GATESVILLE, Texas ― When Lici met Joseph at a friend’s party in Killeen, Texas, in 2015, she was a 14-year-old who’d run away from foster care. She liked him from the start. He was kind and just seemed to get her; they both had rough childhoods and he didn’t wince when he saw the self-inflicted cuts on her arms. Joseph made her feel safe, often buying her food and clothes. She says they became “friends with benefits” and it just felt right.
Her mom, Alyson, introduced them. Alyson couldn’t provide Lici with a stable home — Lici says her mom was addicted to drugs and had lost custody when her daughter was 5. But she could show her daughter how to survive on her own. Alyson had already set up Lici with men who’d pay for sex, and Joseph, 18, an alleged pimp, could be even more useful.
Soon after he met Lici, Joseph proposed an idea: He’d hook her up with johns in motel rooms and then he’d rob them. Lici needed the money and felt loyal to Joseph, so she agreed. But she soon saw his darker side. He could be abusive, she said, hitting her when he felt betrayed. Sometimes he took more than his fair share of the money.
At first, the robberies went as planned. Then, one night, things went terribly wrong and she and Joseph ended up behind bars.
Lici, a nickname HuffPost is using to protect her privacy, didn’t see Joseph as her pimp. They were both just trying to survive — together. But under the law, Lici was a victim. As someone under 18 who was paid for sex, she met the legal definition of a trafficking survivor. And any adults who helped her find johns qualified as her traffickers, or pimps. Joseph and Alyson are identified by pseudonyms and didn’t respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Lici’s story is much more common than most Americans want to believe.
Before Jeffrey Epstein — a disgraced financier and convicted sex offender who died of suicide in August — was charged with sex trafficking, many people incorrectly viewed the issue as only an international problem. People think of sex tourists traveling to Southeast Asia or immigrants being shipped in crates across the U.S. border and chained up in basements. President Donald Trump exacerbated these myths by incorrectly claiming that building a wall along the southern border of the U.S. would stop sex trafficking.
There is little precise data on domestic sex trafficking, because victims are hard to identify and there is no standardized system for tracking them. But there are hundreds of thousands of human trafficking victims in the U.S., according to Polaris, an anti-trafficking organization, and studies show that most sex trafficking survivors in this country are U.S.-born women and girls of color who are first exploited as minors. In Texas — which, along with California and Florida, is one of the top three states for sex trafficking cases — there are almost 79,000 victims under 25, according to a 2017 study by the University of Texas at Austin.
As part of an investigation on domestic sex trafficking that includes this article, HuffPost spoke to underage victims who fit a similar profile: They were mostly poor and came from unstable homes, making them easy to exploit. When they did interact with social service agencies or the criminal justice system, they were not recognized as trafficking victims. They were invisible to the very people who were supposed to protect them. Oftentimes they were put behind bars by lawyers and judges who treated them as offenders. They were children who were punished for being vulnerable.
A 15-Year-Old Sentenced To 20 Years
In April, a correctional officer brought Lici into the visitation room of Hilltop Unit, a women’s prison in Texas. Lici, now 18, wore a starchy white prison uniform as she sat in the narrow space with a long row of chairs and a glass panel divider. A thin braid framed her face. She spoke in a soft voice through metal grates about basketball and gymnastics, her favorite sports. She said she loves animals so much that she rescued a bat in her prison cell and kept it as a pet named Batty.
In 2016, 15-year-old Lici was convicted of a felony after she says Joseph persuaded her to commit an armed robbery.
This time the victim wasn’t a john, but a 34-year-old man they had recently met at a friend’s house. He gave them a ride to a nearby park and Joseph pulled out a gun, demanding he hand over his phone and money, according to police reports. The guy escaped as Joseph shot after him. Then Lici and Joseph ditched the car and went back to their friend’s house, where Lici often crashed. That night she was supposed to babysit her friend’s kids, ages 8 and 10. But shortly after she arrived, the police surrounded the property, and they called for Lici and Joseph to come outside. Joseph tried to hide in the attic. Lici panicked and didn’t know what to do. It took two hours for the police to convince her to come out with the kids.
