Anastasia Joy* calls it the skeleton in her closet.
“I didn’t tell anyone about that part of my life until the FBI got involved,” said the 25-year-old Harrisburg-area resident.
She’s referring to two years of her life, from age 17 to 19, when she ran away. The straight-A student was months from graduation, despite years of an unstable home life.
“I found out I was being moved once again, and I snapped—walked out of school, and ran away,” she said.
Born in Russia, Anastasia came to the United States to be adopted at the age of 8. Instead, she spent most of her childhood in the foster care system throughout central Pennsylvania.
So, eight years ago, homeless and on the run, she quickly realized that, “I was very naïve. And when you have nothing, you do things you never thought you would do.”
She met him at a gas station.
“He asked if I needed a ride,” she said. “It was cold, and I didn’t care at that point.”
She ended up in the Poconos, and he became her trafficker.
“It started quickly, and he painted this glorified version of what my life could be. He was charming, nice and kind,” she said. “That’s how so many [traffickers] trick women into [sex trafficking]. I didn’t understand what was happening until it was happening. I needed a roof over my head, and I did what he told me.”
He set her up in a hotel where she saw clients. He gave her drugs, alcohol and “had me working like a slave,” she said. When she questioned him or refused specific sexual activities, he threatened her.
“I wasn’t a citizen of the country—he knew my name, he had my papers, and he threatened to call immigration,” she said. “I tried to leave several times. He threatened to hurt my [adoptive] family. I was trapped.”
One day, he beat her until she was unconscious. When she woke up, she climbed out of a hotel window and started running. She was found, passed out, aside a highway and taken to a hospital where she recovered from a concussion.
She didn’t fully realize she was a victim of human trafficking—something experts say is “normal” in trafficking cases.
“I moved on with my life, earned my citizenship, got a job, but it’s not like life got better. I was used to men hurting me, so I went through two abusive relationships and had a child,” she said.
She found her way back to the Harrisburg area, where she “put everything in the back of my head.”
“I’ve been clean for two years, have partial custody of my son, and my life is normal—I’m in school, I have a job,” she said. “But about a year ago, the FBI showed up, put his mug shot in my face and said, ‘We need your help.’”
In March, she testified against her trafficker during eight hours on the witness stand. A federal grand jury found 37-year old Fredrick Brown of Monroe County guilty of sex and drug trafficking charges. He was sentenced to 33 years in prison.
Rhonda Hendrickson, vice president of programs at PAATH 15—the Pennsylvania Alliance Against Trafficking in Humans, Route 15— can’t comment on Anastasia’s case specifically, except to say the outcome is “definitely outside the norm.”
“It’s not uncommon that traffickers use drug control on victims of commercial sex exploitation, forcing women to sell their bodies, with a lot of violence and intimidation tactics,” she said. “It’s common for victims to not show up to testify.”
Hendrickson’s work in anti-human trafficking began in 2009. By 2010, the South Central Pennsylvania Human Trafficking Response Team was one of the first in the state. The collaborative PAATH 15 was launched in 2014, under the umbrella of the YWCA Greater Harrisburg, connecting five rape crisis centers, four human trafficking response teams and additional resources along the 12-county, 8,400-square mile Route 15 corridor from the New York to Maryland state lines.
Also in 2014, Pennsylvania enacted Act 105, an anti-human trafficking law. It defines two types of human trafficking—sex and labor trafficking—occurring under force, fraud or coercion. Human trafficking is the second-largest criminal industry in the world, behind drug trafficking.
PAATH 15—primarily funded by federal grants—provides services to survivors and educates and trains the public, police departments and employees in specific industries to identify potential victims.
“We were originally one of two programs funded nationally,” Hendrickson said. “The PAATH 15 program presents a model of services, using a shelter recovery program, and now we’re a model for other programs around the country.”
She has traveled across the country to advise other federally funded programs, including California’s.
Due to “increased awareness,” Hendrickson said, there’s been a 200-percent jump in the identification of human trafficking victims within the 12-county region, resulting in more than 300 victims receiving services since 2014.
“The trauma of a trafficking victim is severe and complex,” she said. “It takes a long time to work through services.”
Define Your Future
Gina Abromitis spent 21 years as a Dauphin County parole officer. Now, she provides PAATH 15 outreach and training.
She’s personally trained six area police departments to identify human trafficking victims—during routine traffic stops, for example—and use Act 105.
“Most victims are in the vulnerable population,” she said. “Runaways have a one-in-three chance within the first 48 hours of being picked up by traffickers.”
As for Anastasia, she wants her story to “open up awareness.” Her relationship with her adoptive family is mended, and they are proud of her for testifying. She is left with a physical scar, and she continues to work on the emotional scars.
“I knew if I didn’t help the FBI, [Brown] was going to do exactly what he did to me, to another vulnerable 17-year-old girl, and he had to be stopped,” she said. “I knew it would awaken a lot of dark memories for me, but I told them everything.”
During the sentencing phase, she even told Brown that she forgave him.
Her long-term career goal is to work with fellow human-trafficking survivors.
“I’ve been there,” she said. “You can’t define your past, but you can define your future.”
For more information on the Pennsylvania Alliance Against Trafficking in Humans, visit www.educateandadvocate-paath.com. For information about human trafficking awareness training, call the YWCA at 717-234-7931. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is 1-888-373-7888.
*Last name withheld