Human trafficking isn’t just overseas: It’s alive in D.C. and its suburbs

Washington Post

Tina Frundt’s efforts are honored by Ken Morris, of the Frederick Douglass foundation.

Her name was “Elizabeth London,” she said. And, shivering in a short, white skirt and tottering on huge, acrylic heels too big for her little feet, she was standing on a corner in Northwest Washington, about four blocks from the White House, “waiting for a friend.”

She was a child, about 15, I guessed. Her makeup was clumsy and clumpy, her long, blond hair was limp. The detective with me agreed that she was a kid, but she had no I.D., so he couldn’t prove it.

He took some notes about her, “a new one,” he mumbled, who was probably imported from somewhere far from the city. “They bring them up the Interstate, 95, through the big cities. D.C. is on that circuit,” the detective explained to me as we cruised around the District’s open-air, prostitution hotspots back in 2002 for a story I was writing.

Human trafficking right here, in the nation’s capital, seemed improbable. Women couldn’t possibly be “trafficked” in America. That happens in exotic countries, where they are held in bamboo cages and forced to service dozens of clients a day, right?

“Ha. Try Leesburg. Ballston Common Mall. Tysons Corner. Those are all spots” where girls are meeting clients under the watchful eye of their pimps or being recruited into the sex trade with flattery and flashy clothes, Tina Frundt told me this week.

“Yes, it’s happening here. Now. Right in our neighborhoods, right where no one would believe it happens,” she said.

I thought of “Elizabeth London” when I met Frundt this week.

That frightened girl — with raccoon-eye liner and too-bright lipstick — is the face of slavery in America today, Frundt contends.

Frundt was once a slave herself, forced into prostitution in the District when she was 14. She was a rebellious teen who blossomed in the attention showered upon her by a 24-year-old man. When he told her he was going to take her to Cleveland to meet the rest of his family, she was thrilled. But his family turned out to be the three other girls working for him. She had to bring in $500 a night. When she brought in just $50, he beat her in front of the other girls and broke her arm with a baseball bat.

She was locked in a closet, shunted from city to city and monitored constantly. Eventually, she escaped, recovered and is now a champion of the movement to equate American prostitution with contemporary slavery.

The detective I talked to almost a decade ago was certainly onto this. But few called it slavery back then. It was “a network” and “runaways” and “groups of people traveling from city to city.”

But over the past several years, detectives in our region began seeing younger prostitutes, girls promised excitement and glamour, lured from small towns and trapped by violence and manipulation. In 2004, the District organized the D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force.
The cops are now part of that task force, and they identify about 100 juveniles each year forced to work in the District.

So if “Elizabeth London” is the face of a modern-day American slave, Frundt is the embodiment of a contemporary abolitionist.

She has “saved” more than 500 kids from their lives as sex slaves. She founded an organization, Courtney’s House, to give them shelter and counseling and to help them recover their lives and their humanity.

She is just a couple of months away from opening a safe house with beds and rooms, on a leafy green street in an undisclosed Northern Virginia suburb, not too far from the places where minors are forced to work the suburban streets.

Frundt has worked with other local organizations to reach out to the kids — mostly girls, but there are some boys, too. With the Polaris Project, a District-based organization that works to end domestic human trafficking, she created tiny compact mirrors with her group’s hotline number hidden inside. They recently worked to get stickers with the hotline number in the doors of hotels that the prostitutes often use, lifelines to young people living in fear.

She stood outside the Frederick Douglass home in Anacostia this week, where she received an award from the Frederick Douglass Family Foundation. The group, headed by Douglass’s great-great-great-grandson, Ken Morris, gives awards to leaders of abolition movements throughout the world.

They’ve honored heroes in Pakistan, Cambodia and India.

Morris, who was working in the travel industry in California when he read a National Geographic article about contemporary slavery, and it inspired him to rededicate his life to bringing attention to modern-day slavery.

We talked about the recent arrests of three suspected pimps and rescues of young women — as young as 15 — who were being trafficked and used at prostitutes in Montgomery County. One was found beaten in a Rockville hotel, a place many of us drive past on the way home.

“Rockville. I used to live in Rockville,” Morris said.

It’s going on right here. Slavery in our own neighborhoods.

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