Episode 46: Monique Riley, CEO of Freedom Youth and Human Trafficking Survivor
Monique Riley, CEO of Freedom Youth and Human Trafficking Survivor
On this episode of You Matter!, Monique Riley, a sex trafficking survivor and the founder and CEO of Freedom Youth, New York City in the Bronx, shares information about her organization that helps victims and survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault.
Intro Voices 0:05
Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices 0:31
This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman 00:36
Hi, everyone and welcome back to You Matter, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion, and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your host Karen Ortman, Associate Vice President of Campus Safety Operations at the Department of Public Safety, and a retired law enforcement professional. Today, I welcome Monique Riley, a sex trafficking survivor and the founder and CEO of Freedom Youth New York City in the Bronx, an organization that helps victims and survivors of trafficking, domestic violence and sexual assault. Monique, thank you for joining me today on you matter.
Monique Riley 01:21
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Karen Ortman 01:24
Monique, what is human trafficking?
Monique Riley 01:29
Well, its defined as many things but human trafficking is basically modern day slavery. It is the form of when someone is being coerced or forced into a life of sex trafficking, labor trafficking or organ trafficking.
Karen Ortman 01:46
Monique Riley 01:47
Its modern day slavery and it happens every day.
Karen Ortman 01:51
And what personal experience do you have with respect to human trafficking?
Monique Riley 01:57
Well, I am also a survivor of human trafficking. And it happened to me at the age of 12 years old.
Karen Ortman 02:02
Wow. So can you tell us how it all began when you were 12?
Monique Riley 02:08
Yes. So I was 12 years old in a school within the DOE school system, going to school out in Harlem. I want to give a little bit of a background of what was happening in my environment, in my home before we go into more detail. So I was very quiet, very shy, and had a really horrible way of talking. I used to stutter like really, really bad. I just didn't have the social skills to, you know, to introduce myself to new friends or anything of that nature. So at home, there was a lot of fighting amongst my mom and my siblings. My mom was an immigrant from Jamaica, who migrated here and she had seven children. She was a single parent. She worked all day so it left us with a lot of room to bicker and fight amongst each other. There was a lack of food in the home, lack of food security. We were in and out of this shelter system almost every year, although she had Section8. So there was a lot of issues going on in my home.
Karen Ortman 03:27
When you say, I'm sorry to interrupt you, when you say Section8, what does that mean?
Monique Riley 03:31
So it was like a housing program. It kind of helps with being able to pay your rent, so they will pay a portion and she will pay a very small portion. But with seven kids, she had to go and work as maid at the Doral Hotel here in New York City. Okay, so I'm in school, I was really, really quiet. very shy like I said, stuttering, I was oftentimes bullied. I didn't have any friends at all. This one particular girl who was 13 years old, took a liking to me and I was very happy to have someone that I can call a friend. And there was a process. She was the person that recruited me into human trafficking and the process took maybe over three months. This was like a grueling thing that she was doing and very good at it. She befriended me, made me feel confident in myself. You know, the process was - cut school with me, you need to smoke, you need to know how to drink, your clothes are really shabby you know, you should wear mine. So now I'm no longer going to school on time I attitude is changing and as some typical parents like to say, smelling yourself.
Karen Ortman 04:57
Monique Riley 04:58
But, you know I just thought that it was so cool to have new clothing, you know, some of the things that popular kids had; name brand sneakers, things of that nature. And I wanted those things. I want it to be accepted and not rejected.
Karen Ortman 05:14
So can I ask you, at what point did you realize that, you meet this 13-year-old person who you think is your friend and at what point do you realize they're not your friend, but they're actually recruiting you? And in doing so, providing you with these material things? How long did that sort of take?
