WAHOO, Neb. — A survivor of child sex trafficking told Wahoo students and residents Monday how she escaped the trade and started an organization to help other victims.
A pimp forced Katrina Owens into commercial sex exploitation when she was 16 years old and living in Atlanta.
Owens met the man while working at a restaurant. He was charming, she said, and worked hard to develop a relationship with her.
“Once he had me, I was trapped,” Owens said.
She was trafficked in New York and Atlanta for two years.
“I attempted to leave on several occasions,” she said. “It just got to the point where the fear of staying became greater than the fear of leaving, and I literally had to fight my way out.”
As a survivor, Owens tells her story to raise awareness of sex trafficking. She is the founder of a group called Empower, which offers services and counseling to sex trafficking victims in Atlanta.
When a victim leaves her pimp, she often needs help finding housing and a job with a steady income, Owens said. She helps women find jobs and also hires some women at a bakery she owns and a restaurant she manages in Atlanta.
“Oftentimes victims don't leave their trafficker because they are scared to death,” Owens said. “There is physical and emotional abuse that keeps them where they are.”
During two lectures on Monday, Owens asked about 400 high school students and eighth-graders and 65 adults to stand up for people who might be in a sex trafficking situation. So many people saw Owens on the streets of New York and didn't ask if she was OK, she said.
People should be aware of girls who are withdrawn from their community, who act fearful and isolated, and who are accompanied by an older man who isn't a parent.
Bob Burton, who speaks locally about preventing sex trafficking in Nebraska, spoke after Owens.
He founded a nonprofit organization called I've Got a Name about four years ago in Lincoln. He told several stories of women he has met in Lincoln who have been trafficked.
“People need to realize sex trafficking does happen in Nebraska,” he said. “My message is if I can do something, everyone one in here can do something.”
I've Got a Name holds events to create awareness of child sexual exploitation and sex trafficking in Nebraska. The group's street outreach worker, Nikki Siegel, has developed relationships with 120 girls over the last year who have been sexually exploited in the Lincoln area, Owens said.
“I believe with all my heart that no girl should be for sale,” Burton said. “It's time for men to be men and not be buyers.”
Burton's group is asking men to grow beards in December to draw attention to sex trafficking and to raise money to combat it.
For information on how to participate in the beard-growing effort, visit: http://ivegotaname.com/decembeard/.
The U.S. Justice Department has estimated about one third of teens who run away from home and are living on the streets will be lured into prostitution within 48 hours after leaving home.
Law enforcement is working to change the way sex workers and pimps are viewed, Burton said. Girls arrested for prostitution should not be treated as criminals, he said.
In July, the FBI arrested 150 pimps and rescued 105 children, ages 13 to 17, who had been forced into prostitution across the United States.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.