Into a New Life

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Photos by Lauryn Hottinger

New mom and UMA student Cathy Geren survived years as a victim of sex trafficking

A lot of Mainers might be surprised, says 26-year-old Cathy Geren, now a new mother and a college student, that a “regular girl from Gorham” like herself could have wound up threatened, beaten and raped into sex work. But even in Maine, sex trafficking is hidden in plain sight. Geren endured five years of it before she escaped and regained control of her life.

Though many who wind up “in the life” of sex trafficking come from rough childhoods, Geren says her own was pretty normal. But in high school—as the “average misunderstood teenager who rebelled”—she quarreled with her parents, who were divorced. She also watched her mother struggle through a series of relationships, and as a result, she says, “I grew up with confusion around healthy boundaries and relationships.” By the time she was 17, she was living on her own in Portland. She worked in strip clubs to make ends meet and started dating her then-boyfriend, who had problems with drugs. They lived with a friend of his who dealt heroin, cocaine, guns and sex, which she says didn’t affect her much until, when she was 19, her boyfriend went to jail. “When my boyfriend was gone, I became my trafficker’s property,” she says. “He first seemed like he was trying to help me make ends meet, but soon it was out of my control.”

Sex trafficking in Vacationland? “This is Maine,” says Steve Webster, a retired South Portland police detective, “but it’s happening here every day.”

It’s hard to nail down exact figures about sex trafficking, in part because of the coercion or manipulation by which its victims are controlled. But a 2015 report by Hornby Zeller Associates, prepared for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MECASA), estimates that there may currently be anywhere from 79 to 893 victims being sex trafficked in Maine. And while the term “sex trafficking” might conjure images of foreign-born victims smuggled in from outside the U.S., the report found that the most common profile of sex trafficking victims in Maine is white, female Maine residents between 14 and 30 years old.

Geren’s work had stringent economics, with daily quotas for both sex and drugs—$800–$1,000 a day for sex, $800–$900 for heroin. Geren’s trafficker brought johns to Portland from New York City and took her on the road to New York, Florida, Georgia and California. Prices, she says, averaged $150 per half hour, $1,000 for an overnight, and sometimes much more with businessmen or “nicer parties” in New York or California.

Threats of physical and mental harm were perpetual. Geren’s trafficker had strict rules about phone use, the people she could see and even whose drugs she could use. “If I disobeyed these rules, it was serious,” she says. “My trafficker would beat me and the other girls up with extension cords, and burn us.” Other forms of punishment were the withholding of drugs and—especially—sexual assault. “There were rapes that were pretty bad with him,” she recalls, though she had even more “close calls” with johns—she still has a scar on her forehead from being thrown against the edge of a bathtub. Her trafficker also intimidated her by beating and stabbing her boyfriend, once he was out of jail. The last three years of her trafficking were the worst. She’d lost contact with friends and family. “The only people I was interacting with were my trafficker and johns,” she says. “And with all of them, I had to put on a fake persona. I could never be myself.”

By then, she was also using between five and 10 grams of heroin a day. She was arrested several times on misdemeanor charges, but at first, she says, she didn’t receive much empathy from corrections officers when she was brought in to Cumberland County Jail: they knew what her work was, but didn’t understand its violence and coercion. “The COs would say, ‘How do you feel about yourself that this is your job?’ and sort of make fun of you,” she says. “It took some time for them to realize what was actually going on.” 

Cathy Geren smiles down on her baby daughter. Geren survived years as a sex trafficking victim, and is now a new mom and college student working hard at recovery and a career helping others in need.

Meanwhile, the abuse was getting worse with her trafficker. Just once, after getting out of jail for failure to report to probation, did she seek help, from the Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a MECASA program. But then her trafficker seized her, beat and raped her, and took her phone, ID and wallet. After that, she was held under guard in a hotel in South Portland by the mall. She was there for five months.

Then, on May 21, 2015, Steve Webster came to the hotel. There was a warrant out for Geren for probation, and someone had called in a tip to the police. Webster arrested her, and Geren still remembers the moment. “Steve was like, ‘I’d like to help you.’”

Law enforcement and criminal justice are often ground zero for dealing with victims. “Sometimes victims need to be arrested for their own safety,” says Webster, to get them out of a situation or to detox. For legal mechanisms to be set in motion, an arrested trafficking victim must either self-identify or be known to be a victim. Ideally, the victim’s case is managed by a collaboration of law enforcement, social workers and caseworkers from Maine Pretrial, an alternative-sentencing program. Victims might remain in jail until either they make bail or a bed opens at a rehabilitation center. But because there’s a shortage of beds, Webster says, sometimes victims are released to facilities that can’t address all of their needs, or  they are held in jail.

Instead, Webster often temporarily sheltered victims in hotels. Sometimes federal agencies such as the FBI or Homeland Security, with whom local enforcement began partnering, help fund these stays. Other times, he says, he used his South Portland Police Department credit card. It’s one of many ways Webster says he sometimes sidestepped protocol to do his job right—answering late-night calls and, once, taking a distraught victim to get her nails done, as a small comfort. Trust is crucial with victims, he says. “I prided myself on keeping my phone on and following up.”