Monique Riley 05:42
So like I said, it's three months, over a three months’ period. We had just entered school in September and like, I would say November'ish, she got me to go to my first John's house. It was cutting school, it was hanging out with her all the time learning to smoke, I didn't really take a liking to drinking. It was changing my outfit, giving me money and then the final question actually popped, are you still a virgin? Why are you still a virgin? Then there was that peer pressure of just feeling like, I have to do this. Although that didn't happen in that way. She eventually said, do you want to kind of like dress like I do? Do you want the things that I have? I can help you with that. She never gave me a real clue but then she finally said, you know, I basically strip for mine. She takes her clothes off she dances. At the time, I was really getting into Technical School of Dance with Alvin Ailey Dance Theater and I was excited about that and so I knew how to dance like, technically. So she set up this call with this gentleman off of a really popular line that still exists to this day; a lot of young people use this line to go out and traffic themselves or be trafficked on. And she said, let's go to the man's house. She got me a fake ID at the Village downtown and it said that I was 18, although I had no body parts to prove that. I literally bloomed very late, I didn't get my period until I was 14. So I went to the gentleman's house and the first thing she does, is her whole demeanor changes. She went from really being this nice loving friend to being very strict and - put your big girl panties on - so I knew right then and there something was up but I went with her on the thought of all I had to do was take my clothing off. That was the only thing that I knew was wrong and I was willing to do it, so we walked in and the gentleman opens the door and he states - Hey, and she says, hey, Daddy, and she walks to the back of the room, which is probably the bathroom more likely because she said she was going there. I tried to follow her and she told me no. So she veered me off, or he veered me off to the left and inside this man's home, in his living room was a huge amount of instruments, everything from a saxophone to a piano was in his living room. Off to the side, he had a little bar like setting and began to offer me drinks. He seems really nice in the beginning, I took the first drink, because I felt pressured to be that 18-year-old and act like I was harder.
Karen Ortman 08:36
And you were 12
Monique Riley 08:38
I was 12. And I remember him asking me with a very strong voice to get up and dance. Um, so I began to dance, then there was a - get up, take your clothes off and dance for me nude. Then I remember him pulling me to him at some point, and at this point I got really scared because, I mean, I didn't go to have sex, I was still a virgin. I remember him just taking full advantage and it was a full blown rape. I remember shouting and screaming and yelling for my friend.
Karen Ortman 09:21
Mm hmm. And was there a response from your friend?
Monique Riley 09:27
She never came up. It was done in maybe like three to five minutes but it felt like forever.
Karen Ortman 09:34
Yeah. Did he say anything to you while this was happening?
Monique Riley 09:38
He tried to muffle my mouth. He muffled my mouth. He said be quiet, um, it will be done in the minute and he tried, I remember him - sorry (trying not to cry) - trying to kiss me to make the pain go away. But she never came out the bathroom and when she did it was done. He walked over to his dresser setting next to the bar and he pulled out money. I counted it outside was $300. But, before I counted, he threw it on me while I lied on his couch, naked and crying curled up, and he threw $300 on me and he told me to get up and go. Out walks my friend from the bathroom. She never intended to get involved. It was supposed to be both of us getting involved in this and she never did. And when she walked out, we walked out together. She noticed that I was a little bit upset and I remember her saying to me - Oh, can I have my half? - I gave her everything. Just because (starts crying), Oh, sorry. It's Okay. So you gave her the entire $300? Yes, because I wanted nothing to do with it now. I was hurt. And I felt like she wasn't the person she said she was. And that's when I realized that it was all a setup and she got what she wanted.
Karen Ortman 11:14
Betrayal for sure. So did this relationship continue with this 13-year-old?
Monique Riley 11:22
It did eventually. I waited a week to talk to someone. I was really anxious and I wanted to talk to somebody, but what happened is I didn't have a great support system at home, so I found one person that I really, really could trust and that was a guidance counselor at my school. I just flocked to her. Every time I go to school, she’d always be checking in on me. I explained everything to her, gave her the run down. I told her I didn't want to call the cops or get anyone involved. I thought it would be our secret but she had to do what she had to do and that was the protocol to call the cops. To get everyone involved. She called my mom. My mom had no idea about it. In fact, when they had found out the cops ran down to my mom's home and her job and they arrested her for neglect from her job. And, later that evening, I had to meet my mom and see her. She came home and she was really upset and confused and rightfully so. But right after we had a little talk the detective came in. He kind of kicked my mom out the room and the blaming began. I remember that very clearly. It was his moment to help me overcome and tell me that that he cared, I was looking for that, especially because of what happened to me. Instead he said, you knew where you were going, you knew why you were going, you knew what you were getting into. I think I would have had a better had a better outcome. Instead I closed up and got very, very cold after that happened. Um, once that happened, me and the girl continue to be friends because that was my only friend. She would make calls for us and then we would cut school or we would go together. But I would say a month after everything went down, I realized who the pimp was and it really wasn't her. She was recruiting for sure on school grounds but it was her mother who was sending her into the schools to do it.
