Human Trafficking: In her own words

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MID-MICHIGAN (WJRT) - (6/20/16) - "I mean this lifestyle. It's heartbreaking."

It's a way of living Jeannie Kennedy never imagined she would become a victim of.

"I had the mindset that it would never happen to me," Kennedy said.

The year was 2006. Just in her early '20s and living in Michigan all of her life, Kennedy wanted to explore her world.

"I was part of Job Corps and part of the end part of your program there, they do a job training. And they had offered me to pick any place that I wanted to go find work, and I chose Las Vegas," Kennedy said.

It didn't take long before trouble found her.

"And the very first day I was there, I was approached. This man pulled up beside me in a very nice car. And he had this beautiful woman in the passenger's seat. They asked me a simple question, 'What are you doing here?' And I said, 'I'm here from Michigan. I'm here to make money.' And so right there, boom. He already had something going off like, 'OK'," Kennedy said.

Offering her a ride, Kennedy says she hopped in his Mercedes-Benz.

"He took me shopping and held my hand and told me I was beautiful and all of these things, these manipulative schemes, you know, to get you comfortable. And so, that night, he said, 'OK, now you have to pay me back. Now you work for me,'" Kennedy said.

As quick as a snap of a finger, Kennedy says she was caught in his devilish world.

"From then on, you know, he never let me go. I was his to be had and there was money to be made and it was his money," Kennedy said.

The next three days were a blur and a nightmare. Kennedy says she jumped from one man to the next, one hotel room after another, hooked on heavy drugs. Kennedy says her pimp demanded she call and report directly to him almost every hour.

"Where I was at, who I was with, how much money I had. It's no joke to them. It's no game. You are not a person, you are income. You are money. You are a possession," Kennedy said.

As the drugs wore off, she desperately called her friend in Michigan.

"I called her and I'm sobbing, like, 'Help. I need help.' And I remember her saying, 'I can't understand you. You've got to calm down.' All I knew was that I was in a hotel off the highway. I didn't even know the name of the hotel. But somehow, she put two and two and they figured out where I was based on just the information I gave them. And just as my ride came to pick me up to take me to the airport, he was ringing the phone. Which meant he was at the room I was suppose to be at, for him to collect his money," Kennedy said.

She is one of the lucky ones. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Human Trafficking is a $32 billion industry worldwide. In our country, between 100,000 and 300,000 children are at risk of sexual exploitation. The average age is between 11 and 14 years old.

"It doesn't have to be in Bangladesh or Bangkok, or somewhere in Asia. It's happening here. In our own backyard. Every single day," said Genesee County Sheriff Robert Pickell.

Pickell says they have seen cases up and down busy highways, like I-75 and I-69.

"Any time you have a hotel or a motel near an interstate or a main thoroughfare, you're going to have human trafficking," Pickell said.

However, finding the resources for fighting these heinous crimes, Pickell says, is difficult.

"If I had the manpower, if the Flint police had the manpower, we could work these cases every day," Pickell said.

There are good people out there, like Pastor Christina Tipton, who is part of the Genesee County Human Trafficking Task Force.

"We attend fairs and church and community events. Wherever we can get a group of people, to bring education and also materials. I'm looking for runaways, throwaways, kids that are displaced, homeless. Whatever that looks like, because that leaves them vulnerable to traffickers," Tipton said.

Tipton also helps victims heal. Tipton says they are often branded with markings by their pimps, leaving them with physical reminders.

"The identification is property. When she is wearing a brand, a name, a tattoo, a certain little something right here. It's really saying to other pimps, 'She's owned,'" Tipton said.

After going through therapy, Tipton typically recommends victims go to Snake and Dagger Tattoo Company. The drill and ink covers up the scars on their bodies, using art as the final stage on the road to recovery.

"You see them choke up and tear up, and they say, 'Thank You,' and I don't think that we get to see the full impact, but we can only imagine," said Chris Johnson, artist and owner of Snake & Dagger Tattoo Company.

Kennedy now travels across the state, sharing her story and helping women who remained scarred by their memories.

"After I spoke at U of M, a pregnant one approached me and she was pregnant by her pimp. And she just came up to me afterwards and said, 'Thank you,' you know, 'Thank you for being the voice out here. And you inspire me to tell my story.' And that's what this is about. Don't hold this in, what happened to you. 'Cause there's millions of us out here, still going through it. They need you to talk about it," Kennedy said.

We asked Kennedy if she worried that by speaking out, the man who did this to her will come looking for her. She says not at all. She wants to continue telling her story, no matter what.

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