Webster soon followed up with Geren in jail. He told her about Hope Rising, Maine’s first residential treatment house specifically for trafficking victims, which was about to open north of Portland (its location is withheld for its residents’ safety). Residence at rehabilitation centers is sometimes legally mandated for victims, and this alternative sentencing would prove Geren’s path out of the life. After about a week and a half in jail, on June 8, 2015, Geren went north to be one of five women in the inaugural program at Hope Rising.

A branch of the charitable nonprofit St. Andre Home, Hope Rising is a long-term program (six to 18  months) that takes a “whole-person” approach to trafficking recovery. It focuses first on physical and mental health, then classes and community building and finally job skills and transitions back into the world. Residents take classes in career development, equine therapy and yoga; start repairing relationships; and sometimes attend college. “Once someone completes the program,” says Hope Rising director Carey Nason, “she has the skills and resources to be able to live independently in a community.”

It took Geren a while to adapt. “I’d been a people pleaser, always doing what I thought people wanted me to do or saying what they wanted to hear,” she says. “As the program progressed, I came to develop more of my own personality, to consider my own interests and think about going back to school.” She took more classes, got involved in the recovery community, and met the man who is now her fiancé. Finally, towards the end of 10 months at Hope Rising, she began working at a bakery and attending the University of Maine Augusta. Hope Rising staff helped her secure an apartment and, when she became pregnant, threw her a baby shower. “They are like family to us,” she says. Webster, too, is still present in her life. And she’s begun repairing relationships with her biological family—especially important to her now, she says, since giving birth to her own daughter in April. Of the four girls she began with at Hope Rising, she says, “two have gone back to the life or jail, but the other two I’m in touch with. They are doing well.”

Getting and staying out of the life is not easy without support. “It’s hard for anybody in recovery from anything to re-establish themselves from nothing,” says Geren. “And traffickers are really in tune with the weaknesses of the people they traffic.” Victims might be desperate for shelter, drugs or love, or be tempted by the “fast cash” they think will help them get back on their feet. They are often ashamed, terrified or brainwashed, and many either are afraid to seek help or have trouble accessing it: “The services they have in Portland are good services,” says Geren, “but they operate 9 to 5.” Arrested victims can hit red tape if they aren’t legally classified as victims, says Webster, and some are reluctant to self-identify. And Geren did not always find understanding in the hands of police and COs. “It took me a while in law enforcement and the correctional system for me to fall into the right people’s laps.”

What can we do better about sex trafficking? Webster and Nason agree that prevention should start early. “We need to teach people at a very young age,” Webster says, “that it’s not OK to buy women.” Ideally, says Nason, prevention starts with making sure children have what they need. “Research tells us that people who are trafficked are people who do not have what they need,” she says, “and that’s what traffickers prey on.” Key risk factors, she notes, are addiction, poverty, childhood sexual abuse and domestic violence.

We also need the community to acknowledge that trafficking happens and recognize its signs, says Geren: victims might seem fearful, be picked up and dropped off frequently, or show signs of physical abuse or drug use. And we need to understand how it happens. “A lot of people think that it’s a choice, or look at it as work. And it’s really not someone’s choice,” Geren says. “You’re having your consent bought from you.” Webster argues for continuing to shift blame to traffickers and johns, reminding us that prostitution is “a supply and demand business.” He says Maine should conduct more solicitation patrols and start a “John School”—an educational intervention mandated for those convicted of paying for sex.

No one agency can solve it alone, adds Webster. “You can’t arrest your way out of it and you can’t rehab your way out of it.” He says local enforcement must work with federal agencies, and partnerships must continue between education, enforcement, and rehabilitation. Finally, “we have to show that there is hope,” Webster says. Several Maine anti-trafficking nonprofits—Survivor Speaks, the Not Here Justice in Action Network, and Stop Trafficking ME—have been founded by survivors. “None of these women are ‘throwaways,’ Webster says. “They need someone to believe in them in order for them to believe in themselves. When they pull it all together, they have so much to offer society.”

Cathy Geren is already working toward a career helping those in need. Last spring, she traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina, to attend the Emerging Leaders Conference of the Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS) Organization, a nonprofit for survivors helping survivors. And in 2019, she’ll graduate from UMA’s Mental Health and Human Services program, with Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor and case manager licenses. She’ll then pursue a master’s in social work and plans to work with the homeless or women with addiction. “And I have a baby now,” she says with a smile. “I’m staying pretty busy.”

On her recent two-year anniversary of leaving the life, Geren reflected on her experience. “What is most vital in a successful exit and recovery from the life,” she says, “is to look in the mirror every day and be honest with yourself, take your own inventory and have respect for what was, what is and what is to come.”

Megan Grumbling is a writer, critic and poet who lives in Portland.

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