Episode 61: Theresa Flores, Human Trafficking Survivor and Advocate, Founder of the SOAP Project
In this episode, Karen speaks with Theresa Flores, a survivor and author who travels the United States to share her story of being trafficked and used as a sex slave as a teenager, all while living under her parents roof in an upper-middle class suburb of Detroit, Michigan.
Ms. Flores has been a licensed Social Worker for over thirty years. She received a Master’s in Counseling Education from University of Dayton and a Bachelor’s of Social Work from Ball State University. Ms. Flores was appointed to the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission in 2009 and has testified before the Ohio House and Senate in supports of Human Trafficking Legislation. Her efforts were a major part of the success of these bills being passed into laws. The “Theresa Flores Law” was passed in Michigan that eliminates the statute of limitation for children who have been trafficked. Additionally, Ms. Flores was in the Oval Office to witness the signing of SESTA/FOSTA bill (Backpage.com legislation) into law along with other survivors, the creator of the documentary “I am Jane Doe” and US Senator Rob Portman.
Flores is a survivor of domestic child sex trafficking and was sold in an underground crime ring in an upper middle class suburb outside Detroit from the time she was 15-17 years old. Now, she is the Assistant Investigator with Global Centurion researching the mental and physical health problems of over 200 domestic trafficking survivors. The study entitled, “The Health Consequences of Human Trafficking” will provide best practices and systemic recommendations for health care providers. She founded The SOAP Project in 2001 and they have given away over a million bars of soap labeled with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number all across the states and assisted in rescuing many victims. She also is passionate about helping to restore survivors and provides them with a free weekend retreat each year as well as a monthly support group.
Ms. Flores has received many awards including the University of Dayton’s Alumni Association 2013 Christian Service Award for her work with S.O.A.P. and in January 2012 at the State of the State Address, Ms. Flores received The Courage Award from Ohio Governor Kasich for her work in human trafficking.
Ms. Flores was featured by the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center Museum in a traveling exhibit entitled, Invisible Slavery and has published four books, “The Sacred Bath” and “The Slave Across the Street” (in the UK and US) and “Slavery in the Land of the Free- a Student’s Guide to Modern Day Slavery”. The audio version of her memoir was nominated for The 2011 Audie Award, being in the top 5 of all memoirs and biographies and also has been on the Wall Street Journal and USA Today Best Seller list for e-books several times.
Ms. Flores was the featured in a short documentary, “The Girl Next Door”, which has won many awards at film festivals all across the U.S.
Her story has been seen on The Today Show, MSNBC: “Sex Slaves-The Teen Trade”, the 700 Club, CNN/HLN, Glenn Beck’s “For the Record” as well as many local and national radio shows. Her national rescue mission- S.O.A.P. has been featured on Dateline, Nightline and America’s Most Wanted.
Intro Voices 00:04
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? 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 Theresa Flores, a survivor and author who travels the United States to share her story of being trafficked and used as a sex slave as a teenager, all while living under her parents roof in an upper middle class suburb of Detroit, Michigan. Theresa, welcome to you matter.
Theresa Flores 01:21
Thanks so much.
Karen Ortman 01:23
So when does your story begin? How old were you?
Theresa Flores 01:28
I was 15 when everything started. I was in the middle of my of my sophomore year of high school.
Karen Ortman 01:39
And this was in Detroit. So set the stage. You're living with your family? How many people are in your family?
Theresa Flores 01:50
So there's six of us, there's four kids, I have three younger brothers, a mom and a dad. We moved around a lot, so I didn't have aunts and uncles and grandparents in the same town. I never knew anybody. So I was pretty, pretty much alone besides my family.
Karen Ortman 02:12
Okay, when you say you never knew anybody, you never knew extended family?
Theresa Flores 02:18
I knew my extended family, but they didn't live by us.
Karen Ortman 02:21
Theresa Flores 02:21
Every time we would move, every two years it was starting fresh. I didn't have any kind of support systems and stuff in those new towns.
Karen Ortman 02:30
Got it? Okay, so you're in Detroit, Michigan...
