Eric Harris is a consultant and field expert in the area of human trafficking, lending his expertise to several anti-trafficking organizations, taskforces, and coalitions. Eric’s submission is a narrative of his experience as a survivor, an excerpt from one of the presentations he provides on human trafficking from a male survivor’s perspective.
The Family Dynamic
Why was I trafficked?
To be honest the reasons of why my mother, my first trafficker, did this to me are unknown and went to the grave with her when she passed. I think to better explain my story, it is important to start from the beginning.
Now you may be asking yourself, what about the other members of my family? Well, my grandparents were the parents and the peacekeepers between me and my mother. They acted as a buffer so that I did have a sense of homeostasis while growing up as a child. After their passing, not only was there pain from this loss, but I was now in a situation where my mother was expected to be my sole caregiver for the first time in my life. In my mind, my grandparents were my parents and when they left this world that is when my suffering began at age 10. This is when I started turning to alcohol and methamphetamines to help cope with my life that was quickly spiraling out of control.
My mother had a mental and substance use disorder. My mother suffered from a form of autism, in her personal environments such as family and friends she would have some erratic behavior. No sense of personal boundaries. Needless to say she would know how to function in the work environment in fact she was a R.N. Due to this level of dysfunction, sadly to say, my mother was more like a sibling who would buy things for me, I feel, out of guilt for never being emotionally present. Since this was the dynamic with my mother I feel it made the grooming process easier since I was accustomed to a consistent level of dysfunction.
As far as how my mother normalized the process of trafficking, the grooming process started by subjecting me to the pedophilia culture. She would have random friends or associates come over and they would get me drunk. That’s why I was an easy target to take advantage of by crossing my personal boundaries: by grabbing me in inappropriate places, calling me by a female name. As a result of the exploitation, I began having questions about what sex was and when I brought this to the attention of my mother, her response was to buy me pornographic magazines and tell me to figure it out. The result was just more confusion on my part. Around this time, my experiences with sexual exploitation and still grieving the loss of my grandparents, I began engaging in methamphetamine use.
Due to my actions my mother placed me in a rehabilitative inpatient facility for about 90 days. Here was more like a timeout from the anarchy that was my life. I was almost 11.5 years old and little did I know that my life was about to flip out of control. After leaving rehab my mother moved in with some co workers, as it was explained to me, due to my mother’s tendency to lose her employment because of being fired for missing medication to support her addiction. This is when a second trafficker stepped into my life.
Trafficker 2’s process did not start overnight. When my mother was still living in the apartment he would be tactful on how he started the process with me. He obviously saw how broken the dynamics were between me and my mother. He would drop subtle hints like “ If we would get your mother out of the picture we could have the family you always wanted.” There would be nights I would wake up with him hovering over my bed. Or if I was in my underwear, because I thought it was a safe place, he would go out of his way to sit next to me. He would try to go to the bathroom when I was in the shower. I never questioned these actions due to the fact that my mother never had boundaries so I was already conditioned to not having healthy boundaries when it came to this new person in my life. He saw the void that I had with no longer having a male role model in my life.
Once a level of trust was built up between me and trafficker 2 that is when he started his plan into grooming me into commercial sex trafficking. He kept promising me this “family” and began engaging in intentional and premeditated arguments with my mom to the point of her exploding in a way that resulted in him making her leave the house. Knowing I wanted this “family” he kept promising me, I did not leave with my mom.
My mother, after she was kicked out of the apartment, made a report to the Department of Child Services (DCS). Now keep in mind my mother had a mental illness, and I believe she could have made the call when she was experiencing a fluctuation in behavior while talking to this agency and making her report. As a result of the call to DCS, a caseworker came and interviewed me and my trafficker. I would like to point out that at this time, I was given the illusion that I could come and go as I please and my trafficker was playing on my need for a positive male role model and a better family life. Since he already had a power differential with me I was more than willing to say whatever to the caseworker to have them leave so I could embark on my need for a family. After the caseworker came and made sure all the checks and balances were in place and this appeared to be a better placement for me to thrive in, I was left in the custody of my trafficker.
Missteps Towards Recovery
Once DCS left, this promise of a family was over and my traffickers started to sexually exploit me. He normalized the exploitation by convincing me this would keep us closely bonded. Within a short amount of time, he began taking me to a trap house where I was kept high on methamphetamines and locked in a room where I would be exploited by men. This routine continued for six months and one day an opportunity arose that allowed me to escape the trap house. At this time I was able to get in touch with my uncle and he came and picked me up. Now you may be wondering if I told my uncle what had happened to me, and the short answer is no. Simply put, I felt ashamed that I was someone’s personal property and still trying to process what the hell happened and why did I fall for this?
After connecting with my uncle, he took me back to my mother and dropped me right back into the dysfunction that I was already accustomed to. By this point in my life, at 12.5, I had experienced multiple severely traumatic life events and as service providers, you know outcomes for teens who’ve experienced severe trauma can go one of two ways: the first is to do everything in their power to maintain homeostasis out of fear of people finding out their dark secrets. Or two, they start acting out due to the experiences because their brains are not fully equipped to process it. My 12.5 year old brain acted out.