Karen Ortman 13:44
Do you know how many other kids your age she recruited?
Monique Riley 13:50
I would say at least three.
Karen Ortman 13:52
So your relationship continued with this 13-year-old for how long? How long was this sort of arrangement in play?
Monique Riley 14:02
I would say, it started at 12 and we ended at 13 and a half, almost 14, because ACS took me from my mom's at that. I guess I didn't stop doing it. And I had a sister in a home that was eager to get my mom in trouble and eager to get me out the home and so it was revealed that I was continuing to do it and so she called ACS on my mom and they picked me up took me to a lockup facility. The sad part about that was, I AWOL'd, but before I AWOL'd there was a lot of stuff going on in ACS in the home that I was in where there was young girls having sets with the workers for food or McDonald's, anything that they can get from the outside or extra time outside when they do go out. When I AWOL right around the corner was pimps outside willing to pick you up, take you wherever you want to go and tell you about the whole lifestyle. So what I chose to do was AWOL. I went back to the girl's home and I hid out in her home and I stayed there. And so my mom sent me to Miami, that was my way out, that was the breaking of my life. When I went to Miami, the school system was so different. There was a lot more programs going on to keep you engaged. I enrolled in dance and music, one of the things that I really, really love, and I started to see better grades. I move myself out of Special Ed to Regular Ed.
Karen Ortman 15:41
How did Miami even come into the equation?
Monique Riley 15:44
When I AWOL'd the cops was looking for me. I was basically a missing person. And my mom didn't know where I was staying, but I would come and see her and I went into a house right across the street from her in my friend's home, the very girl who got me involved in human trafficking. Miami came into the equation when my mom said, you know, actually I don't know what else to do, and she didn't want to go to jail for harboring me at home. So she sent me down south with my brother, and then family down in Miami. That's why I was born at. Like I said, I was doing really good there but when you're a traffic victim or someone who was involved in sex work your pain is all you know now. And I was doing really good in the beginning, I made it to 10th grade and then, you know, there was these little things that would come up. I needed shoes, I needed clothing, and I knew how to do it. At this point, it was a level of me putting myself at risk and there's no check, no pimp or trafficker, but you just go back into the lifestyle of sex work. I remember being in 10th grade and meeting with people, entering into my first strip club gig at 16 and in Miami while going to school. So yeah, that was that.
Karen Ortman 17:09
Were any of the people prosecuted who were involved in your trafficking while you lived in New York City?
Monique Riley 17:20
No, absolutely not. Like I say when the detective came in - his words - anything that he would have said that would have been positive enough, I would have given everything up in instant, but I just felt like it was my fault. Everything that he said to me just stuck to me. It’s my fault. I knew what I was going for. I knew I was going to be raped. I knew all of this. So, I didn't turn anyone in. In fact, I didn't even know that I was a human trafficking victim. I just thought it was me having doing these things for money, and there was no word for it. There was no education or any awareness training that I've ever received in any school anywhere.
Karen Ortman 18:07
When you actually realize that what you were experiencing was human trafficking?
Monique Riley 18:15
In 2013. This happened to me when I was 12. I am 36 today. I literally had no clue this was human trafficing, in fact, when I started, you know, doing it on my own, I just saw it as prostitution and in sex work, it’s something to do to make money. I had no skills or anything of that nature.
Karen Ortman 18:42
How rampant is human trafficking, and specifically with children, how rampant is that in this country?
Monique Riley 18:52
Its horrible. It is happening everywhere under our nose. Peer to peer recruitment is still taking place in our school system, and asked me how I know, because I've been invited to some schools. I've educated some kids after in after school programs, and I found that there are many students that are getting involved in human trafficking, sex trafficking, particularly through peer to peer recruitment. It is happening here; in the Bronx, everywhere. Staten Island is number one for human trafficking, number two is Queens, number three is Brooklyn, number four is the Bronx, number five is Manhattan. These are all stats that you can find anywhere. We found these stats through the FBI.
Karen Ortman 19:40
So if you could speak to some of the tools employed by traffickers in an effort to educate listeners, parents and children what would some of those tools be?