Theresa Flores 02:34
It's called Birmingham. It's a suburb, a really, very upper class suburb of Detroit, 25 minutes from Detroit.
Karen Ortman 02:45
Okay. And, you're out of school? Had you just moved there?
Theresa Flores 02:51
Yes, we had just moved there. Again, I didn't know anybody, and went to school, and met some friends. Then, Imet this guy who went to school with me. He was in my same grade, but he was probably about a year or two years older. He had family that also went to school with us, like cousins and stuff. They were older, in other grade as well. He started paying a lot of attention to me, giving me compliments, walking me to class. We call that grooming, where the victim has no idea that it was going on. My friends noticed him spending a lot of time with me. They didn't like him, and they were like, we don't think you should go out with him. I wasn't permitted to date anyway, my dad was very strict with me and said I couldn't date until I was 16 and could drive a car. This lasted, this initial stage, for about six months.
Karen Ortman 04:06
You mentioned the term grooming. Can you share with our listeners, I'm sure you have a very clear understanding of what grooming is after your life's work since this happened to you, but just share with our listeners what grooming actually is?
Theresa Flores 04:29
It's actually kind of like the old term that we used to use, courting, but for mal-intent. It's when somebody, like I said, spends a lot of time with them, kind of learns what they need, and what they want, and provide that for them so that they get them dependent on them. It could just be sweet talking, things like that.
Karen Ortman 04:56
Right and during this process, the person who is being groomed exposes their vulnerabilities, and the person doing the grooming is acutely aware of what those vulnerabilities are. You also mentioned that your friends didn't like him. What about him did they not? Was it just that he was spending time with you? Or were there...
Theresa Flores 05:26
No. No, he was in different groups, so a different click and basically considered off limits. So, he was not in the same clique as we were.
Karen Ortman 05:37
So they didn't like him because he just wasn't in your circle of friends.
Theresa Flores 05:42
Karen Ortman 05:43
This person was paying a lot of attention to you. He was in your grade, but two years older than you, I think you said. What were the patterns that started to develop that, sort of, brought you into his fold?
Theresa Flores 06:05
Okay. I mean, it just was simple I got a crush on him. Very cute boy, very convincing, and spending a lot of time with me, and I was probably lonely, and liked the attention.
Karen Ortman 06:19
Okay, so how did it proceed?
Theresa Flores 06:21
It was simple. One day after school, he was standing by me and asked me if I wanted a ride home from school. I thought, you know, why not? This is not a date; I can't get in trouble from my parents for getting a ride home from school. I walked there every day. We went out to his car, which was very, like, a expensive, brand new car, and I thought, oh, this is great and got into the car. He turned the opposite way of where I live and I was, like, wait you're heading the wrong way. I lived the other way. And he said, oh, I know, but I just have to run home and grab something I forgot. I didn't feel good about it but I ignored it, because I thought, well you know, this guy is not a stranger. You go to church with him, you know his family, it's fine. I ignored those red flags. We pull up to his house and he asked me to come inside. I said, no again, you know, I need to get home. He just said, you know I like you and I just want to get to know you. So, I didn't think there'd be any harm in that, and that was wrong. I went inside and he showed me around and gave me a soda. Unfortunately, at that moment, I got drugged from the soda and then he raped me. I was really in a lot of shock at that point because I was a virgin. He drove me back home, I went inside and made another bad decision, that was to not tell my parents. I thought they'd be upset with me that I went with him.
Karen Ortman 08:06
Can I ask a question, though?
Theresa Flores 08:09
Karen Ortman 08:09
So you're at his house and he gave you a soda. I guess you didn't see him put anything in the soda, it must have been when you weren't looking. During the rape, did he say anything to you that you recall?
Theresa Flores 08:33
I mean, afterwards he did afterwards. He seemed very apologetic because he realized that I was a virgin. So he was like, I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I didn't know. I was just angry, very, very angry at him. He took me home, which you know, and I just had a lot of mixed up emotions going on at that moment.
Karen Ortman 09:03
And when you got home, was your family there?
Theresa Flores 09:08
Yeah, my brothers were home and my mom was there. She didn't work.