She was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison for aggravated robbery and aggravated kidnapping; Joseph got 15 years for the robbery.
When Lici was arrested, she didn’t think of herself as a victim. The police officers and lawyers involved in her case never identified her as a trafficking survivor, despite the fact that her Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) file was riddled with signs that she was a child vulnerable to predators.
And even if they had, there are no laws in Texas that protect sex trafficking victims who commit crimes related to their exploitation. In June, the governor of Texas vetoed a bill that would have helped survivors like Lici get clemency. And Texas is one of 27 states where minors can still be charge with prostitution, even though federal law says anyone under 18 being paid for sex is a trafficking victim.
At times, Lici spoke about her abusive past like she was reciting a list of facts rather than deep trauma. In other moments she laughed ― a nervous tic ― or became quiet while tears welled up in her eyes, and she stared off into the distance.
She preferred to express herself through spoken-word poems. During a recent visit, she put six pieces of folded lined paper on the wooden ledge in front of her and held one between her hands. She nervously warned that it was “very profane,” then looked down at the page with a serious expression as the lines tumbled out of her mouth:
“My mother used to call me stupid little bitch. She told me I’d never amount to anything, but I knew when she looked me in my eyes she was seeing her reflection, a connection to her past. The time when she was neglected, disrespected by the people who were supposed to show love but instead never gave two fucks. These are the same people who belittled me, told me I was nothing but a piece of pussy and that’s all I’d ever be. For a while I allowed these degrading things to define me, made me forget my quality. I accepted it as my reality.”
Lici was first trafficked around the age of 4, according to her TJJD documents. She says she remembers being sexually assaulted by her mother’s boyfriends, who gave Alyson drugs in exchange for access to her daughter.
The next year, Lici’s life became even more unstable when her mother went to jail for failing to pay traffic tickets. She and her 3-year-old brother ended up in their maternal grandfather’s care. Lici said he sexually abused her, and that they had been living in his car for several days when officers from child protective services came to pick them up, according to her files. The kids were both dressed in soiled clothing and Lici wasn’t wearing socks. She told officials she couldn’t remember the last time she had bathed.
Lici cycled through dozens of placements in foster homes and residential treatment facilities, arrangements that mostly ended because she was too aggressive or ran away. She was physically and sexually abused throughout her life, according to her TJJD file.
When she was 10, Lici was adopted into a family for a few years. Anita C. Roberts, her adopted mother, is a retired lieutenant colonel who did public relations for the U.S. military. She said Lici was a smart, funny and talented kid who was popular at school. But no one in the foster care system had adequately prepared Roberts to handle the girl’s traumatic past and behavioral issues. At first Lici would steal small things, but then she began having aggressive outbursts, running away and self-harming. Roberts couldn’t afford the mental health care bills and Lici was placed back in child protective services.
Records show Lici has multiple mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder. By the time she was 11, Lici had used cocaine, ecstasy and meth. By 14, she had been arrested six times including for running away and assault. At 16, she had already gone through 35 foster homes or residential treatment centers.
Red Flags Go Unnoticed
At no point during Lici’s childhood did anyone identify her as a potential sex trafficking victim, despite having many encounters with mental health care providers, social workers and the police. The adults who could have helped her did not see the clear signs and intervene.
Social service providers, law enforcement officials and attorneys often believe false myths about survivors and aren’t trained to pick up on key red flags. Police officers fail to identify between 55% and 86% of sex trafficking victims in their communities, according to a report the National Institute of Justice released this year that focused on data from two U.S. cities.
“Police officers and jurors and judges don’t come from Mars,” said Amy Farrell, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Northeastern University who co-authored the study. “The dominant American model of sex trafficking is coming from the movie ‘Taken.’ It isn’t surprising that’s the schema people are walking around with.”
Another issue is that law enforcement officials and attorneys are not required to screen offenders for signs of sex trafficking. And if they do, they ask blunt questions that won’t illicit honest answers, such as, “Are you being sex trafficked?”
