There are an estimated 403,000 people living in modern slavery in the United States (GSI 2018). Sex trafficking exists throughout the country. Traffickers use violence, threats, lies, debt bondage and other forms of coercion to compel adults and children to engage in commercial sex acts against their will. The situations that sex trafficking victims face vary, many victims become romantically involved with someone who then forces them into prostitution. Others are lured with false promises of a job, and some are forced to sell sex by members of their own families. Victims of sex trafficking include both foreign nationals and US citizens, with women making up the majority of those trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation. In 2015, the most reported venues/industries for sex trafficking included commercial-front brothels, hotel/motel-based trafficking, online advertisements with unknown locations, residential brothels, and street-based sex trafficking.
Melissa was sexually abused from a young age. At the age of 12 she was taken to a warehouse where she was forced to provide sexual services to much older men. Melissa was subjected to extreme physical violence one night when she was set on fire at the age of 13. When authorities tried to return her to her family after the incident, she chose to run away, join a gang and continue a life of prostitution for some time.
I grew up in a small Texas town, about the size of the town that you guys are in.
I was four years old the very first time that I lost my innocence. It was stolen from me for stealing a pack of 25c. bubble gum. I remember I was sitting on the bed waiting for my punishment and I remember looking up at the clock as if it was yesterday and the minutes just clicking away and never knowing what was about to happen. And that began the grooming stage for what was laying up ahead.
Through molestation, through pornography and through just being used as a rag doll, that began at the age of four and it carried on until about the sixth grade. I didn’t know it was wrong, I thought this is just what daddies do to daughters. And so in the sixth grade I was watching a movie that the school had put out about the birds and the bees (you remember that talk, I’m sure) and it said at the end of it that if you were being abused you should tell somebody and so being the compliant little child that I was not wanting to get into trouble I thought I was doing the right thing and so I told.
But both of my parents were pillars of the community. My dad was a Baptist pastor and my mother was a school teacher and that was the front that everybody got to see. But behind the scenes was a very different life. So at the age of- in sixth grade, at the age of about 12, I told, and that was the last day of any sense of normalcy that I would ever experience until I was in my twenties.
I was taken underground to a Dallas Texas warehouse. Now things are very different now, but this is my story of where it went and how it’s evolved. I was chained to a twin-sized bed, for 16 hours a day and then in the evenings they would doll me up, and present me as a willing little girl to men who were my dad and my grandfather’s age. And this is the life that I went through. Sometimes it was five men a night, sometimes it was 30 men a night, but there was no shortage of predators. Night after night after night. And if you decided to run (you probably can’t see ‘cause I’m light skinned and I’ve got a dress on) but they would take hot irons and they would stick it to your skin until they got enough of the flesh and then they would just yank it off. And this is what happens if you run or you get what’s called a pimp stick where they take a metal wire coat hanger, they heat it up, and they just strike you until the flesh from your back comes off. And these are what these kids do, so when people say, “Why don’t they run?” this is still what we see in case after case after case.
So the only sense of hope is to kind of stick through. Well I was thirteen going on fourteen years old and one night a customer walked in with a small cask of lighter fluid and said, “My dream is to see a child burn to death and I choose you.” And for a minute, my heart stopped. And then I thought, “Yes. There is a God and I can get the heck out of here.” And I was ready. Unfortunately, God wasn’t ready to take me – he had other bigger and better plans – and I woke up several days later. The story was that a- when they came to pick up the dumpsters, I was laying on top of trash, they literally saw me and said, “I think she’s alive” and they took me to Parkland Burn Unit where I spent the next year and a half undergoing over 17 surgeries to fix what they had done. And then I began to- as the time got nearer and it was getting closer for me to go back home, I began trying to speak, you know, and trying to explain this. Well human trafficking, like, no, and you’ve got great parents and you’re a drug addict and you’ve been a missing child (I was put out as a missing child, if you remember back in the day when they used to have the milk cartons and they had the kids on the back of the milk carton, that was me. I was one of those kids). And so I began trying to explain that you can’t send me home, and when they decided that they weren’t going to listen to me, I decided that I was going to hit the streets. And I knew that there was a community that I could be safe in because it was not the best of communities and so I left and I went to a small part of Dallas where I stuck out like a sore thumb but they could keep me protected and I found my new family. And I joined the Cripps. And so I was in a gang.