Karen Ortman 09:13
Did she recognize anything?
Theresa Flores 09:16
No, I went upstairs, I took a hot bath and she was like, are you okay? And I'm like, yeah, I think I just got my period. I kind of stayed in my room for a while.
Karen Ortman 09:28
So, did you hear from him that night?
Theresa Flores 09:34
Nope. I did not hear from him until I saw him. I think this was probably like a Thursday or Friday, I don't think that I went to school on that Friday, and then, I think, on Monday I went back to school and I saw him there.
Karen Ortman 09:51
And over the weekend, you didn't hear from him?
Theresa Flores 09:56
Nope, not at all.
Karen Ortman 09:57
And did you tell anybody what he had done to you?
Theresa Flores 10:04
Karen Ortman 10:05
Theresa Flores 10:05
I had a couple girlfriends but we weren't really close, so I just kept it to myself and thought, you know, get over it. Back then there was no date rape conversation, there was really nothing like that.
Karen Ortman 10:24
So you go to school on Monday, and it's the next time that you saw him?
Theresa Flores 10:30
Yep. He said, I need to speak to you. I was like I'm still very angry, I'm not going to talk to you. He said, no, this is not a request, you have to speak to me. I went outside and he had a long envelope, kind of like a legal sized envelope, and there are pictures inside of it. He said, my cousins were there, they took these photos and you have to earn them back or they're gonna show them to your dad and to his boss, and to the, you know, priest at church and post them around school. Again, he was very apologetic, and I wanted nothing to do with him, but he was very insistent that something bad was going to happen if I didn't listen.
Karen Ortman 11:23
He was apologetic about what? About the photos at this point?
Theresa Flores 11:28
I think so, yeah, about the rape and about the photos. It almost seemed like he didn't have any control over this, that they were the ones doing it.
Karen Ortman 11:43
How did you feel at that moment, when he told you that he had photos?
Theresa Flores 11:48
I was shocked. I mean, I saw them so it wasn't like, oh, it's a trick or anything. I saw them. I just couldn't believe that anybody would do that, almost even to the point of laughing like, yeah right, you're not gonna do anything! But, when he said, we know this is your dad's boss's name and this is the address of his office, I started to take it seriously, because the threats were pretty high.
Karen Ortman 12:21
Did you consider at any time calling the police?
Theresa Flores 12:26
No, never. I never even considered telling my parents I was so in shock. And, there's the price, it was too high to risk if that was what they were gonna do so.
Karen Ortman 12:43
So what did you do next after you were told of the pictures and you confirmed their existence because you saw them? What happened?
Theresa Flores 12:53
That night, my brothers and I, we all had private phones in our room, we got like a kids’ line, and it rang at around midnight. It was him on the phone saying, I need you to meet me on the street behind your house. I was like, you're crazy, my parents are here. And he's like, Theresa, this is not a joke, you need to come immediately, and he's like, they're serious. I didn't even change I just had my pajamas on and snuck out and went behind the house to the other street. He pulled up and I didn't even know what was going through my head, like, this can't be real, you know. I just didn't know really of any evil at that time. He took me and he's like, I need to take you back to my house, they want to talk to you.
Karen Ortman 12:54
Who is the they that he refers to?
Theresa Flores 13:52
The group, the family gang, I would call it a mafia. So it's mostly a mafia group within this ethnic group in Detroit, that's very common. It turned out to be his cousins, his older brother, very much of a family. I get to the house and they said this is the terms of the deal, and you can get earn these back, but you have to do whatever we say. That began two years of them calling me out of my house, randomly taking me after school, things like that, to people's homes where they would have men lined up ready for me.
Karen Ortman 14:42
And this went on for two years.
Theresa Flores 14:45
Mm hmm. Yep, about a year and a half. It was the rest of my sophomore year and all of my junior year.
Karen Ortman 14:51
So the men that were lined up at these various houses, you were forced to engage in some form of sexual conduct with them? And, were you told prior to each person what the expectation was, or did you just get sent into a room and you had to do whatever they told you to do?
Theresa Flores 15:21
Yeah, I would just get sent into a room and then they would come one after the other.
