Every year, thousands of women in America are forced into sexual slavery. Dottie Laster is dedicated to plotting their escape and, what’s even harder, helping them survive their freedom
by Mimi Swartz
Laster outside a Houston strip club. She knows what happens in the backrooms of bars all over the U.S. Photograph: Doron GuildContrary to popular belief, trafficking does not always involve kidnapping or transportation of the victim across state or national lines. Trafficking occurs whenever someone is held in the service of another through force, fraud or psychological coercion. In addition, the U.S. is not only a destination for people held in servitude but also a source country. Estimates indicate that at least 100,000 children are the victims of child prostitution and trafficking in the United States each year, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. And they’re becoming harder to locate and rescue. The Internet is now the number-one platform for the buying and selling of women and children for sex, according to the Polaris Project, which tracks global slavery, and that makes the apprehension of traffickers much more difficult. Further, while many governmental organizations are mired in simply finding victims—because most of the coerced are afraid to come forward—it’s even harder to help those who are rescued to establish functional lives.
This is where Laster comes in. At 48, she looks like someone who might run an elementary school bake sale. She has a warm, wide-open face and a bubbly laugh. She fights her weight, she colors her shoulder-length light-brown hair at home, and she is nearly incapable of letting an edge creep into her voice. Still, Laster is a relentless recovery squad of one, available 24/7. Her cell phone rings not just all day but also all night with news of one crisis or another. Nina, a Thai woman who was trafficked all over the U.S. before being arrested and threatened with deportation in Louisiana, is now out of jail, thanks to Laster and her network, but is struggling to live on her own. Sometimes she wants Laster’s advice—on how she could earn enough to buy a car or whether a new boyfriend sounds less dangerous than the last one—and sometimes she just wants human warmth at the other end of the line. Precious, a former victim whose relationship with Laster stretches back almost a decade, calls to say she needs help getting into community college. She is trying to take advantage of a financial-aid program, but the school won’t acknowledge her T visa, the U.S. government document that says she’s a victim of human trafficking. Another victim, born in Texas, needs help filling out a form for the FBI, which is trying to bring charges against the man who allegedly forced her into making pornographic movies. Just a few days in Laster’s world will convince you: If you had her job, you wouldn’t sleep much either.
HOW LIZBETH WAS SAVED
For a short time, Laster had an Internet radio show called “Trafficked,” in which she discussed all aspects of human slavery. One day in mid-September 2010, she was answering questions on the show’s accompanying Web chat line when she saw this post: “Can you help someone leave a bad situation?” Laster asked the person posting to call in, and within moments she knew she had a trafficking victim on the phone. The tentativeness of the young woman’s voice was a clue, as was the way she asked permission before she posed a question. “I find the more I do this, the more intuitive I get,” Laster says. She pressed for a few more details, making sure the caller was 18 (helping a minor is more complicated if family members are involved) and had valid identification (legal U.S. residents have more options than those brought to this country illegally). She learned enough to know that the young woman was being held against her will and was being compelled to work as a stripper and turn her money over to her captor, a man who forced her to have sex with him and others. Having heard enough, Laster made a promise: She would have someone outside the woman’s house at 2 pm the next day. “Honey, you can go anywhere you want,” she told the frightened, disbelieving woman, whom I’ll call Lizbeth. I’ve changed her name because the trafficker is still trying to find her. He even calls and harangues Laster. “I probably should be afraid of him,” Laster told me. But she isn’t. “I can’t predict what he’ll do, but I won’t give him the power to think we’re afraid.”