Monique Riley 19:58
Traffickers use manipulation as one of the tools; that is the biggest thing. The way that I was being manipulated was that I didn't have any friends. I was vulnerable in many ways and they use your vulnerabilities, your child's vulnerabilities to get your child involved. They're using money. They're luring them with clothing and promises of relationships - I'll be your boyfriend, I'll give you whatever you need; iPhone, sneakers, all of these materialistic things, which is what our children long for. These are some of the ways that they are getting them involved.
Karen Ortman 20:36
How often does trafficking take place within homes? So you were trafficked in school and brought to somebody's private home? Is that common, particularly amongst child victims?
Monique Riley 20:56
Yes, absolutely. They are oftentimes brought to a home. They're bought to hotels, motels. They're brought through Uber, I mean, I don't know if you guys know about the whole thing with Uber right now? A lot of Uber drivers are picking up girls and their Uber brothering. So basically, they take a young girl, this girl would need to be already groomed, lured and or abducted, and they take them from place to place and they have sex inside the car. So, you'll never have to enter the home at all. But, when it comes to homes, it's happening all the time. One of the things that we are really combating and trying to put in law is for all landlords to get human trafficking awareness training. It's important that they get that so that they can be the help someone may need.
Karen Ortman 21:45
How did you ultimately escape not only your traffickers, but your sort of internal dialogue that told you - if you need clothes, if you need food, this is my recourse to engage in this conduct? When did you decide that I'm not being trafficked anymore and sort of have the strength to move forward?
Monique Riley 22:23
Well, after Miami. I will say 16, about 17 and a half. I was working in the strip club in Miami when I found out I was pregnant, I got pregnant at 17 and a half. BI went back to New York City with my mom in Brooklyn. I will tell you that what made me change my life, and get out of the life of sex work and getting involved with any traffickers was me having a child; that was number one. And two, being able to get accepted into a 24 college credit program with Monroe College. They offered a program that was giving me my GED, and my Associate's Degree. It changed my life, my thought process, my pattern, everything. But what led me outside the lifestyle was one call and this call happened because I had a baby, I didn't have a job and the baby needed diapers. I remember getting on the call, on the same phone service that I use when I was 12, 13 and 14, and got on this call and spoke with a buyer, consumer that was going to buy me. He had asked me something really weird. My baby had cried in the background and he said what is that that I hear? I said, it's my child, does that disqualify me from coming? He said, No, in fact, I have a proposition for you. He asked me if I would be comfortable with bringing my child to see him and he would pay me an extra $200 if I allow my child to watch him drink my breast milk. I flipped out. I said everything that I don't know man. I tried, you know, making sure that people knew of this person by contacting the, the hotline's customer service. And I told him no, but that's when it really hit me that this is not the lifestyle that I want to be in. I would never want to put my child in danger or myself in danger anymore. I enrolled in school and had two jobs. One with McDonald's and one working at a casino out in Brooklyn just cleaning up their place. I thought, you know, this is the lifestyle I need to change.
Karen Ortman 25:03
And then at some point Freedom Youth NYC for New York City was born. So talk to me about that.
Monique Riley 25:11
Yes. In 2013, I was actually out in Minnesota, I decided to leave New York City to further my education as close to my bachelor's in Christian ministries and I wanted to do something great. I wanted to help, I was working at the YMCA out there and it was a group of teens that always flocked to me. I was like, well, this is interesting, they're always coming to see me. What's going on? But they really liked what I was saying to them. When somebody came in, I gave them words of encouragement. There was bullying that was going on amongst a group and I will find ways to make that stop. So, we started a little mentor group there, we started dancing, dance programs, I love dancing. And the girls that were with us, some of them were involved in other things outside of human trafficking, like gang violence, and things of that nature. We started speaking to those issues in their life. I decided that I was going to build out a mentor program and that's when that started. But that wasn't Freedom Youth, that was Take It to the Street Team Ministry. Then I moved back to New York in 2015. I just knew that there was something that I had to do. At the time, I was teaching at Bright Horizons in Tribeca? It seems like every job that I get is always working with kids, so there was a sign there. I lost my job at Bright Horizons and I didn't know what I was going to do. I mean, I must have been like out of it. Like - oh, my God, what am I going to do with myself? And that's when it started Freedom Youth LLC, which is the for-profit organization that does prevention, education with educators with youth and pretty much anyone that needs to be trained. We started that organization in January 2019. It wasn't supposed to be a for-profit. I didn't know what I was doing. It was a nonprofit but I didn't fill out the forms right. That's when that started. I couldn't believe how many lives we were actually helping and changing by spreading awareness on what human trafficking was and ways to prevent it. We got invited to work at places like the DOE, Gram, as well as Catholic Charities have partnered with us. We were teaching NYPD and youth from all over the five boroughs what human trafficking was and ways to prevent it. In September 2013, we started the Freedom Youth Family Justice Center, which is a 501-C3 nonprofit organization. We started that organization because we knew that we every place that we went to to talk to kids and educate them there was one or two at the group that was absolutely involved in it through peer to peer recruitment. We also have parent workshops, and the parents are like, you know, we really want to know what you have for victims because I was a victim of this myself. Out came the Victim Services through the 501-C3. So we now open up our services to those who have been victimized by domestic violence and human trafficking. We offer comprehensive services like counseling, healing to the arts program, which is cleansing, music therapy, aroma therapy classes, we offer financial assistance.
