Experts warn of trafficking ahead of Super Bowl 53

“I’m out here selling myself,” a trafficking survivor recalls thinking. “What would be my way out?”
S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) volunteers will place small bars of soap in the bathrooms of busy commercial areas, such as hotels, ahead of the Super Bowl. Labels on the back provide a hotline number for victims or advocates to call. (handout photo)

S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) volunteers will place small bars of soap in the bathrooms of busy commercial areas, such as hotels, ahead of the Super Bowl. Labels on the back provide a hotline number for victims or advocates to call. (handout photo)

Theresa Flores is coming to Atlanta ahead of the Rams-Patriots matchup on Feb. 3, but not to cheer. She hopes to rescue fellow victims of human trafficking, a crime that experts say can surge when lots of free-spending travelers are around

“This is our eighth Super Bowl,” said Flores, founder of the S.O.A.P. (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution) Project. Volunteers label small bars of soap, for distribution in the bathrooms of hotels and other busy commercial areas, with a message to potential victims and the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline. “We’ve given away 1 million bars.”

The effort comes as the city of Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport prepare for the ATL End Human Trafficking Summit, planned for 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday at Georgia International Convention Center.

“The city of Atlanta is committed to ending human trafficking of all people,” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said in a statement.

The problem isn't confined to any one area. Last year, four people were charged with trafficking after a 15-year-old girl told police she'd been forced to have sex with numerous men at a Marietta Days Inn. More recently, Cobb County District Attorney Vic Reynolds sued a Masters Inn under Georgia's public nuisance law. The motel, which authorities called a "notorious hotbed of criminal activity," agreed to add armed guards, confirm guests with photo IDs and hang posters warning against sex trafficking.

Gwinnett County is prosecuting a Riverdale woman accused of running a sex trafficking operation involving 14- and 15-year-old girls. Officers say training they'd received ahead of the Super Bowl led to the arrest.

Mary Frances Bowley, founder and executive director of Wellspring Living, which fights childhood sexual abuse and exploitation, said the game's busy and celebratory atmosphere can attract a criminal element along with sports fans.

“There will be more opportunity for trafficking to happen. The traffickers know that,” said Bowley, whose organization offers residential programs for girls and young women, along with life skills and job training. “A lot of times, because there’s so much mind coercion, girls don’t always walk away.”

She advocates a gut-check approach to helping possible victims. A girl or young woman with a much-older male partner who seems to exert control over her, or a group of young women who seem under the sway of a sole man (or even an older woman), can be cause for concern, she said.

“If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t right,” said Bowley, who suggests calling authorities rather than intervening.

One of Wellspring’s successful graduates is Sierra Thompson, who turns 23 on Thursday. She said she grew up in a loving Henry County home but came to embody the “good girl dating bad guys” persona and dropped out of high school her senior year. She connected with a man on Instagram, lured by photos of luxury cars and fashion. He encouraged her to travel to Houston, promising an exciting and glamorous adventure.

“Just being young and naive, I went for it,” Thompson said.

Trafficking survivor Sierra Thompson is now an administrative clerk at the law firm Greenberg Traurig. AJC photo: Hyosub Shin

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Her paramour was wearing a designer suit when he picked her up from the airport, and they zoomed off in a sleek Dodge Charger. “We spent one night with each other. The next day, I went to work.”

Initially, she was just dancing in the club she described as “dirty, raunchy and small,” its VIP area littered with used condoms. Under the tutelage of other dancers, she began having sex for money, she said. She gave most of it back to the man she was with. When he’d spend some of it on salon visits or designer handbags for her, she’d feel grateful. She felt a romantic connection, even though he could be abusive.

“I felt like I fell in love with a fakeness,” she said. “I let a messed up person mess me up. I look at it as brainwashing,”

They didn’t stay in one place long. The man took her to Hawaii ahead of the 2016 Pro Bowl, supposedly for her birthday.

“At first, he made sure we had fun and enjoyed the scenery. He disguised it with fun things to do,” she said. Soon, though, she was plying her trade in bars teeming with tourists. By then she’d turned to drugs and alcohol to dull herself to her environment.

“I’m out here selling myself,” she recalls thinking. “What would be my way out?”

Eventually, Thompson reached out to her mother, who wired money for a plane ticket home. Their relationship is now closer than ever and they talk every day on the phone. Thanks to Wellspring, Thompson has her GED and works as an administrative clerk at the law firm Greenberg Traurig. She’s living with her grandmother and hopes to have her own place soon.

“Sometimes, I just can’t believe it,” she said of her triumphant transformation. “I was in this dark place. I went into the light.”

AJC photo: Hyosub Shin

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She has been speaking publicly on behalf of Wellspring, to encourage others hoping for a way out. Fearing retaliation, she does not name the man she came to realize was her pimp, not her boyfriend.

Flores, the S.O.A.P. project founder, had a much longer journey from victim to advocate. In her books, "The Slave Across the Street" and "Slavery in the Land of the Free," a TEDx talk and the documentary "The Girl Next Door," she shares how she was lured into trafficking as a high school freshman in the 1980s.

Theresa Flores, shown in a 1982 family photo, was lured into trafficking as a high school freshman and came to terms with it only decades later.

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Her family, which relocated often due to her father’s corporate promotions, had just moved to an affluent Detroit suburb when a guy she had a crush on offered her a ride after school. He drove to his home instead, where Flores accepted his offer of a glass of soda, not realizing it was spiked with a substance that knocked her out.

The next day, she said, the boy handed her nude photos of herself that he and two older boys took while she’d been incapacitated. Her only option, they said, was to “earn them back.”

“I thought, do their homework? Clean their house? I didn’t know what he meant,” Flores recalled. Instead, they pressed her into prostituting herself with hundreds of men. She sneaked out at night to meet her captors.

“They threatened to kill my parents if I told,” Flores said. “I had three younger brothers. They kept threatening them.”

Ashamed to ask for help, she told no one. Her family’s next corporate move ended her contact with the traffickers. It was decades before she came to terms with the trauma.

Flores — who holds undergraduate degrees in social work from Eastern Connecticut State and Ball State universities and a masters in counseling education from the University of Dayton — was attending a conference when a panel on sex trafficking began to feel familiar.

“Within five minutes of sitting there, I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s me,’” she said.

Now a mom herself, she thinks of the red flags people missed all those years ago. Her sliding grades, her withdrawn attitude, how she’d fall asleep in class.

“I can see how everybody second-guessed it away,” she said. Her advice for for anyone who sees something: “Trust that little voice.”

The bars of soap she and other volunteers will distribute have the phone number of the hotline (1-888-373-7888) and a simple message. “Are you being forced to do anything you do not want to do?” it begins. “Have you been threatened if you try to leave?”