BILL NO: House Bill 0827

TITLE: Child Sex Trafficking Screening and Services Act of 2019

COMMITTEE:  Judiciary

HEARING DATE:  February 21, 2019 POSITION:  SUPPORT

Good afternoon esteemed colleagues. My name is Liz Kimbel, and I’m here today to testify on behalf of the Safe Harbor Bill, HB0827.

 I’m standing before you today, both as a service provider at Karana Rising, as well as a survivor of child sex trafficking. I was trafficked in Maryland and the District of Columbia throughout 2001-2004. My experience began in College Park in Prince George’s County, just blocks away from the University’s campus, in the neighborhood where I grew up.

 When my father passed away in 2001, I was only 12 years old. My parents were heavy alcoholics throughout my childhood, and while there was no history of sexual trauma there was ample neglect, chaos, and fear that made my home a haven for emotional abuse.  We often struggled to even have food on the table. When my father died, I was heartbroken. I also was left with the empty void where his abuse used to fill my head with terror. I was lonely in a way I could not express as a young child. My mother had her own struggles with drinking and a history of abuse, so she could not hear my pain.  I was left to fend for myself to just get food and clothes on my back. Teachers didn’t seem to notice me struggling either. I just was labeled as a troubled kid.

 Some months after my father died, I turned to what is known as survival sex.  Only, what might have looked like a choice I was making was in fact the only way I thought I could regain a sense of control. What else could I do? The men who gave me things in exchange for sex took advantage of my hurt and pain at a time when I should have been protected and safe. Survival sex is a sort of oxymoron because it’s not surviving to have men rape you in exchange for food. Every night was a night that could have ended my life out there. I was barely a teenager.

 In 2003, at the age of 14, I met my first trafficker, “T.” We were just a stone’s throw from my home. For 6 weeks, he would keep me in a motel room a block from the University of Maryland campus. I spent my 15th birthday being drugged with cocaine and left in a dark motel room alone. I finally decided to fight back and so I ran. When I escaped the motel and my trafficker, I ran home to my mom. Only, she has not even reported me missing. She had moved away without looking for me. I was alone again.  I could have vanished from this earth and no one would have noticed. Only, thank goodness, I didn’t. 

 Finally, I was able to locate her and convinced her to let me move home. She was unsupportive and cruel, leaving no room or opportunity for healing. The yelling and stigma fell heavy in my house. I felt more alone than before. Within 3 months of returning home to my mother, I met my second trafficker, “Jazzy.” I fell in love and thought I could be redeemed from what had happened in the horrifying months prior. Jazzy proved to offer the opposite, and would instead traffic me throughout PG and Montgomery Counties, DC, and Northern VA.

 From May-August of 2004, Jazzy would force me to engage in sex with 7 to 10 men a night who paid cash for raping me. He told me if I did not meet his quota that he would beat and rape me himself. He would deny me food and make me sleep on the floor as punishment.  It was hell. I started to wonder if that was going to be my life. I still wonder about all those men who raped me.  Didn’t even one of them have a daughter? Why couldn’t they see me as the child I was then? I’ll never know.  What I do know is they were happy to give money to my pimp so that they could do to me whatever they wanted to do.

 One very hot and muggy July night, I had to get into a strange car with a creepy male; my stomach screaming that I should run. Only, where could I run to with Jazzy watching my every move?

It would turn out that this stranger would be a police officer who would rape me violently and kick me from his car without paying me.  You see, that means I needed to go have sex with more men to meet Jaxxy’s quota. If I didn’t, I would be beaten and starved. I started to numb myself from my own body. I had to survive. So, I stopped counting all the men. I stopped even thinking of myself as a victim worth help. I was just a body. I recognize now that I dissociated in order to survive these traumas.  

In fact, many victims of severe trauma and human rights abuses such as sex trafficking do have to disassociate to survive. They do not think anyone is coming to save them.  They do not even believe they are victims. That is why they might act out and be aggressive when you first meet them.  How do you expect a child to act toward adults when every adult they have met turns out to abuse or neglect them?  At that time in my life, I didn’t know what it meant to be protected by an adult. The only person offering false love was a pimp whose love came a violent and degrading cost. It was not even love. It was just abuse.

 A month later, I would be recovered, by local law enforcement and the FBI. A new effort to recover children called Innocence Lost was under way. Children were starting to be viewed as victims. Only, not really.  You see I was still arrested. I was liked to, held in an interrogation room, manipulated, and forced to testify against. Jaxxy. I was told if I did not testify that I would be locked up and so would my mother. I was told I would be put in foster care.  No one told me that I was a victim of sex trafficked at all.   My childhood was over.  The services provided child victims today were just beginning to emerge in Maryland and across the nation.

 After Jaxxy pled guilty, I was moved from Maryland to New York I was moved in an effort for a fresh start, facilitated by my mother, and the FBI. I was never given an opportunity to heal in Maryland. I never received the services that I desperately needed here. I needed case management, mentorship, and victim-centered therapy.  I wish someone had talked to me at a young age about sex trafficking. In fact, that is why I do what I do now at Karana Rising where I speak to kids in schools before it is too late. 

And then Safe Harbor was created.  The first state to pass it was New York. In 2015, the District of Columbia signed their version of Safe Harbor into law.  I now get to serve kids like me and actually get to them before they have to endure the more than 1,000 sexual assaults I endured at their age.

Here, 15 years since, I am a service provider with Karana Rising, alongside my colleague Andrea Powell. I have now 7 years involved in anti-trafficking efforts as a case manager, mentor, and survivor expert. I have helped run housing programs and spoken nationally about the issue.  I sit on the other side of the table now, and I see the multitude of ways the Safe Harbor Bill has impacted the anti-trafficking field, and the survivors they serve.

 I see my mother as the victim/survivor of trafficking that she was, and the lack of services available to her since the 70’s.  It’s not easy, but I see the cycle of violence and abuse that sex trafficking creates and how many families are trapped inside.  I want to stop this cycle. This is why I insist, as a survivor and leader in the field, that Safe Harbor legislation is life-saving.  We need it in Maryland, my home state.  

 I see daily the failures in our systems. I see how housing programs make it impossible for young survivors to be safely housed. I see how law enforcement still don’t look at kids such as I was a victim of a crime. They arrest the victim and then call it a day. We have to stop this by making sure that Safe Harbor creates a coordinated effort to connect trafficked and at-risk youth to services and trauma-informed systems.  It could save lives. It’s also not hard to do. We are doing it in D.C. and in 33 other states.  It’s time Maryland passes Safe Harbor.  Think of what such legislation could have done for me all those years ago. 

 We have to stop trying to blame victims. We can’t use jails as shelters. We can’t bully testimony out of kids by arresting them.  If we threaten kids like me who are so scared and already abuse, what does that make us? We need a culture shift that tells kids that we see them, we hear them, and we believe them.  Let’s pass Safe Harbor and start finding those kids who so need our help right here in Maryland.

I sit on the other side of the table now, providing the services never available to me, or my mother, or millions of others. I sit here because I know better and know we must DO better here in Maryland. It’s time.