As a new center to help abuse victims prepared to open its doors, Anna Beard recalled a photograph of herself at age 17 taken by the man she thought was her boyfriend. The wide-eyed girl in the Polaroid picture unsmiling, wrapped only in a blanket barely resembles the poised, eloquent 26-year-old speaking with guests earlier this week at the Life of Freedom center for victims of human trafficking.
With the trace of a southern accent from growing up in North Carolina, she described how her 40-year-old guitar teacher told her that she was beautiful when she was in high school. He told her that she should be a model. That she should let him take pictures of her.
After about six months, he wanted her to pose in more sexually explicit positions. Beard, who got kicked out of her house after numerous fights with her parents, moved in with him. Eventually, he began to drug her and she would wake up to evidence of having been with other men. Sometimes he kept her chained to the bed. He fed her based on performance.
He kept a tally on the calendar of how many times I was raped, Beard said. Hundreds of times.
She shared her story as a survivor with guests who attended the opening on Tuesday night of the Life of Freedom Center, one of Miamis first walk-in support centers for victims of human trafficking. Beard, now an advocate, is in Florida for the summer to help the LoF center welcome its first participants in July.
Florida has a complicated collection of services to address the problem that is not easily defined or categorized. Human trafficking includes illegal labor and sexual exploitation, and affects both international and domestic victims. Depending on their case, victims pass through all parts of the system: law enforcement, nonprofits, homeless shelters, foster care, immigration lawyers, task forces, drug rehab. Most providers agree that the many faces of human trafficking make it difficult to have a regimented response.
Thats what makes trafficking so hard to identify: theres no typical case, said Regina Bernadin of the International Rescue Committee, which deals exclusively with international victims. You can have 10 indicators, and then the next case has none of those.
The LoF center will partner with local and national service providers to teach life skills to victims of commercial sexual exploitation and human trafficking. It is not a group home or a shelter. Nor does it provide counseling or legal assistance. The LoF center will teach leadership, job skills and financial independence, and give victims the opportunity to make and sell their own jewelry and other products.
This is a great opportunity for victims of human trafficking, Beard said. Moneys been made off them and a lot of them never see the money they make. Now they get to make a profit off something they created, and thats an extremely empowering feeling.
Founder Jorge Veitia describes the center as a circle of protection for girls who have escaped the immediate dangers of human trafficking, but remain vulnerable unless they have other avenues to join society in a healthy way. This faith-based nonprofit also encourages members of the community to go through a 14-hour mentor training to work with girls who are referred by law enforcement or come on their own seeking help.