Moniquika Sutton had been roaming the streets for days in search of food, shelter and safety. She simply had nowhere else to go.
After the Baltimore resident was cut off from her family, had her son taken away and was left homeless, her soon-to-be pimp offered her a way out.
“He asked if I wanted to get into the car,” Sutton said. “I wasn’t going to be stuck outside anymore. I was going to be OK.”
But she soon realized that wasn’t going to be the case. The man who first befriended her with gifts and money turned violent when Sutton attempted to resist his orders, resulting in bruises, black eyes, burn marks and other injuries. It took some time, but Sutton finally mustered the courage to seek the help and support she needed to escape.
Now Sutton, 33, a human trafficking advocate for Safe House of Hope since 2012, is doing her part to encourage others to speak out.
On Thursday, she shared her story at a Baltimore City Council Education and Youth Committee public hearing, held at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, to draw attention to human trafficking.
“It’s a stigma, and it shouldn’t be,” Sutton said of human trafficking victims. “This is why people hide being a trafficked victim or being in an abusive domestic situation; they fear being judged. It’s made known to them in society that it’s not OK.”
In recent years, coalitions and task forces have emerged from across Maryland to curb the illegal practice. They have brought advocates, social service workers and law enforcement officials together to target traffickers and improve the safety net for victims.
Activists believe they could raise even more awareness if they teach community members how to detect human trafficking cases.
“Human trafficking is pervasive, and it’s an issue that affects the entire community,” said Adam Rosenberg, executive director of the Baltimore Child Abuse Center. “There are children who are at much greater risk of being trafficked who are victims of abuse and neglect. As a result, they have been falling into bad circumstances and trafficking.”
Although Sutton was lured into human trafficking in her mid-20s, Capt. Steve Hohman of the Baltimore Police Department noted boys and girls are typically ages 14 to 17 when they become victims.
Hohman, commander of the Baltimore Police Department’s Special Investigations Section, which contains the Sex Offense Unit, said pimps prey on children with low self-esteem who come from dysfunctional homes.
“Typically, this begins with runaway youth, missing youth or consensual encounters with trusted adults,” Hohman said.
Over the last year and a half, Hohman said the BPD has “updated a lot of its policy” to address human trafficking investigations, partnering with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Hohman said NCMEC officials notify BPD officers for each case in which a 14- to 17-year-old child goes missing. Then, an analysis is conducted to see if the missing child is being subjected to human trafficking.
“We’re obviously not where we need to be, but I think we’re making great strides of really addressing this issue,” Hohman said.
Advocates said the fight against sex trafficking is complicated because victims feel connected to their abusers through psychological and emotional bonds.
Monica Yorkman, 63, of Baltimore, is co-founder of the Baltimore Transgender Alliance. Yorkman, a transgender woman and human trafficking survivor, said she feels creating family-oriented shelters would help tackle these issues at their roots rather than only address issues such as substance abuse.
“It’s easier to deal with the hell that you know than the hell that you don’t know,” said Yorkman, who survived 30 years of alcohol and drug abuse. “I wouldn’t go into a kid-friendly room with nice walls to talk to a stranger, no matter what they promised me, even if my abuser and trafficker threatened to kill me.”
Because human trafficking is difficult to track, it is unknown how widespread the problem actually is, Rosenberg said.
Last year, 66 human trafficking cases were reported in Maryland, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. Nationwide, more than 3,600 cases were reported.
“Baltimore is a city that focuses on three numbers: the Orioles score, the Ravens score and the homicide rate,” said Rosenberg, a former city state’s attorney who once prosecuted sex offense cases.
As advocates have worked to push the issue to the political forefront and more victims have come forward, there has been no shortage of support from local Jewish officials.
In December, the Baltimore Jewish Council hosted an event on the subject, providing nearly 50 participants with useful tips, resources and a means to raise awareness on the devastating effects of human trafficking.
Councilman Zeke Cohen (D-District 1), chair of the council’s Education and Youth Committee, said he is focused on moving away from an approach that criminalizes prostitution. He said his goal is to protect trafficked victims from prosecutions and provide them with social services by working with Mayor Catherine Pugh’s office and state legislators.
“The best advocates are those who have been treated and been through this,” Cohen said. “It’s empowering to hear these people share their stories, because as someone on the City Council, it is important to know what actions we should take and how early this problem starts for people in our city.”
Those who study human trafficking say victims need proper care because they may continue to suffer mentally or physically after being rescued. Some even return to prostitution because they have nowhere else to turn.
At the hearing, Baltimore Public Schools chief of staff Alison Perkins-Cohen gave tips on what signs to look for. Possible signs of human trafficking, she said, include bruises or physical trauma, drug addiction, homelessness and frequent travel to other cities.
She said 34 social workers in city schools have been trained so far, and there are plans to expand the training to bus drivers, school police officers, teachers and other officials.
“If these signs are suspected at all, then people should be reporting,” Perkins-Cohen said. “We really need to make sure we have staff members at various levels who can recognize these signs. Traffickers are becoming more aware of things like kids being not being taken out of school and getting good grades, so it’s harder to look for certain things.”
For her part, Sutton felt compelled to share her story, in part, to prevent others from falling victim to a similar fate. After receiving counseling, she said she was reminded that life is short and that no one should suffer from the past.
Ultimately, she hopes shedding light on human trafficking will make people more aware so that she can help save others.
“The way we can help is through stronger support systems,” Sutton said. “In order for you to feel comfortable in your own skin, you need support.”