“It’s very unlikely for someone to make an outcry and say, ‘Yes, I was a victim of human trafficking,’” said Torey Tipton, the director of strategic partnerships at the nonprofit Allies Against Slavery. Tipton said victims might not know the term, or could still be processing their trauma. Others are scared of authority figures, or of ratting out their pimps.
She said it’s better to ask circumstantial questions such as, “Where do you sleep at night?” or “Who takes care of you?” and to look for physical clues of sex trafficking, such as unexplained cash, multiple cellphones or malnourishment.
The Real Face Of Sex Trafficking In America
Predators often exploit people who have something missing from their lives, whether money, love or a stable roof over their heads. This was the case for Lici, and it was also largely the case for the people who have said Epstein abused them, most of whom were underage.
He preyed on runaways. He recruited from high schools and trailer parks. He targeted girls who had drug-addicted parents, knowing they would most likely accept $200 in exchange for a “massage.”
“Like many abusers, he was careful with who he selected,” said Sigrid McCawley, a lawyer who represents some of Epstein’s victims. “He found individuals who were not in good circumstances and who needed assistance.”
Children without homes are particularly vulnerable to predators. Fourteen percent of runaway kids in the U.S. are sex trafficked, according to 2017 data from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The majority of these homeless kids escaped foster care, like Lici.
“Pimps are looking for the lowest common denominator: youth on the street who have no one looking for them,” Tipton said.
Children who have been assaulted in the past also have a high risk of being exploited by pimps. Girls who were sexually abused are 2.5 times more likely to be trafficked than those who were not, according to a 2017 study in the American Journal of Public Health.
“These are words we’re using to describe a child being sold, traded and abused by adult men. The language used throughout these docs reflects the perception that she is no longer a child deserving of our protection, but a woman to be scorned.”
Traffickers also tend to target marginalized groups, such as kids of color or LGBTQ youth. Forty percent of sex trafficking victims are Black, according to the latest available data from the Department of Justice, and 85% of calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2018 were from survivors of color.
Black or brown sex trafficking victims are often viewed as “prostitutes” or “bad girls” rather than as survivors of “unbelievable levels of violence and coercion,” said Yasmin Vafa, the executive director at Rights4Girls, a human rights organization dedicated to ending gender-based violence against girls.
“These types of cases really show who in our society gets to be seen as a child and as a victim,” Vafa said.
Lici, whose father is Black and whose mother is white, was described as “being promiscuous with adult males” in her TJJD files. Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney working on Lici’s case, said that characterization might not have been applied to a blonde-haired, blue-eyed minor in the same situation.
“These are words we’re using to describe a child being sold, traded and abused by adult men,” Henneke said. “The language used throughout these docs reflects the perception that she is no longer a child deserving of our protection, but a woman to be scorned.”
Dispelling The Pimp Myth
In pop culture, pimps are often depicted as cane-wielding criminals in top hats or violent gang members with a stable of girls. And although that type of perpetrator does exist — they are known as “gorilla pimps” — many traffickers don’t fit that stereotypical mold, making it hard for victims to identify the abuser in front of them.
Lici did not initially see herself as a victim, in part because she had an emotional connection to Joseph. She felt close to him. She relied on him. Yes, he was abusive and manipulative. But he was also the only person who seemed to care about her.
Epstein also didn’t fit the mold. He didn’t use violence to control his victims, and he didn’t always come across as a threatening figure.
Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s victims, described her relationship with him and Gislaine Maxwell, the woman who allegedly groomed her, as being “a little fucked-up family.” Giuffre, who is now a 35-year-old mother of three, says she would hike or eat popcorn and watch “Sex and the City” with the same people who sexually exploited her.
“Epstein got a free pass because he was a billionaire,” said McCawley, Giuffre’s lawyer. “His wealth allowed him to be viewed as someone who liked women and not someone who manipulated girl after girl after girl.”
Epstein had a network of recruiters to bring him a rotating cast of underage girls, but other traffickers operate as lone wolves. They develop intimate relationships with their victims or exploit those who trust them already.