Karen Ortman 28:41
So you're really providing resources and information to those who need it in a way that you never received it as a child? Because that's what I needed. Yeah, so you are really providing a tremendous service and taking your experience that I can see is still very painful, I'm sure will forever be and turning it into a moment to educate others. That's awesome.
Monique Riley 29:18
Yes, thank you.
Karen Ortman 29:19
Awesome. So Freedom Youth NYC, is it accessible to anybody in any of the boroughs? Is it accessible to somebody who lives on the West Coast and they're looking for information? And if so, how would they contact you?
Monique Riley 29:44
Yes, absolutely. So Freedom Youth works in all five boroughs. We work also in Mount Vernon. We are expanding and hoping to be able to be across the world at some point, but we're so slow right now we're still trying to build out. But we're open giving any information. We are accessible through Facebook and the Freedom Youth LLC, or Freedom Youth Family Justice Center. You can also find us on Instagram and the Freedom Youth LLC and FYI, Family Justice Center, as well as the Bronx Human Trafficking and Domestic Violence Task Force. Our email is info@freedomyouthNYC.com. Our telephone number is 929-367-4754. We're also working with the legislators and elected officials through our task force that we built. And, I wanted to talk really quickly about that. The reason why we built the taskforce is because I wanted a seat at the table so that we can make real laws pertaining to those who are experiencing domestic violence, and human trafficking. We have some laws that are really, really great but they haven't been proven to really work in light of those who are survivors and victims, especially for those who are out there participating in survival sex because they don't have housing or don't have the means to pay rent, right? COVID-19 wreaked havoc, and I'm going to send you with some information, we actually work with NYU, Dr. Sinalev. I don't know if you know her. Dr. Sinalev is also part of NYU. We partnered with NYU to make sure that we were going to be assessing those victims and their needs, we wanted to do an assessment needs during COVID-19 for people who were potentially being victimized by human trafficking or domestic violence. The numbers are horrendous and very scary. So I'll be sending that over to you.
Karen Ortman 31:18
I look forward to that. Is there anything that you would like to add that, that I have not asked you or that you think is important for listeners to know?
Monique Riley 31:52
Yes. I want to just add that it's important for all of us to enter this fight. Human Trafficking doesn't just affect one demographic of a person. It may happen a little bit more because they are maybe an immigrant, or in the black and brown community, but it happens to everyone. There are many cases in the news now that explains that. I want you to know that you should pick up this fight, you should join this fight. Ways to join the fight are, learn how to eradicate human trafficking, volunteer for organizations that really need the help; we're one of them. I want you to know that human trafficking exists, it's happening today, even in our backyard. It's not just happening across the world or in Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic is happening in New York City right under our nose in places that we visit every day. So please pick up and join this fight.
Karen Ortman 32:49
Essentially hiding in plain sight.
Monique Riley 32:51
Karen Ortman 32:53
Well, thank you. I really appreciate you joining me on You Matter and sharing your story and your wisdom and your inspiration. So thank you, Monique, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter. If any information presented today is triggering or disturbing, please feel free to contact the Wellness Exchange at 212-443-9999 or NYU's Department of Public Safety and their Victim Services Unit at 212-998-2222. Please share like and subscribe to You Matter on Apple podcasts Google Play, Tune in or Spotify.