Over the years, New Mexico’s resources for human trafficking victims have begun to reach more and more people. But the state still has a long way to go to help survivors.
A warning, this story might be triggering for some folks.
There’s been a growing awareness of human trafficking, how to spot the signs, and where to get help in recent years. Shelley Repp said that may have contributed to an almost 50 percent increase in people coming forward in New Mexico. She’s with Spoken For and works with human trafficking survivors in Albuquerque.
"We'd have a few clients here and there over the years, and then all of the sudden last year we had 19 clients that we were working with. That's huge. That's almost a 50 percent increase," Repp said.
The trauma survivors experience is unique, and so counseling and medications have to be tailored to their needs, Repp said. Women’s shelters can sometimes make things worse because not everyone understands what it’s like to be trafficked.
"When you look at this, it’s almost like this perfect storm of difficulty to try to be able to help our clients," she said.
Advocates say it’s rare for survivors to escape from traffickers who force them into sex or labor. Nationally, the percentage is in the single digits. In New Mexico, they say just one percent of survivors escape. And once you get away, that doesn’t mean you’re home free.
I spoke with a woman in her 30's, who’s recovering from being trafficked. We’re not using her name in this story because she’s worried that her trafficker will find her again.
"I escaped several times, but I would always land back in, always through threats or something like that," she said in Spanish. "Or he would just find me and I'd end up going back."
She said she was trafficked for two years. She would call the police, but her trafficker would explain away her complaints and say she was off her meds. Then she would watch the cops take off every time.
"That would enrage me," she said.
She struggled with anxiety and depression, she said, and couldn’t get the medications she needed.
She said she tried to kill herself a few times. She didn’t know that what was happening to her was illegal or that she had a way out.
"Once when I landed in the hospital, the doctors explained to me was happening," she said.
She’s been in recovery for a month now and she credits local shelters with helping her hide from her trafficker. That’s where she met Daniela Romo, who runs two safe houses for survivors – one in Mexico and another in Albuquerque. Romo says human trafficking wasn’t illegal here until 2008.
"There was no housing for victims of human trafficking back then," Romo said. "There was no real services back then specifically for human traffic victims."
People who are convicted of trafficking children under 13-years-old can face up to 18 years in prison. But Romo said people who traffic adults face only three years max, which isn’t enough.
"Our victim has barely started to get their life together," she said. "They’re getting through their trauma, they’re getting on their feet, they feel safer, then all of the sudden the trafficker is back out."
In New Mexico, there are 13 beds for adult survivors. But three will be lost this summer for lack of funding. State lawmakers approved $145,000 this year to help survivors get back on their feet. They also created a task force to figure out what else New Mexico needs to do.
For Romo, the list is long.
"The counseling, the therapy, the housing, the case management," she said. "It’s like, we all do just portions of it because of funding."
The survivor I spoke to had a message for people who are being trafficked right now.
"I had a friend who would always tell me not to be afraid, and to get help," she said. "And I never did. Don’t be afraid to get help, because when you finally find freedom, you’ll wish you had done it earlier. If I had tried to get help from the start, this wouldn't have happened to me."
The hardest part of her recovery, she said, has been getting her trafficker out of her head. She still has nightmares about him finding her.
But she has overcome much of her trauma and she recently moved into her own apartment. It’s the first real home she’s had in years.
- People who want help can call 1-505-GET-FREE in New Mexico.
- The National Human Trafficking Resource Center number is 1-888-373-7888.
- There's also the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Con Alma Health Foundation and the McCune Charitable Foundation.