Family members are involved in nearly half of child trafficking cases, according to a study from the Counter-Trafficking Data Collaborative. And 14% of all trafficking victims are recruited by intimate partners, who are known as “Romeo pimps” and don’t rely exclusively on violence as a means of recruitment or control. Instead, they use invisible chains such as affection, isolation and verbal abuse to manipulate their victims.
Survivors form trauma bonds with their abusers, which makes it hard for them to see the reality of their situation.
“If you put yourself in a trafficker’s shoes, it’s much easier to take advantage of someone who doesn’t fight you,” Tipton said, “and who doesn’t see the intricacies of how you are taking advantage of them.”
What Could Her Life Have Been?
Lici now recognizes that Joseph exploited her, but she still doesn’t like to think of herself as a victim or to “trash his name.” She points out that he came from a troubled background himself and that he “still deserves a chance to change and become a better person.”
She has less sympathy for Alyson, who she says first persuaded her to have sex with men for money and who introduced her to Joseph. She recently wrote a poem called “A Mother’s Lies,” using a red pencil to highlight all the broken promises her mom made in past letters, like saying, “I’m gonna be there for you” and “I’ll support you in a way that a mother should.”
But her mother isn’t there. In 2015, she was charged with evading arrest after a police officer tried to pull her over and she fled, despite having 10 open warrants out for her arrest due to expired registration, running through a stop sign, and possessing drug paraphernalia. She violated her probation and in March, was locked up for the remainder of her eight-year sentence.
Two lawyers are working to challenge Lici’s sentence on the grounds that her case was not properly investigated. But they wouldn’t have even known about Lici if it weren’t for a student reporter who discovered that she was the youngest inmate being held in a Texas prison and brought the minor to their attention.
There are many young people in similar situations who never get legal help. Instead, they end up punished and retraumatized by the legal system, and there are not enough resources to help them from being trafficked in the first place.
Had someone intervened earlier, Lici might not have been so vulnerable to exploitation.
“She had the opportunity to be someone of note and instead she’s in prison,” said Henneke, one of Lici’s attorneys. “She’s fierce and funny and smart. We can’t prevent every tragedy, but what could her life have been?”
Lici is desperate to get out of prison. She tried to kill herself when she was first transferred from a juvenile detention center to an adult prison in January 2017, and a correctional officer discovered her passed out in her cell. She said she still thinks about suicide. One of her attorneys recently saw marks on Lici’s right inner arm, and fears she has been self-harming again. The prison staff also saw those marks, and in October they put Lici in a medical crisis unit for a few days where she sat in a cell by herself. Lici says her prison uniform and underwear were taken away, and that she was given nothing but a blanket to keep her warm.
Her lawyers filed a complaint to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) on Oct. 1 because Lici hadn’t been given medication she needs to treat her bipolar disorder for at least three months. The TDCJ did not respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
When she gets released, which could take up to 17 years, Lici wants to avoid falling back into what she calls “the fast life” of drugs and crime. One of her latest poems is a goodbye letter to her mom and her past: “I’m starting a new chapter in my life. I’m trading in my rifle for the Bible. I’m ready to let the streets go.”
Her 17-year-old brother, who she hadn’t seen for more than a decade because they were put in different foster homes, recently visited her. “My brother tells me how alone he feels and how he needs me to help,” Lici wrote in a letter to HuffPost. “But there’s nothing I can do in here.”
Lici wants to be a criminal defense attorney to make sure other young people aren’t imprisoned.
“I know how easy it is to fall into that trap, into the fast life, into the boys, into the money,” she said. “Who’s going to help advocate on behalf of them? Nobody, because it doesn’t matter.”
During the last few minutes in the prison’s visitation room, before Lici was handcuffed and brought back to her cell, she looked out a window at a clear blue Texas sky while tears pooled in her eyes.
“When people don’t want to hear you, you make them hear you,” she said. “If I would have said something, then maybe someone would have heard me.”
This is the first article to be published in “Unprotected: America’s Sex Trafficking Crisis,” a series that will run this fall.