Alice can talk about almost everything with clear eyes and a steady voice.
Almost everything: her multiple experiences of being molested by a neighbor when she was 5 and 8 years old; the gang rape she suffered when she was 12; and the coercion and threats that made her a victim of human trafficking for four years. But when talking about the women who did not make it out — the women who died within the bonds of what is considered to be modern-day slavery — Alice’s voice cracks.
“I saw a lot of women pass. I saw a lot of women die,” she said. “And so, that’s why I do this, because I want to speak for them.”
Alice, a Henrico County native, now is 27 and a full-time advocate for victims of human trafficking.
She declined to share her real name or where she works, and she asked not to be photographed for this article to protect her and her family from the traffickers who abused her.
To help women like Alice, locally based Safe Harbor, a nonprofit organization that offers support to survivors of sexual and domestic violence, is preparing to open a shelter for victims of human trafficking.
When she was 13, Alice was coerced into a human-trafficking situation largely through threats to her personal safety and to those she loved.
It was the threat that they would harm her family, she said, that really frightened her. She has a sister with cerebral palsy.
“She’s my world,” Alice said.
For four years of her life, Alice was trafficked to “high-profile individuals,” she said, for $25,000 to $50,000.
“Human trafficking is such a complex issue,” Alice said. “I dislike when people use the words prostitute and pimp and things like that, because those aren’t realistic terms that we use. There’s trafficker and the person being trafficked. There’s no in-between.”
The global human-trafficking industry produces about $32 billion annually, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. And while 600,000 to 800,000 people — mostly women — are trafficked across international borders every year, some are trafficked in central Virginia.
Alice pointed out that Richmond is easy to reach, with multiple interstate highways leading to the area.
“You don’t understand how many people come through here, and you would never know and it’s terrifying. It’s awful,” she said.
“Richmond needs to wake up and be part of the support system. This is where your children live. Don’t you want to be part of the solution?”
She was 17 when she became free, as she phrases it, because she was injured and her traffickers “had no use” for her anymore.
It was 2007, and she said there virtually were no support services available for people like her. She was able to go back to her family, but it took years to find the appropriate counseling program and to get the help she needed.
“There are so many women who will never share their stories, because they don’t feel like they have a safe place,” Alice said.
The Safe Harbor shelter is set to open in early January. The location will not be disclosed as part of an effort to protect its residents.
The shelter will provide adult female victims with counseling, safety planning and case management. Forensic nurses with Bon Secours Richmond Health System will supply health care.
“Human trafficking is a form of modern slavery in which people profit from the control and exploitation of others,” said Cathy Easter, Safe Harbor’s executive director, at a news conference Wednesday at Bon Secours St. Mary’s Hospital during which Safe Harbor and Bon Secours announced the new shelter.
“A one-time sexual assault is a horrible thing — human-trafficking victims experience repeated sexual assault and psychological manipulation,” Easter said.
Safe Harbor received $500,000 from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services’ new victim-assistance grant program to staff and operate the shelter.
There currently is no dedicated shelter for victims of human trafficking in central Virginia. They must be sent to other parts of the state to find a space designated for them, or go out of state for those services.
“It will take all of us, in this room and in many rooms beyond, doing everything we can to eradicate modern-day slavery, or human trafficking, from the greater metro Richmond area,” said Peter McCourt, vice president of mission for the Bon Secours Virginia Health System.
Now, in addition to working as an advocate for victims, Alice has three academic degrees — one in criminal justice and two in psychology, including a master’s degree in clinical psychology, of which she said she is very proud.
“My academia is one of my biggest accomplishments,” she said. “Because coming from that (trafficking experience), you don’t feel smart and you don’t feel valued as an intellectual. So it’s one of the things I’m most proud of — being an intelligent person.
“People always say, ‘Don’t you ever want to get revenge or get back or put them in jail?’ I say, the best revenge that I can get is to live a happy and fulfilled life and say that you didn’t get me. You didn’t stop me. And you’re not going to.”
Alice has post-traumatic stress disorder and still suffers from night terrors. She said she is doing much better, even if she still has her bad days.
It took her a long time, she said, to learn to let herself feel again.
She tells the women with whom she works, who usually are 25 to 35 years old, that it is OK to feel scared and worried and even happy sometimes.
Feeling happy was hard for her, she said, because she has dealt with such intense guilt over the fact that she got out of the trafficking situation and others didn’t.
But now when she cries, she describes it as a mixture of happiness and sadness. She’s happy she was spared, happy she was given the opportunity to help others. And she carries the spirit of those who did not make it out with her.