations from across the country and beyond, including Mexico and Montreal, attended in an attempt to learn more about what they can do for victims and to prevent human trafficking in their communities.
The U.S. Office of Safe and Drug-free Schools reports on its website that human trafficking is a domestic problem and that there have been reported occurrences in all 50 states. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it is akin to "modern-day slavery" and as many as 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk for sexual exploitation.
They reported that federally funded task forces opened as many as 2,515 cases involving suspected human trafficking between January 2008 and June 2010.
Keisha Head, who is an advocate for Atlanta organization A Future Not a Past, offered a number of suggestions from the perspective of someone who was trapped in the system and found a way out. Victims are not going to give you information readily. They are afraid. Be aware of the first contact you make.
She said she remembers her first buyer and her first predator. She said she cannot forget what the first social worker she met said to her when she left her life on the streets behind.
"(She) used the word 'throwaway,'" Head recalled Friday.
She now knows that's a word often used by those "inside," but what it said to her is that she was seen as trash, as something disposable. She said it's also important to realize that many of these victims, whether they are runaways or children of the system, are still only kids.
"Let's peel back all the labels," she said. "We're talking about children."
In her performance, Lewis spoke of children she would see on the streets. Children, she said, whose hair should be in pigtails and their hands carrying lunchboxes instead of asking men on the street if they want a date.
"(There was) no hope in their eyes," she said. "They weren't old enough to understand hope."
Head said youths will always be targeted as long as there is a market for them.
"We have to look at this as supply and demand," she said. "Our children are the supply and they are being demanded. The reason I was trafficked was because a man purchased me."
Head said eliminating that demand needs to be a priority. There also needs to be more awareness in schools about what prostitution is and what predators are. There is also a need for support systems to help those trying to leave the captivity of their pimps, who often threaten harm to them or their loved ones.
"Help us learn the normalcy that was not taught to us as children," she implored. "We cannot change the past, but we can change our attitude for it."
Many of the women on the panel said they gained strength from hearing each others' stories and the efforts they were making to help those like them in their respective homes. Shamere McKenzie, who works as a policy assistant in the Protected Innocence Initiative of Shared Hope International, said the experience showed her she was not alone.
"I don't want to know your story, I don't want to know who your pimp was," she said. "You're out of it. Give me a hug!"
Beyond the encouragement and motivation she got from her fellow "sisters" in survival, she was also impressed by the large group attending the symposium.
"Just to see law enforcement, prosecutors and people shows someone does care about the boys and girls still in the life," she said.
There are also some in Utah working to create organizations to help create awareness and support for those in this state who may be involved in human trafficking. Tyler Brklacich of BackyardBroadcast.org said they emphasize awareness and education in the community. While he is uncertain how prevalent a problem this is in Utah, he's been told by law enforcement officers that there is about one case a week in Utah.
"We need to understand that there is so much we don't know," he said. "We want this to become a household issue."
Kimberly Bell, who works with a nonprofit organization in Salt Lake City that helps the homeless in the city, said they have encountered homeless prostitutes and are working to learn more about how to help children who may have been forced into prostitution. The symposium, and the stories of the survivors, left her looking to the future,
"I feel really motivated," she said. "There are a lot of resources, connections with a lot of groups who can help me. We're starting from ground zero. It's pretty small, but it's growing. It's hopeful."