Dining out for a cause: Sex trafficking survivor raising funds for police training
PITTSFIELD — Sex trafficking reaches all corners of the globe, and manifests in unexpected ways. Sometimes, parents sell their own children for drug money.
That's why it's important, survivor-advocates say, to train those who work in law enforcement and social service organizations to identify the different signs. Artist Jeanet Ingalls, of Lenox, founder of the human trafficking-focused nonprofit Shout Out Loud Productions, is working to bring professional trainers to Western Massachusetts so the community can identify human trafficking victims sooner, and get them the resources they need.
Ingalls calls higher per capita incidences of violent crime and addiction issues in Berkshire County a harbinger for human trafficking. She fears there is more in the community than has been identified so far.
She said young victims — nationwide — are too often misidentified and prosecuted when it's society's job to help them.
"It's a huge issue for me, being a survivor-advocate myself," she said.
Ingalls is launching a fundraising series, Shout Out Loud to Dine Out, in partnership with local restaurants to raise $10,000 that would bring the training program to the area. The training would be led by Tina Frundt, a survivor-advocate appointed by President Barack Obama to serve on the U.S. Advisory Council on Human Trafficking and founder of Courtney's House, a nonprofit that helps child victims of human trafficking.
In the Berkshires, two men currently face human trafficking charges for allegedly running a prostitution ring in Pittsfield. They face allegations they coerced young women — one witness estimated the age of one young woman at about 15 — into sex for sale using drugs and threats.
Western Massachusetts is no safe haven from sex trafficking, Frundt said; there's no such thing.
"It's everywhere," she said. "If we've missed them as a child, all of a sudden they turn 18 and they're not victims anymore. It's our fault as Americans that we created a problem that we're not paying any attention to."
If funds are raised, Frundt and two other experts will travel to the Berkshires and deliver training to those working in the local criminal justice system.
Restaurants participating in the fundraising series agreed to donate 20 percent of profits earned during certain times on select dates in January, National Slavery and Human Trafficking Month.
Human trafficking by definition includes four elements: coercion, transportation, money exchange and fraud. The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children estimates that one in six runaways reported to them were likely sex trafficking victims, and the International Labor Organization estimates there are 4.5 million people in forced sexual exploitation globally.
When Ingalls first began telling her story about seven years ago, people in the media referred to her as a "child sex worker," and that inspired her to launch a more targeted educational campaign. That language implies she had a choice in the matter, but she said she was between 4 and 7 years old at the time her mother trafficked her.
"There is no such thing as a child prostitute," Ingalls said. "A child cannot consent."
Ingalls fought tears as she talked about struggling not to blame herself in a culture that seems to give human trafficking victims so much agency.
"I'm trying to figure this out, every day," she said. "This educational piece is so important."
Ingalls said she became deeply concerned about the ways society misunderstood victims, and what that means for children currently moving through the criminal and social service systems.
She decided to put her film production temporarily on hold in pursuit of first helping those young victims. Her research became her recourse, and that's how she found Frundt.
Ingalls says she carefully selected Frundt's training program, which offers a curriculum for identifying and communicating with victims and would quickly make an impact in Massachusetts.
"I really want that for our state," she said.
Ingalls said victims who go misidentified as prostitutes by law enforcement agencies often end up swept up in the pipeline to prison, where their trauma is compounded. Studies show victims of sex trafficking are disproportionately people of color.
"It's frustrating because you see these kids and they're not happy," she said. "You can see through their eyes — there's a lot of pain."
Ingalls says some perpetrators hone in on kids running away from abusive families. They manipulate them, dote on them for a time and establish themselves as friends or boyfriends.
"That's what grooming is," she said.
She says "gang pimps," however, use party settings to isolate and rape. Then, they shame and blackmail their victims into submission. In cases like her own, the pimp is a drug-addicted family member.
Ingalls argued that most prostitution is actually trafficking, as pimps exploit victims of abuse.
And she rebuffed the notion that prostitution should ever be legalized.
"You can't regulate violence," she said.
For her part, Ingalls wants to draw on her own experience to help others. She lobbies for legislation to protect children from trafficking and sex abuse, like pending legislation that would end child marriage in Massachusetts.
Ingalls was born in the Philippines, then adopted by missionaries from Lenox. She moved to the Berkshires at age 7. But even that trip was hard-won, as she says she came down with malaria soon before she was to leave for the U.S.
"I could hear the doctor telling my mom, `She's not going to make it,'" she recalls.
Hearing that, she said, she dug down and became determined to get better so she could escape her situation.
Now 45, she's still living with the scars of her past, manifesting as brain lesions from the physical abuse she endured. She says it's important child victims start learning healthy outlets as early as possible to make trauma's lasting effects more bearable.
"Trauma is a life sentence," she says. "You can never recover from things like that."
Still, she offers this message of hope: "Life resets itself, and rewrites itself."
Amanda Drane can be reached at email@example.com, @amandadrane on Twitter and at 413-496-6296.
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