I got through trying- the same way I had got through the rest of my life expect this time it was- I thought as a lot of these girls do, it’s my own free will, but in order to eat and to have somewhere to sleep and have somebody to protect you, then this is what they often do. A lot of times a child does not just run away from home. Yes, sometimes it is rebellious, sometimes they’re grounded from their cell phone or they’re grounded from their computers and they decide, “You know what, I’m sick of rules, I want to make it on my own” and they walk out the door. Majority of those children come back. The children who often leave and you don’t see come back, it’s because they left abuse and they went to abuse. A lot of what we see is kids who- they don’t understand what is love and so “Daddy abuses me and then well this guy he abuses me too but then the next day we’re like literally going to Disneyland” (this is what happens in California) and so I went through. That became my life and then at the age of 17 my trafficker got arrested for other charges and I joined the adult entertainment industry and that’s kind of where I was until at the age of 27, um, kind of backwards I had three children by three different men. Was married a multitude of times and trying to recover I had a terrible drug addiction. The very first time that I was shot up with heroin according to my parents (that I now talk to: God’s good, there’s grace I’m telling you, there’s a lot of grace in forgiveness) um, was five years old and I wasn’t aware of that, but I was five the very first time so I never knew a day without drugs ‘til at the age of 27 I’d spiralled out of control I’d lost my kids I’d been in and out of rehabs. Everybody would say, “There’s no hope, she is just an addict, she’s just, you know, a street girl, just no hope.” And by human standards, not God’s standards but by human standards that would have been the case, but at five my little girl came to visit me and she said, “I want to talk to you” and I said, “What do you want to talk about?” and she said, “I wanna have big girl time” and I said “Well I don’t really want to hear that” because how many of us as parents, you know, you kind of mess up you don’t really want to hear what your kids have to say about you. So I didn’t want to hear this. And she’s like- “Okay so what do you want to talk about?” and she said, “I wanna talk about my big Jesus” and I was like, “Woah, we can just stop that right there.” I said, “I know all about your big Jesus, you see I was raised in church ‘til the 6th grade, my dad was a pastor I know- and there is no God and no God and no Melissa.” But instead what she shared with me- she went on and we ended up talking and she shared with me a message of grace, hope, and forgiveness. A message like, it wasn’t hell and brimstone and fire I wasn’t a mess up and I wasn’t unlovable and it was a very different message and the holy spirit used a five year old little girl to minister the gospel to me in a way that I’d never heard it. And I sat outside after she went to sleep- she asked she said, “Mummy, can we go to church in the morning?” I said, “Momma don’t have no clothes to wear, and I wasn’t lying, I really didn’t have nothing to wear. So we went outside- I went outside and I was about to shoot up and get drunk on Tequila because that was my nightly ritual and instead God began talking to me and I said, “Alright God I’ll tell you what. We can talk, but I don’t think you want to hear” and he said, “Gimme your best shot.” See God isn’t afraid of our messiness and our ugliness he wants our honesty and our transparency and if we just talk to him the same way that we talk to our spouses and our best friend, he can deal with that. And so I said, “Alright, where you been? You know, you want me to come to you, but where have you been? Because I haven’t seen you.” And all of a sudden, he began to show me what my physical eyes could not see in the spiritual realm. And what he showed me was that every moment of every abuseful act that I went through and that every tear that I cried, he was carrying me in his arms and not for one second did he ever let me go. And he said, “I’m your daddy. I love you. And if you’ll give me your ugliness, I’ll give you beauty for ashes” and I’d never heard ‘beauty for ashes’ and I said, “Ok. Well I’ll make you a deal. I’m a gambling girl, are you a gambling God? If I give you my addiction, if you’ll take my addiction from me and you’ll fix me and you’ll heal me and you’ll change me from the inside out, I will serve you every day for the rest of my life.” And here I sit 13 years later still sharing my testimony.
I told God, “Now I made that statement, I’m gonna serve you” but a lot of times we say that and we don’t really realise what we’re getting into. And I didn’t- I was like, “Okay, I can, you know, serve on the prison team, I can dance for God I can sing for Jesus I can do anything but he was like, “No, I want you to go out and I want you to set the captives free and I want you to share your message and I want you to rescue kids.” No. We can do anything and everything but no. So for a year and a half I fought that and then through a series of events I began working a lot with Congress on changing laws and a lot of sharing my story: doing everything I could behind the scenes but not really getting involved. And there was a case in Houston, and it involved 12 children, the youngest being one year old. And they called me and they said, “Melissa we need your help.” It was like 1 o’clock in the morning and I said you’ve got the wrong girl and I hung up the phone, turned around and went back to sleep. 7am the next morning I was getting a plane ticket and I was going to Houston and that was my very first rescue.