Karen Ortman 15:30
When you would leave your house in the middle of the night, how many times would you say you had to do that over the course of two years?
Theresa Flores 15:42
Hundreds, hundreds of times.
Karen Ortman 15:45
And your parents never caught on, or your siblings never called on?
Theresa Flores 15:49
No. I know, which is just crazy, but they never knew that I was sneaking out. My dad traveled a lot so he was gone three weeks out of the out of the month. My mom was just, kind of, she was raising four kids basically on her own. She would go to sleep and everybody slept with their bedroom doors shut. It was very easy to sneak out. My brothers didn't know. My brother Patrick actually has a chapter in my book because they were threatening him as well at school, and I never knew that. So it's very interesting to know now.
Karen Ortman 16:36
What is the name of your book?
Theresa Flores 16:39
The slave across the street?
Karen Ortman 16:45
Should listeners be interested, that is sold where?
Theresa Flores 16:50
Amazon is probably the easiest way to get it. I think you can get it on the Barnes & Noble website as well.
Karen Ortman 16:57
And written by you, Teresa Flores?
Theresa Flores 17:01
Karen Ortman 17:03
How many traffickers were involved in your story? And, what was their age range? I mean, we know that there was the person who was in your grade, who was two years older than you, but was he the youngest, or were there other younger men, as well as older involved?
Theresa Flores 17:26
There was no one younger than the main guy, right, who I went to high school with, about a year older than me. His two cousins that were, like I said, a few years older than him, were involved setting up, I believe, the arrangements and making the money off of it. I also met his older brother who seemed to be in his 20s, and seemed to be the higher ringleader of it all. It was all men from the same ethnic group and a lot of them are related, so it was nobody from outside of that group and men of all ages.
Karen Ortman 18:12
When you went to the the traffickers house, the person you went to school with, did he live with his parents?
Theresa Flores 18:22
Yes. It was his family's home. So many times they would take me through a side door into the basement, where it was just like, men only, smoking, drinking, there was guns and things. There were several bedrooms down there. There were also other people's homes, it wasn't just that place. There was always the families upstairs, you could hear the kids, and the grandmas, and the moms. And it just - I know, right - it's just amazing to think that families were upstairs where this was going on.
Karen Ortman 19:01
Were you forced to engage in this, as a sex slave, in that home where the families could be heard above?
Theresa Flores 19:10
Karen Ortman 19:12
Okay. And then you were taken to other locations, as well.
Theresa Flores 19:17
Yes, exactly. All houses, except for one time some other men from this group took me, they met me with his car, but it was ended up being other guys. They basically kidnapped me that night, because I didn't know them. They drugged me and took me to a motel in inner city Detroit, where over 20 men, it was like you could hardly see any of the furniture in the in the motel room, waited for me and that night I was auctioned off, over and over again. So in one night.
Karen Ortman 19:59
And you they drugged you. What did they drug you with?
Theresa Flores 20:03
I don't know what it was. It was in a drink. It was in the 1980s, I don't know what was common back then.
Karen Ortman 20:12
So during this two-year period, how did the traffickers keep the threat going regarding consequences of your inactivity with this group of men?
Theresa Flores 20:33
They continue to threaten me and pretty much raised the stakes. They would, my brothers and I walked home from school every day, so they would follow with a car slowly. Sometimes the car would pull over and they'd tell me to get in. I would be babysitting, and this is before cell phones and everything, they would end up calling the house where I was babysitting, they had found out where I was. I worked like at a Burger King, you know, fast food place and they would come in and just stand there and stare at me. It was really, really horrible.
Karen Ortman 21:12
Did they ever do anything directly to members of your family at your home?
Theresa Flores 21:27
Like I said, they threatened my brother as well, who went to high school with me. I remember going out to the mailbox one time and there being a black rose in it, the night after they brought me home from the motel, that morning, my dog went missing. They called my room that evening and they ended up killing them on the phone while I listened. It was no joke.
Karen Ortman 22:08
How did this end?
