Cyntoia Brown was released from prison yesterday, yet she is far from free. She will always be the survivor of rape, of trafficking, and the girl who had to take a life to survive. She will carry with her the triggers that are born of abuse and a childhood that never was.
How do I know? Because I was a “luckier” version of Cyntoia Brown.
I lived on the streets from the age of 13. I wore the same orange jumpsuit and was incarcerated in Juvenile Hall. As a child of the streets, I was arrested twice. The first time was for stealing food from a grocery store. The second time was for Breaking and Entering—I was living in a house that wasn’t mine (I had been invited in by cocaine dealers who were the real target of the police). Most kids would look at Juvenile Hall as a punishment; for me, it was the best place on earth. I liked… loved it there. I was safe, I had a bed, food, shower, and got to go to school. There was structure and nobody was trying to hurt me… most of the time. Looking at Cyntoia’s prison journey, it seems she may have had my experience. She was known as a model prisoner, she completed high school and is about to complete a bachelor’s degree. I haven’t gotten that far. They didn’t keep me in Juvenile Hall, I was released to a foster home that I fled from within two hours. The second time was a group home, and it took me a little over four hours to take-off from that one. Neither felt as safe as kid jail. Neither were as safe as kid jail.
As a child living on the streets, I got ahold of a gun… just like Cyntoia. Unlike Cyntoia, mine did not have ammunition. I carried the gun when I hitchhiked. It saved me from being raped and probably worse. I pulled the gun on a man who attempted to sexually assault me… if it had been loaded, I would have shot him; I would not have had a choice… just like Cyntoia.
As a child living on the streets, a couple tried to lure me into “escorting.” They told me all I would have to do is go out to nice dinners… nothing else. They made it sound exciting. I had never heard of anyone getting paid just to go out to nice restaurants. They painted a picture of beautiful clothes, gifts, spas, and fine dining. For a kid that was going days without food, McDonald’s would have been enough. Thankfully, my instincts kicked in and I took off. I knew it was too good to be true.
I was 14 when I found my first job as a cocktail waitress. I was 14 when my boss, the bartender, tried to sell me to a patron. I declined because of my promise. I was lucky that the patron left without a fuss. The bartender continually tried to groom me with promises of a better and easier life; when that didn’t work, he made my life hell, giving me shifts where I made almost no money. I had managed to get off the streets into my first little apartment at that time; because of him changing my shifts, it was all I could do to pay my weekly rent. There were many nights that I went to bed hungry. The bartender, wanna-be pimp was trying to starve me into submission. Eventually, I was transferred to another bar where life got better… for a while.
I was 15 when I responded to an ad for a new job. The position was for a door-to-door salesperson and it promised salary plus commission, full-on job training, and all expenses paid while traveling throughout the United States. I called the number on the ad and the man painted a picture of what I could only describe as a DREAM job! Basically, I would be getting paid to see the world… what could be better than that?! I can remember how excited I was when the men who hired me pulled up in their van. I got into the back with all my worldly possessions in a small knapsack; no questions asked. The dream job also included so much more than what was advertised; working 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, sharing a room with four other kids, sleeping on the floor, and a full meal a day (on the good days). None of us ever got paid. We were told that we owed money for the travel expenses and meals. A full 35+ years would pass until I realized that I was trafficked for labor. Thanks in part to the sensationalized portrayals of trafficking victims in the media, I viewed trafficking victims as kidnap victims, complete with chained limbs and duct-taped mouths. The reality is that victims of human trafficking are hidden in plain sight. We were not chained or abducted, we were groomed and lured. We were made to believe that because of our “willingness” to participate, we were employees, not victims. This guilty “willingness” keeps us compliant and silent. The lack of chains keeps us from identifying us as what we were; victims of human trafficking.
Like Cyntoia, I carry the scars and live with the triggers that come and go without warning. Unlike Cyntoia, I was never on supervised parole like she will be for the next 10 years. Cyntoia was released into a whole new world, a world that will undoubtedly overwhelm her. She has no concept of what it’s like to live as an adult in a free world. She has never had a driver’s license or a real job. She has never determined her own mealtime(s) or food selections. She has never chosen her bedtime. She has never had a loving relationship. She grew up behind prison walls with her only foray into the outside world being in a courtroom and on TV for millions view, like an animal in the zoo.
As a child who grew up on the streets, my development was arrested. Normal, take-for-granted milestones did not (do not) exist. Imagine being born at 31. It’s impossible, because you aren’t a blank slate. You are the product of all the things that were written on your soul-walls... you are the product of what the world expects you to be. That is also a part of Cyntoia’s continued imprisonment.
All of this being said, I celebrate Cyntoia’s “freedom” and am grateful for the change she has and will bring to the system, victims, and to survivors. As I identify with her life, I do not only see the damage from her victimization, I see her strength. I FEEL her resiliency. I have great hope for her surTHRival. I am grateful to see that she has a support system in place. I hope her loved ones will catapult her forward and catch her when she falls. I hope that when her dust settles and the media attention falls away, she will find her inner calling rather than the one that has been cast upon her.
Beyond celebrating, I also weep for the person she will never become or know she would have become, because like me she was altered and robbed of her choices before the could even grasp the meaning of the word choice.
If you take nothing else from Cyntoia's story, I want you to remember the following:
EVERY 30 seconds another HUMAN BEING becomes a victim of human trafficking. Approximately 27 million human beings are being trafficked throughout the world for sex and/or labor.
CHILDREN who are being sold and raped are still being charged with prostitution, even though legally they cannot consent to have sex.
At a time when resources should be strengthened, President Trump cut funding for victims of trafficking to clear their criminal records that would give them the ability to secure better employment, housing, and allow them to vote.
As much as clemency for Cyntoia is a step forward, we are still continuing to take steps backward. Human trafficking is the second-fastest-growing criminal enterprise in the world.
#ItTakesAVillage to make change.