By David Lewellen
After Emmy Myers got out of being trafficked, her mother asked her to come to a meeting about trafficking. “What does a victim look like?” the facilitator, an FBI agent, asked the audience. Emmy could tell that people weren’t thinking of someone like her – white, middle-class, and lured in gradually.
From that evening came her current work as the founder and leader of Lacey’s Hope Project, a Wisconsin foundation dedicated to education and raising awareness of trafficking. She has spoken to thousands of people, including law enforcement officers, and her group has put up billboards around Milwaukee and produced radio and television PSAs.
Emmy’s story began when she was a legal adult. At 18, she moved out of her parents’ house to another state with her boyfriend. He trafficked her, but she didn’t realize at the time that she was being exploited. It happened to her again through a later relationship, and that stint lasted longer before a compassionate female FBI agent helped her get out.
Several times during those years, Emmy received healthcare. Once, she went to the emergency room after she was branded on the back of her upper thigh. “I told them I backed into a hot pipe when I was remodeling,” she said. “And nothing about that story made sense. They could have asked questions.”
Later, her abuser was hospitalized, and she went with him, “but no one asked, ‘what’s this 50-something man doing with this 20-something girl?’ ”
And even if there’s no suspicious-looking older man in sight, a patient might still be a trafficking victim. Sometimes, Emmy said, a healthy woman who is also under the trafficker’s control will accompany a patient to the healthcare facility, to make sure that the victim does not say anything “out of pocket,” or contrary to the trafficker’s wishes.
What would have made a difference, for Emmy or for others? “It takes time,” she said. “You need conversations; you need relationships.” In having those conversations, healthcare workers should try to help a victim realize that he or she is, in fact, being victimized, but “basic needs come first. Maybe start with, ‘Are you hungry? Are you cold? Do you need a sweater?’” But if a healthcare professional is offering shelter, “what happens after the first night? What’s the long-term game plan?”
Very importantly, she said, “Before offering someone a way out, please make sure you have resources in place.” Beyond simply a bed for the night, it will take a full plan of medical and psychological care and support, over a period of months or years. “If you can’t provide that, you’ll lose your opportunity, and the next time the person has an opportunity, she may not take it because that trust has been broken.”
If other victims, like her, don’t realize that they are being victimized, what can a chaplain or a nurse say? “That’s a very good question.” Personally, she wouldn’t have read literature in the waiting room. “It took multiple people letting me know,” she said, and “offering to meet my basic needs. My trafficker had everything – my clothes, my ID, cigarettes.”
Another positive way that Emmy can help survivors now is through her job; she is an administrator at an assisted living facility, and she can offer both job training and a living wage. She has been out for five years now, but “my stuff is still ongoing. It’s getting better. But many people end up going back.”