Theresa Flores 22:12
So, that morning, after they had kidnapped me, a policeman was called to the motel and took me home. He tried talking to my parents about this, and they just thought I had been out having a fun time party. I was in my pajamas, you know, it's not like I was dressed up to go out or anything. The policeman tried to talk to me. He was like, I know who's behind this, he said to me - it's interesting - he said, I need your help to catch these guys. I think now, had he said, like, I want to help you, I want to help you get out, I think things might have gone differently. I might have trusted him, but I didn't tell him anything. I didn't say anything to him or my parents. I let them just believe what they wanted to believe. I mean, I was in shock after that night, you know. A couple of weeks later, my dad let us know that he got transferred again and we were moving from Detroit to Connecticut. I decided not to tell any of my friends, anybody, so that they would know. I think that there was another young lady that was being groomed as well and I tried talking to her, and I knew the police were watching now so they kind of loosened up on me.
Karen Ortman 23:51
So it just ended when your family moved to Connecticut. And you never saw or heard from these people again?
Theresa Flores 24:03
Those situations where I was living somewhere, after I moved there, and I was working at a restaurant, nobody knew me. I was new in town. I got a phone call. They're like, there's a phone call for you at the hostess stand, there's no way anyone knows me and it was a guy who said, hello Theresa, and then hung up. Years later my brother went back to Birmingham and met with a friend and he said, where's your sister living now? My brother was just like, something felt wrong, so he's like, oh, you know, she's in college and lied about where I was. They said, well make sure that she never comes back here. So, there were a couple of reportings of things like that. Basically, I just went away to college and couldn't forget about it, but you know, try to heal.
Karen Ortman 25:03
And how are you doing with your healing today? Almost 40 years later, I think it is actually?
Theresa Flores 25:09
Really, really good. It's taken a long time. I mean, I went to college and became a social worker, and then got a master's in counseling. You know, got married and have children. I found counseling, and you know, it took a long time to find a good counselor that could actually understand this issue, because I didn't even understand it for many years. It's just my faith that has helped me a lot in my healing. It's taken all this time, and then starting my own nonprofit to help other survivors, that's definitely helped me heal as well.
Karen Ortman 25:52
I definitely want to talk about that. How often does human trafficking, this sex slave industry, how often does that happen to teenagers?
Theresa Flores 26:11
It's the second leading crime in the United States. A lot of people think, oh, that's probably the second leading crime in other countries, but it's actually right here that it's the second leading crime. Teenagers are very, very at risk of being trafficked. There's a lot of money in this big business. We know that 80% of all victims are women and 50% are children. The average age of entry into human trafficking in the United States is 13 years of age.
Karen Ortman 26:47
Wow. Can you explain how vulnerability plays a role in trafficking?
Theresa Flores 26:57
Yeah. Obviously, everybody is vulnerable in some way, for something. These kids, kids that maybe move around a lot - we used to think kids that were impoverished have a have a higher risk factor - but really, it's just any kid that doesn't have a strong support system. Kids that maybe their parents both work, or a parent is incarcerated, and nobody's really paying any attention to that kid, drugs are definitely a risk factor. Homeless kids definitely, a lot of runaway if we don't get them back within the first couple days of running away, then we there's a pretty high chance that they will become trafficked.
Karen Ortman 27:47
So how did you take your very painful situation, no doubt for two years, and that, of course, extends beyond the two years because you're now living with it for 40 years, how do you use your experience to help others?
Theresa Flores 28:06
I created a nonprofit called the Soap Project, and it stands for Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution. We actually get together with volunteers to help us label bars of soap and makeup remover wipes, and with the hotline, there's a national hotline that can help victims. We have people help us label those, and then we give them away free to hotels, along with missing children's posters. Generally, we do it around big sporting events like the Super Bowl, but we do it any time of the year. We have 19 chapters around the country of people that do this on a regular basis. We also do healing retreats for survivors. I've met hundreds of survivors, and a lot of them haven't been as lucky as I have been getting counseling and support, so we have support groups and free counseling for survivors, and then home retreats every year.
