A Road Back from Walking the Streets
The county tackles sex trafficking
by Patrick Dunn
Christina Linguidi was ten years old the first time she was sold for sex. Sexually assaulted by her father at an early age, she'd been placed in a foster home in Lansing. But her foster mother was physically abusive, so when her foster sister asked her to run away with her, Linguidi agreed.
She didn't realize the older girl was taking her to the home of her pimp.
"I didn't know about trafficking" children as prostitutes, Linguidi says. "I came from a sexually abusive home, so sex and those kinds of things came very naturally to me. I was used to being abused."
The pimp sold Linguidi to men for more than three weeks before she got away by running down a fire escape. The police returned her to the same foster home, but that wouldn't be her last experience with sex trafficking. About a year later, in a different foster home, her foster mother's girlfriend sold her in exchange for drugs.
Linguidi, who now lives in Ann Arbor, says police and her caseworkers repeatedly dismissed her stories of being forced into prostitution. "They look at you as marked, as [if] something's wrong with you," she says. "You're just a problem child. You're going to do anything to get attention, you're going to do anything to get in trouble, and that's what they view you as."
Peg Talburtt compares the way society has responded to sex trafficking to the way it once ignored domestic violence. "Women were primarily the victims," says Talburtt, the chief executive of the Lovelight Foundation, an Ann Arbor-based women's charity founded by Detroit philanthropists Peter Cummings and Julie Fisher Cummings. "Police were not your friends. If they were called, they might just come by and ask what the disturbance was about and tell people to just settle down. Men, the abusers, were not put in jail."
Now, nearly twenty years after Linguidi was first sold, Talburtt says the issue of human sex trafficking has begun to reach a
tipping point in public awareness. In January, the Women's Court of Washtenaw County officially opened for business.
The court is funded by a grant of $58,800 from the State of Michigan's Court Performance Innovation Fund. Judge Charles Pope of Ypsilanti's 14B District Court spearheaded the county's grant application with the U-M Human Trafficking Clinic, and Pope is the new court's judge. "Most of the [county's prostitution] cases are from a particular corridor that runs through Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township," explains Elizabeth Hines, chief judge of the Fifteenth District Court. "It made all the sense that we would transfer any cases from here to Judge Pope."
Prostitution charges countywide are now automatically referred to Pope. Each woman is assigned a court-provided case manager, and Pope will have the option to provide a variety of rehabilitation services to those determined to be trafficking victims.
Elizabeth Campbell, a clinical assistant professor of law at the Human Trafficking Clinic, says that puts Washtenaw County "light years" ahead of other communities' infrastructures for identifying and resolving trafficking cases.
"Part of the problem is it's a hefty task," Campbell says. "I would be lying if I said it was easy for us to set up an alternative. And that's one of the reasons we've been slow as a society to set it up, because it's an overwhelming problem."
POPULAR AND PROFITABLE
When the problem of sex trafficking comes up, Talburtt says, "the typical reaction is, 'Well, this can't be an issue in our community.' And then you start to dig a little deeper."
A 2011 FBI bulletin recognized human sex trafficking as "the fastest-growing business of organized crime." Michigan State Police detective sergeant Edward Price, who works with the Southeast Michigan Crimes Against Children Task Force, says selling people is a lot easier and a lot more profitable than other illicit trades. "You've got a dope guy--he buys dope, sells it, runs out," Price says. "He goes, has to re-up, buy more, and sell it again. With a human being, once you get them, you can use them over and over and over and over again. Plus they're not getting shot at as much."
Like Christina Linguidi, the typical victim is forced into the sex trade very young. According to the FBI, the average victim is first trafficked between the ages of eleven and fourteen.
Victims are often runaways, or otherwise unhappy with their home lives, and Talburtt says traffickers know how to exploit that. "The pimps are absolutely sophisticated in just surfing Facebooks and reading messages of, let's say, thirteen-year-old girls," she says. "Who's mad at their parents? Who hates their life? And then they cultivate a relationship, sometimes for up to a year." As the trafficker cynically pretends to offer the love that his or her victim lacks, that relationship often becomes a sexual one.
From there, traffickers generally take to the Internet to find customers, posting ads for "dates" on sites like BackPage.com and Eros.com. Price says the majority of trafficking activity in southeast Michigan is concentrated in the suburbs of Detroit, including the Ann Arbor area, where Price says activity has been "picking up." Most activity in Washtenaw County is concentrated on Judge Pope's home turf, where multiple prostitution stings have taken place in recent years along East Michigan Avenue.
But Ann Arbor proper has its share of trafficking activity as well. Last May, an FBI-led bust at the Red Roof Inn on State Street resulted in the arrest of a woman who authorities said had used BackPage to advertise "dates" for a fourteen-year-old girl. The charges have since been dismissed, pending further investigation. Although BackPage and Eros both prohibit ads for underage sex, traffickers can easily dodge that rule by claiming in their ads that their charges are eighteen or older. (In the Red Roof Inn case, the FBI was tipped off by a source who noticed that the girl shown in the ad looked underage.)
