By SCOTT COTTOS
For The Courier
TIFFIN — January marks the 10th National Human Trafficking Month.
And “Rachel” (not her actual name) is all about it.
The Seneca County woman spent seven years in sexual slavery before becoming one of those who were fortunate enough to escape.
Now, at 38 years old and nearly three years free from her trafficker, Rachel wants people to know her story and that recovery is possible, saying, “I’m an average girl with a big background now.”
According to the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation report of 2018, 20 million people worldwide fall victim to human trafficking, whether through sexual means or working in other ways. Assistance for those who escape has become available through agencies such as Sisters in Shelter in Tiffin.
Sister Mary Kuhlman of the Sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin founded Sisters in Shelter in 2005 to help ease trafficking victims back into society. The organization, which now aids domestic violence survivors as well, has since moved into an office on South Washington Street in Tiffin run by executive director Kjirsten Chevalier. The agency has a safe house in the county where up to four people can live. The house is closed for updating, Chevalier said, but she hopes it will reopen as soon as April.
Sisters in Shelter “gave me my life back,” Rachel said in a recent interview, the first she has given on her experiences.
And she wants people to know about a plague that in 2018 resulted in 242 human trafficking investigations by law enforcement in Ohio, leading to 80 arrests and 61 criminal convictions, but certainly has had a wider impact.
“To be able to own my story is huge. I can control that, I guess, if that makes sense,” she said. “But at the same time, I want to bring awareness. That part is huge for me. These guys truly feel like they can get away with this. And I’m going to spill as many secrets as I can because this isn’t happening any more. We’re not players. We’re not anyone’s property. I thought we’d gotten past that point in life. I’m not going anywhere. It’s just the beginning for me.”
Rachel’s progress has included overcoming mental obstacles to function properly in society, including holding down a job in robotics, and reconnecting with family.
“One word that comes to mind with (Rachel) is ’empowered,'” Chevalier said. “She embodies the goals of Sisters in Shelter. She’s become so strong, to be able to live a normal life.”
After an encounter in a tavern about 10 years ago, Rachel’s “normal” for the next seven years was misery.
In the wake of a divorce, Rachel began drinking heavily.
“It was just a way for me to numb the pain and it led me down a bad road,” she said. “I met my trafficker at a bar, actually through another girl. I can look back and I feel like she was kind of like a spotter. This wasn’t the first time I’d been to that bar and they saw the vulnerability in me. They saw me in there drinking, and I was alone.
“So, she introduced me to him and from that point on, they took me to a hotel room, and there was another girl who actually taught me the ropes, so to speak. When I got in that hotel room, there was no leaving.
“From that time on, I was never alone. I was lured there and when I got there, there was no getting out. I was in that hotel room for about a week and then he took me to a house, where I remained in the basement for the next two years, basically. I was on call for him, and he and his wife set up appointments. It was like a revolving door at that point, all day, every day.”
For seven years, Rachel said, she was drugged, fed poorly, beaten and even choked at times to the point where she thought she would die. And cameras were everywhere, recording her every move.
“I spent days and days and days of just, ‘I can’t look at him like this. I can’t talk to him like this. Something will trigger him to hurt me,'” she said. “And it was harder — not only physically getting beat, but mentally after giving myself to that worry.”
Rachel said: “When I met my trafficker, I met, truly, the devil. He is everything to me that the devil would be.”
In contrast, seven years later she met a man “who is my angel, forever my angel,” she said.
“He came out of nowhere and he bought me. … I know there’s a story behind that and I’m sure I’ll find that in my due time. All I can say is he is my knight in shining armor,” she said.
“He was like, ‘Are you ready?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m ready.’ He took me to a farm, where there were a couple of other guys. Again, I was never alone, but not in a bad way. They were always watching.
“He got me well enough and found her (Sister Mary). He actually went to a close friend of his and tried to find what best suited my needs for what I had been through and they found Sisters in Shelter.
“I went through some horrific times and I needed some understanding and healing. I’d had a spiritual experience (while in captivity), and for me, that was just like a beginning. That was God leading me on a whole new road, down to a whole new path, to a whole new life. And I have embraced every minute of it.”
Rachel has renewed relationships with her family, including a 21-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, and welcomed the assistance and guidance provided by Sisters in Shelter even after a year’s stay at the safe house ended.
“I’ve never told her this, but when she came to us, she was like a person who has lost a face and lost all her insides,” Kuhlman said. “She was like looking at a sweater and jeans — that was it. Through these years, in our house and since she has left our house, it’s like someone has taken her thumb and puffed air into her, you know, blowing her back up. And she’s become a whole person again.
“She has a personality, a face, the most endearing concept of life and what’s important. She’s not done this without making some mistakes, but nothing that has led her back into that kind of a lifestyle. It’s like a forward movement. Sometimes it’s inch by inch and sometimes it’s leaps and bounds that she has moved forward. I’d have to say we are all so very proud for the way she has grabbed hold of her life and tried to make it into something she wants it to be.”
Said Rachel: “I’m in a good spot. It’s work that I have to continue to do every day. I still struggle with trauma. I still have my triggers. I still have to practice recovery every day. But I have an amazing, amazing support group, and that includes my family and all of the sisters at the convent and Sisters in Shelter. They’re there whenever I need somebody to talk to.”