Karen Ortman 29:18
Wow. I think it's important to mention, again, that these bars of soap that you distribute, or that your organizations distribute, are labeled with the National Human Trafficking hotline number, which is 1-888-373-7888. I also think it's important to talk about why these densely populated events, like the Super Bowl, NCAA Final 4, Indy 500, whatever other event brings in a significant amount of people, why that would be the likely place to find human traffickers seeking out our vulnerable population. Why does it happen there, particularly when there's a significant law enforcement presence at these locations?
Theresa Flores 30:28
Yeah, well, we know that a lot of these kind of events that you mentioned are mostly men driven. Probably 80/90% of the audience is men. The Super Bowl, for instance, it's one afternoon for four hours, but all of the hotels require like a three-night minimum stay. You have all these men that are away from home and they're looking for other things to do. It's really common for them to go to strip clubs. There's a lot of parties that are specifically, these high end parties, where they bring in girls and stuff. Then, we have a lot of missing kids and runaway kids, so the traffickers know that they can make a lot of money by going to these events, because you're having more people come to an area right, more crowded. We know by the data that we've done that trafficking, the demand for sex for sale quadruples anytime in any city when there's an event such as these. I've even checked it for like, I'm from Columbus, Ohio, so I've even checked it for like the Columbus marathon thinking, oh, I think it would not be possible, you know, it’s a marathon - they're healthy, but no, the ads online increase by a quarter. So, yeah.
Karen Ortman 31:58
Is there anything that you would like to share, that I have not asked you, with our listeners that that could be beneficial to anybody listening who wants to become educated on this subject? Or perhaps is a victim themselves?
Theresa Flores 32:21
Yeah, definitely. If they're being victimized, or even a survivor, calling that hotline number, because many people end up dying, it's very difficult to escape it. They can contact us at our website for survivor care and we can link them to different things. One of the things I just like audiences to know is, if you see something, you really need to say something. It could be just your 911, or local police. It could be calling the hotline and saying, there are some things that I'm seeing, what do you think? Getting as much information as you can, what is she wearing, what time of day have you seen her there? Because, you know, what, my neighbor saw me going through his backyard several nights a week in my pajamas at midnight, and he never said anything to my parents.
Karen Ortman 33:20
Did he say anything to you?
Theresa Flores 33:23
No, he never. He saw me. He never said anything and that could have saved my life, and changed it, you know what I mean, gotten me out of it sooner, gotten them arrested...
Karen Ortman 33:37
How do you know your neighbor saw you?
Theresa Flores 33:40
I saw him in the living room watching TV when I would run through his yard. I saw him and he saw me, so really, just sticking up. The waitress that found me in the motel that morning just said, hey, can I help you? Nobody had ever said that. There were red flags, my grades had dropped, I was sick all the time, I didn't want to be in school, I was jumpy. There were definitely red flags, but everyone's like, oh, it's fine, just growing pains, or having a hard time adjusting to the new school. We just we don't want to believe that it could possibly run something like that, especially, if you're in a nice, suburban area, you're like, oh, that doesn't happen here.
Karen Ortman 34:30
Yeah. You mentioned somebody that saw you at the motel.
Theresa Flores 34:38
Karen Ortman 34:38
Who was that? A waitress. That morning when I woke up from all the abuse that night, I was all alone. There was nobody there. I put my pajamas on and I just left, and I didn't know what to do. I didn't have any money. I didn't have any identification on me. I didn't even know where it was. I walked into this little diner, and there was an old lady, you know, an old waitress, and she just looked at me and she knew that something had happened, like, something's not right here. She said, can I help you? And she ended up calling the police. And that's what the and that's when the police officer came and asked you...
Theresa Flores 35:21
Yep. Yeah, exactly.
Karen Ortman 35:24
Okay. Okay. Well, thank you for your strength in sharing your story. I'm saddened to know that this happens, much like anybody who's listening to this, but being in law enforcement, or formerly in law enforcement, I also know that it does. I commend you for your bravery, and speaking out, and talking about this. You're providing a service that is invaluable. So I thank you very much for talking to me today.
Theresa Flores 36:06
Karen Ortman 36:07
So thank you to my guest, once again, Theresa, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of You Matter if any information presented was 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.