Price says those sites and others like them provide the key local marketplace for trafficking. "Before the Internet, girls would be walking around on the street corner," he says. "You would see it. But now with the Internet, it's just happening in all these hotels where the general public doesn't see it. So they don't think it exists because of that." Price also notes that ad postings always increase significantly for U-M football games and other sporting events. "Any time you have a major event, you're going to see trafficking pick up," he says. "You'll get a lot of people from even out of state bringing girls into town just for those events."
The actual number of traffickers and trafficking victims working in Ann Arbor or any other area is hazy, because staying on the move is the name of the game. "To say where they're from is hard," Campbell says. "I have clients who've been forced into prostitution in thirty cities in the metro Detroit-Ann Arbor area. We have seen sex trafficking also in Grand Rapids, in Flint. We definitely tend to have more of a presence in the Washtenaw-Wayne County corridor, I would say, but movement is such a big part of the exploitation that it's hard to pin it down to a particular community."
LOST IN THE SYSTEM
Part of the challenge is that historically, the courts have assumed that women arrested for prostitution chose the life of their own free will. "We look at prostitutes, and we assume they are active, willing participants," Campbell says.
Price agrees. "With the public, and even within law enforcement sometimes, you have to make that mind shift to look a little bit deeper and think about it in a different way," he says. "Some people think that prostitution is just prostitution or it's a victimless crime, and they never dig deeper."
Campbell says the psychological damage inflicted by traffickers can make the determination even more difficult. Depending on the depth of the relationship, the victim may be little help in establishing a trafficking case. "The trafficker is telling the victim that 'The blame is on you. The responsibility is on you,'" Campbell says. "So when we do go and arrest the prostitute, we are reinforcing and giving power to the trafficker."
The second time Christina Linguidi was trafficked, she was sold to a man who she assumes was a relative of her foster mother's girlfriend. She was in his basement when the man's teenaged nephew came downstairs. "I remember I was playing with this Barbie RV, and he literally came down and raped me and walked away, and I went back to playing with my Barbie home," she says. "And I think for me that was the breaking point where I stopped feeling, I stopped caring about it, I stopped thinking anyone was going to help."
Nonetheless, she ran away that night to St. Vincent Children's Home in Lansing, from which she'd originally been placed into foster care. She says the staff there told her they couldn't take her back--and threatened her with juvenile detention if she ran away from the foster home again.
Even when a victim's story is heard, helping women escape prostitution is rarely easy. "I've had a lot of experience in handling this population," Pope says. "On the one hand they're the easiest, and on the other hand they're the most difficult population to deal with. They're polite. They're not difficult people ... But that being said, when you get to the sentencing phase they're a very difficult population to deal with just because they have so many issues going on."
Locally, U-M's Human Trafficking Clinic is a lifeline for victims. The first such clinic in the nation when it opened in 2009, the clinic offers a variety of services, from providing advocates in court to assisting with applications for public benefits. But Campbell says victims' needs generally go far beyond what the clinic alone can provide. "The right alternative is one that sets up a system of identification [of victims], but then sets up a system of long-term community support for that woman," Campbell says. "She may not have appropriate housing. She may be addicted to a substance because her trafficker may have gotten her addicted to that substance. She may have trouble going out and getting a job."
A "BETTER DIRECTION"
That's where the Women's Court will come into play. The state grant will pay a part-time case manager's salary for the next year while also allocating up to $1,175 per case for direct services such as trauma counseling and substance abuse treatment. The case manager will meet with accused prostitutes immediately after they're arrested, assessing each case to determine the possibility of involvement in trafficking. Pope says that defendants determined to be trafficking victims will be placed on probation and sentenced into a rehabilitation program. He's also working with county prosecuting attorneys to allow for a deferral program under which charges may be dismissed entirely if the accused completes rehabilitation successfully.
The state grant will support up to thirty cases this year, after which further funding may be sought if the program is successful. "We've had our share of accosting and soliciting clientele through our courts before," Pope says. "Now, how many of those may be involved in actual trafficking issues? We're going to find out."
The new court isn't the only positive sign locally for rethinking prostitution cases. Campbell says the Ann Arbor Police Department recently brought in representatives from the Human Trafficking Clinic to provide training on how to look for signs of victimization. "There was an example of two cases where technically they brought the woman into custody, but rather than issue charges against her or formally arrest her, they brought my office in, and we were able to assess them so that the women were not criminalized," Campbell says. "That's an enormous success story."
Pope compares the Women's Court to his previous work on the Fifteenth District's Sobriety Court, which gives drunk drivers a chance to enter treatment. Pope says the new court is an "opportunity" to do similar work with "a population that has been not ignored, but very, very, underserved ... They're the ones that have to do all the heavy lifting and make it work for themselves. But it's a very, very gratifying thing when you see it happen."
Linguidi says that while Washtenaw County is "taking steps" to improve the way it handles trafficking, there's still a long way to go. While working a day job as a nanny, she's become an advocate for trafficking victims. She's a member of Michigan State University's Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, and she's also writing a book about her story. After years of struggling with self-harm and trouble forming healthy relationships, she's found support and stability at her church, Harvest Mission, and as an activist speaking out against trafficking.
Linguidi considers herself not just a survivor, but a "thriver." But she says the memories of her ordeal are never going away. "Those are images that are somehow burned into your brain," she says. "Screams--your own screams or your own silence--those things are etched into your memory forever."
[Originally published in April, 2014.]