I served with 53 counties in North Texas and the North Texas Anti-Trafficking Task Force and I served with two officers, a social worker and me. And what we realised was that police officers were not informed, so we trained law enforcement and got them ready to be able to spot what human trafficking was, to even know what to do if they saw a child out on the street or how to distinguish the difference between prostitution and prostituted. And so that was where I had started at.
I then began working with officers and began working a little bit on the rescue side, and having a street background and understanding the lingo and presenting it in a very different way was kind of their ticket to being able to do a lot of important rescues. I had over 200 officers, I’m very thankful to all of them, write to Governor Rick Perry and I was the first ever human trafficking victim to ever have her record completely expunged. And it was gone. So then I was like, “Well I wanna be a cop too” so I actually went through the police academy and what I began to see was that I can’t make the same difference. So I asked two other officers to stand beside me and to form for the sake of one, and what we decided to do, I went through school to become a private investigator went through a lot of training and knowledge and background of how to do certain things and our mission was to prevent, rescue and heal. On the prevention side was taking a curriculum to officers, to social workers, to medical professionals and to school teachers and to train them on what to see and to be the eyes and the ears that we can’t always be. And then I began sharing my story a lot more publicly. I got into media, I’ve gone everywhere from ‘Good Morning America’ to ‘The 700 Club’ sharing my story. And then on the rescue side was simply rescuing children. We’ve got 230 kids we’ve rescued in the last seven years. And then the healing side was Asaih’s house: we had a ranch that was 7,000 square ft that set up in Montana. The ranch is still open but For the Sake of One and everything kind of had to part ways. They wanted it to be Government grant funded ‘cause we were low on funds, and I said I was going to serve God so I cannot take Jesus away from these kids because that’s what they need the most. When somebody says, “What do they need the most?” I say they need to understand that there is a God and that miracles do happen and the grace and love and forgiveness that is available to each and every one of them – I can save a body but I can’t save a soul, that’s his job.
So that’s what we began doing, and now we are strictly- we are revamping and refocusing. I graduate college in August. I went from a 6th grade education to college and praise God I did alright (I’m a 4.5 GPA) so I made it into Mensa society which I’m very proud of (that’s the top 1 percent of intelligent people). I went from nothing to this and it’s all by God’s grace.
Each one of your children and grandchildren (if you have internet access) is susceptible to it. It only takes the click of a button. Social media, Facebook is the number one way that these men find these girls.
These children are invisible. They’re visible invisible, in other words we see them all the time, we don’t necessarily know what to look for, so some of the red flags is- I say this as a mom: you know that little gut feeling that’s like, “This kid shouldn’t be at this place this just doesn’t feel right, it just doesn’t look right.” It’s always safer to be safe than sorry. But some of the red flags to look for are excessive amounts of cash, clothing that doesn’t fit appropriately (yes I know that teens, you know, sometimes are a little bit more on the-) but you can just kind of spot them, they just don’t fit in that well. Excessive bruising, looking dishevelled like they’re afraid, that look in your eyes that’s like, “Help me, I’m stuck, I need your help.” It’s kind of like a deer in the headlight look.
Forgiveness is what set me free. It wasn’t the literal chains. After I became a Christian, you know, sanctification’s a process, salvation’s instant, so if you- one of my favourite professors says, “If you were stupid when you got saved you’re going to be stupid after you got saved.” So I had to learn like, I was bitter and I was angry and by the time I was 27 I had been to jail 25 times and most of the times for assault. I was angry, you just look at me the wrong way and I was like, really we’re going to go there. Hurting other people lessened my pain, and so I just walked around in this hatred towards everybody, especially towards men. And it wasn’t until I realised a message that came to me about what forgiveness was and it was like, “Forgiveness isn’t for that person, forgiveness is for you.” And I thought, “Hmm, I can forgive a lot of things but I’m not too sure that I can forgive my mum and my dad.” But I worked through it and what I came to realise was it changed me. That’s what saved me and that’s what made me who I was: was the ability to let go and let God- his vengeance is so much stronger than anything I could have ever done. I was poisoning myself and expecting them to die from my own poison I was drinking. And so for me, grace and forgiveness is it doesn’t matter how much someone has wronged you. I didn’t live a perfect life, I didn’t die on the cross for my parent’s sins, so I figured you know what, if they’re going to go to hell, well then they’re going to go to hell with me wrapped around their ankles. And my mom is now a born-again Christian, we now have a relationship. My dad and I, we’ve not seen each other, but we do speak on the phone, and we’re developing, we’re getting there after all of this time. So it gives you the inner peace. It allows you to be the person that God intended you to be. So if you’ve got any kind of hidden unforgiveness that you just can’t let go, do it for yourself and they’ll reap the benefits as well.
Narrative and image provided by Tyro Christian Church