The Slave Next Door
By Christopher Stollar
March 21, 2012
It started with a trip to New York.
Fifteen-year-old Marlene Carson’s neighbors promised her and three girlfriends tickets to a Broadway show during Memorial Day weekend in 1978. The young girls’ parents had even agreed to the trip, since they trusted their neighbors—a friendly married couple from Columbus—and knew their children would only be gone for a few days.
But everything changed when Carson and her friends were getting dressed for the play.
“Put these clothes on,” the neighbors demanded.
The girls looked at the skimpy attire and refused.
“You must do it, or you’ll never see your families again.”
The young women changed into their new clothes before the couple separated them into three hotel rooms. By the end of that weekend, the “friendly” neighbors from Columbus had forced Carson to perform sexual acts with more than 30 people. The couple, Carson learned later, was a pimp and his first prostitute who ran an escort service between Ohio, New York and Atlanta. When the neighbors finally returned the girls home, they issued threats to tell no one.
Slaves of the Midwest—and Beyond
Carson is just one of hundreds of people in the Midwest who have fallen prey to the “human trafficking” industry, according to regional reports. While the phrase often conjures up images of children in places like Thailand, the practice also happens in American cities.
The Midwest has become a hotbed of forced labor for several reasons: its proximity to Canada, access to major interstate highways, a well-networked trucking industry, poor law enforcement, a lack of awareness and few organizations to combat the issue.
“Human trafficking is all over the United States,” says former Ambassador Mark P. Lagon of the U.S. State Department. “There have been cases in Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Mississippi, Michigan, Illinois, Tennessee and Indiana. … Demand is the driver for human trafficking—the demand for sex, the demand for forced labor. That’s true in Ohio and New York and everywhere else.”
When Carson returned to Columbus after that weekend, she could not bring herself to talk to her parents about what had happened; Carson’s own father had a history of using her for male entertainment. After two weeks, the neighborhood pimp showed up at her school and demanded that she come with him. He took her out of state, prostituted the young girl across the country, and kept her hidden from family and police.
Eight months later, Carson returned to Columbus pregnant. She was 16.
“I had my life taken away,” Carson says.
Police finally arrested the pimp, but the damage was done. By age 20, Carson had become used to the lifestyle and given birth to several children. She started dating a pimp, married him and began recruiting other girls into prostitution in the late 1980s. Carson tried to drive away one day, but her abusive husband blew up the car before she had a chance.
“I literally felt like there was no one I could go to,” she said. “No one I could talk to.”
"Right in Our Backyard"
Carson, now 46, is one of millions trafficked within their own countries, says Lagon, who now heads up the Polaris Project, which combats human trafficking and modern-day slavery. In the Midwest alone, hundreds of people become abducted or lured into the sex trade through false promises, adds Jeremy Wilson, the research director at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice.
Wilson researched 15 Ohio cases of human trafficking between 2003 and 2007. For each case, Wilson said there may be three to 10 more victims who remain unidentified. Researchers from Minnesota discovered at least 154 labor trafficking victims and 637 victims of sex trafficking over a three-year period. In Wisconsin, the state Office of Justice Assistance found as many as 200 victims of sex and labor trafficking.
“People tend to think this is an international problem,” Wilson says. “But as you can tell from the report, it is [happening] … right in our backyard.”
The fact that many people do not realize human trafficking is happening in their own neighborhoods is one of the main reasons the industry continues to grow. Yet ignorance is just one of many reasons sexual slavery thrives in the Midwest. The more Carson got involved with prostitution, the more she realized how deep the problem runs. While most prostitutes she knows were abused by the age of 9, their pimps had a history of molestation, too.
“I have even learned to have compassion for them,” Carson says.
Researchers also point to social causes: Illinois, for example, has the largest number of people employed in the arts, entertainment and recreation industries in the Midwest. That includes massage parlors and strip clubs, where women can be vulnerable to sex trafficking, according to a 2006 report by Curtis Jones with the Mid-America Institute on Poverty of Heartland Alliance.
But the causes of sexual slavery run even deeper than that, says Laurie Hurd, pastor of outreach and small groups at Cypress Wesleyan Church in Ohio. It often goes back to more subtle issues of abuse, pornography, the glorification of sex in the media and a lack of love.
“We’re not just dealing with prostitution,” Hurd says. “It’s anything that feeds the market.”
Unfortunately, parents and churches in America often do not want to discuss sex, abuse and pornography.
“It’s been swept under the rug,” she says. “That’s just something you don’t share with your neighbor. You keep it to yourself. And that’s what allows these women and these girls to feel like that’s the best [they] deserve.”
From Victim to Advocate
Carson felt that way about herself until 2001, when she started attending a church in the Columbus area. Three women from the church immediately reached out to Carson, who yearned to start a fresh life. Finally, in 2004, her new friends picked up Carson from her husband’s house and gave her a new place to live.
For the first time in about 25 years, Carson was free.
“The Lord really impressed on my heart to help women,” she says.
And so Carson went back to the streets—this time to serve. She opened Rahab’s Hideaway in October 2008, a three-story Victorian brick building that provides former prostitutes meals, sleep and basic life skills. As of June, the nonprofit had helped about 30 girls through the aid of more than 300 volunteers, 30 students and eight churches.
One of the first women Carson helped was named Samantha Wilson*. Now 22, Wilson was sold by her mother at the age of 8 to a man in the neighborhood who wanted his 16-year-old son to have sex.
Wilson’s mom continued to raise her this way until the age of 16, when Wilson met a modeling agent.
“He said I would be a model,” she says. “But he lied … Instead I was drugged, sold and made to dance.”
Seventeen foster homes later, Wilson was referred to Rahab’s Hideaway. Carson could not believe how young Wilson behaved. When she took her to rent a movie at Blockbuster, for example, Wilson picked out the Smurfs—one of the last TV shows she watched as a child, something that made her feel “safe.”
“It’s like talking to an 8-year-old girl,” Carson says. “They’ve been stunted at the age of their trauma. It’s like their life stopped.”
But that’s where Rahab’s Hideaway—and many other nonprofits like it across the Midwest—seeks to extend that life by dealing with the past and providing true hope for the future. While secular and government organizations offer similar services, Carson and her volunteers strive to show God’s love to these women through their actions.
“We’re just showing them unconditional love,” Ozcomert says. “That’s what most of these women are looking for … people they can talk to and trust.”
* name has been changed