HOUSTON - It started with a modeling shoot and the promise of easy money.
Nicole, who asked that her real name not be used, had done some modeling before, but when she showed up for a photoshoot in a hotel room nearly a decade ago, she knew it was different.
“I couldn’t step out of the hotel, him telling me rules. I don’t even decide what I want to wear, you’re telling me how you want my hair, these earrings – that’s not gonna work,” Nicole said. “We didn’t even go to no studio place.”
Years as a prostitute left marks not only on one woman's body and mind, but also on her record.
What came after the photoshoot changed Nicole’s life, and set her down a path from which she – and many other human trafficking survivors – is struggling to return.
“Yeah, we took pictures, but my pictures went on Backpage,” Nicole said.
Ads featuring Nicole were posted on the “adult services” sections of online marketplaces like Backpage.com. She was bustled from city to city and pushed on the street, trapped in human trafficking.
“That first day, I think I had about 18 men -- that day I had to sleep with 18 men. And he told me if I wanted to leave, I would have to give him a certain amount of money first and he’d let me go,” Nicole said. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’m really going to have to do this.’ And he still didn’t let me go.”
She could sleep with upwards of 40 men daily, all to meet a $1,500 daily quota set by her pimp.
Nicole was constantly under his control, marked as his property with a brand, and considered herself brainwashed.
“He made me start hating myself, not loving myself. Not realizing my worth. My body started wearing and tearing. Scars on my body,” Nicole said. “I’ve been raped several times. Couldn’t do nothing about it.”
Eventually, her pimp started hitting her, and if he wasn’t hitting her, a customer would take a shot. The beatings were constant.
“It’s like you’re playing Russian Roulette with your life, literally you are,” she said.
‘How am I gonna clothe my back?’
Seven years later, Nicole had enough. She saved up enough money to buy a car, her escape vehicle and new home. But life on the other side wasn’t easy.
“I was like ‘how am I gonna feed my face? How am I gonna clothe my back? How am I gonna put shoes on my feet? How am I gonna look up to part and live life on life’s terms? How am I gonna do that?’ I struggled for a long time,” she said.
Those years as a prostitute left marks not only on Nicole’s body and mind, but also on her record.
She applied for job after job, willing to accept anything, but the response was always the same.
“They wouldn’t hire me. I had so many prostitution (convictions), it didn’t look good,” Nicole said. “Sometimes you wish you was back on the other side, because you don’t have money to live. You can’t live just breathing.”
Nicole was left panhandling and homeless – living on friends’ and families’ couches when she could, and sometimes ending up in shelters or worse. She lived in her car for several months, parking in grocery store lots to sleep or read her Bible until security guards would make her leave.
“You expect me to live, you expect me to do this, you expect me to have somewhere to stay and be able to parole here, but I can’t get a job,” she said. “So basically you’re expecting me to be under the bridge.”
A chance for a clean record
Last year, Texas passed a law that was supposed to help by allowing sex trafficking victims to seek an “order of non-disclosure” – a seal on their criminal record – but it only applies if they received probation and their conviction eventually was dismissed.
Nicole doesn’t qualify, and sex trafficking advocates don’t expect many do.
“The Texas law is drafted so narrowly that its relief is simply not going to apply or reach many of the survivors that desperately need it,” Kate Mogulescu, supervising attorney with New York Legal Aid Society, said.
Mogulescu runs the Legal Aid Society’s Trafficking Victim Advocacy Project, which has helped survivors across the country clear their records. Since 2010, when New York became the first state to offer survivors a chance to clean their records, the project has helped vacate, or essentially erase, more than 1,100 convictions for trafficking survivors in the state.
“These are people who have been victimized, experienced extensive trauma and abuse, but yet are some of the most resilient clients we’ve served. They have really worked in many instances to escape a dangerous situation and move forward in their lives, only to continue to be hampered by a criminal record,” Mogulescu said.
Beyond New York, Mogulescu points to Florida’s law as an ideal model. It allows survivors the opportunity to clean their record of all crimes committed while they were a victim of human trafficking.
“Those are theft offenses, clients who have to carry weapons as protection from potential dates or other violence, clients who are given drugs by traffickers to engage in conduct that profits the trafficker,” Mogulescu said.
In total, 27 states have laws that give survivors a chance to undo some of their past crimes, according to the American Bar Association’s Survivor Reentry Project.
More states offer some relief to sex trafficking survivors, but only these 27 offer a chance for survivors to be found to have “factual innocence” on the basis that they never consented to those criminal activities, according to the U.S. State Department. This summer, the state department recommended that all states adopt similar laws.
“These laws are a clear statement that there was an injustice that occurred, this never should have happened, and we’re fixing it now,” Mogulescu said. “Laws that fall short of that don’t accomplish the full intent of what we’re trying to do here.”
‘A step in the right direction’
Mogulescu calls the Texas law, “a step in the right direction, in that it’s acknowledging people may have been unjustly criminalized when they were in fact victims of trafficking.”
But it doesn’t go far enough. Mogulescu said she hasn’t heard of anyone successfully helped by the law.
There are two problems with the new law – It doesn’t apply to many survivors, and it doesn’t really remove convictions from their records; some 30 government agencies can still access their criminal history, in addition to schools, hospitals, and banks.
READ: House Bill 2286
State Sen. Sylvia Garcia co-sponsored the bill in 2015, and didn’t realize the law had flaws until KHOU 11 Investigative Reporter Keli Rabon brought it to her attention.
“We’re obviously seeing now that if it’s narrow to just convictions of prostitution, it doesn’t really remedy it all, because sometimes out of that one human trafficking event there’s other charges filed,” Garcia said.
Her staff is now looking into possible changes to the law that would lessen restrictions and expand its coverage to related convictions. Garcia plans to work with other sponsors and could file an amendment in January.
Garcia called the law a “good start,” but recognizes the need to tweak it.
“We’ve got to make sure we do everything we can to open the opportunity for the person involved to just get back on their feet, not have a stigma on their record that would prevent them from housing, employment, or from any services they may need,” she said.
Nicole, now a 29-year-old mom-to-be putting her life back together, hopes the law can be changed to help her one day.
“God knows my heart,” she said. “If I was able to do that, I want to be able to come up with my own little ministry to help girls off the streets.”
Nicole hopes she can be part of the solution one day and help stop other girls from going down her path. She is determined to not let her background hold her back.
“I know God has a purpose for me,” she said. “I know my calling. I didn’t know who I was then, but I know who I am today.”
Nicole is likely among thousands of sex trafficking survivors. More than 4,100 sex trafficking cases have been reported to the National Human Trafficking this year alone, with 10 percent of them coming from Texas. They do not consider this a complete estimate of victims and survivors, as many of these cases go unreported. There are resources available:
- American Bar Association Survivor Reentry Project
- Polaris Project
- YMCA Houston Trafficked Persons Assistance Program