Stuck in the System
I decided to create a persona to protect myself. To stop anyone from being able to take advantage of me or ever cross my boundaries again, I developed a street wise persona that would instill fear in anyone who tried to push me. And within a year I was on the fast track to prison. As a result of me acting out, I was placed on juvenile probation and labeled as a “menace to society”. Because of the trauma I had experienced I was unable to articulate what had happened to me and why I was acting out to any of my service providers because I was afraid of being judged, or having that information used for some sort of power differential like my second trafficker had done to manipulate me into commercial sex trafficking. Not only did I no longer trust men, but I couldn’t trust the system designed to keep children safe because I had already been failed by it once before. It was at this point in my life I felt it was me against the world.
I was unable to function within the conditions of my probation so I was taken away from my biological mother, made a ward of the state by age 13, and sent to a long-term treatment facility.
I was taken out of the environment I knew and put into a facility that was its own source of trauma. They used a technique called attack therapy, which involves highly confrontational interaction between the patient and a therapist, or between the patient and fellow patients during group therapy, in which the patient may be verbally abused, denounced, or humiliated by the therapist or other members of the group to break me down and then build me back up. It was adapted from a substance use treatment at a methadone clinic. They would tear me down and then build me up and after 2 years of this they finally broke me down to the point of sharing what the trauma I had experienced. Approximately 4 years after I was trafficked was when the first actual report of me being molested as a youth was made. I wasn’t aware of the fact that I was trafficked. I was aware I was sexually abused.
I was in treatment for 3 years, from age 13 to 16, but both the program and myself were concerned that I would become institutionalized because of how long I had been in the program, so at 16 years old I was placed in the foster system where I was re-exploited for labor. At 18 I didn’t have something to transition to as I aged out so I went back to my mother, and that’s where I fell back to the lifestyle that I knew ( i.e. drugs and criminal activity). It sounds very malicious, but at that time it felt right to traumatize people to regain the power I had lost as a child. This gave me a high and allowed me to establish a persona of power and control. I used fear to keep others in line. This behavior carried on until about age 36.
Consequences as an Adult
At 36, I did 18 months in the California Department of Corrections. After the 18 months, I was released onto a program called AB109, which was a realignment act to lessen the population in the California prison system.
This program had no structure and overall, it was kind of a joke. Internally, I knew I needed to further my education to be able to move on, and becoming a drug counselor seemed like a helpful way to address gaps in services. I started at a junior college and it was there I started to connect with other survivors of commercial sex trafficking, other people with the same quirks and hang ups I was experiencing.. This was when I had the big moment of clarity I wasn’t alone, and this was the first time I became aware I was a survivor of sex trafficking and not just a survivor of sexual abuse.
The further along I got into my education to become a drug counselor, I heard other drug counselors explaining how overwhelming the caseloads were and how restricted their resources were so I made a decision to switch into psychology. In 2015 my mother’s boyfriend called and told me that my mother had a stroke. I spoke to my mother briefly while she could still speak. After talking to my mother and her boyfriend, I told them I would get back to them. As an only child, I was responsible for making the primary decision on her health care.
This is where the big crossroad was into social work. There was a big part of me that didn’t want to deal with it. I wanted to close that part of my life. It felt like karma that she was getting what she deserved for grooming me and selling me into sex trafficking. A mutual friend of mine had a similar challenge with her dad. She told me to take out the factor of what my mom had done and see her as my mom. As her condition worsened I was having to make decisions while we were states apart. It was a difficult time. While I was deciding about feeding tubes and brain scans, I knew I was creating a path to my own healing. It made me think about what I would want if I was placed in that situation. I went up to see her and see for myself how she was doing. When I got up there, the only thing keeping her alive was the fluids she was on. I asked everyone to leave and I took care of her. Combed her hair, fed her, and gave her a bath. I told her that I loved her and forgave her. I was sitting there holding her hand in one of mine while typing my psychology paper the other. Around 3:30 or 4:00 am in the morning, I went out to take a break and it was then that I realized that she was unconscious and ready to leave this world.
Following her passing I went to my mom’s house and found it was filled with trash, human and animal feces and urine. I saw that she was just as broken, as lost, as I felt in my past. When I came to the moment of forgiving my mother, that’s when I became the person that I am now. I let go of the persona I had created and became an agent of change. That is when it was placed in my heart that I wanted to work with survivors. I felt my lived experiences could give me insight into helping others transition out of The Life. Throughout this process I had a wonderful licensed clinical social worker that was helping me, and that’s when I decided I wanted to become a licensed clinical social worker. In May 2020 I will graduate with a Bachelors in Social Work and my hope is to help uplift and empower those that have been marginalized like I have.
Eric Harris is a consultant and field expert in the area of human trafficking. He earned his social work degree from Anderson University in May 2020. Eric graduated from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Human Trafficking Leadership Academy (HTLA) cohort in addressing co-occurring disorders for survivors. Eric has great passion for advocating for survivors’ rights, working to remove the stigma surrounding male survivors, and raising awareness that it happens to all genders and races. Eric currently serves as a consultant with the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program (ITVAP), Indiana Protection for Abused and Trafficked Humans (IPATH) statewide task force. He is also the Co-chair for the Lived Experience Expert working group with the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault and Human Trafficking (ICESAHT). Eric also did his BSW practicum providing professional presentations statewide for the Department of Child Services (DSC) and served as a consultant for the 2020 State of Indiana Human Trafficking Report to address the gaps and services for the survivor population, as well as providing technical assistance for the Office for Victims of Crime (OVC). Eric’s goal is to start his master’s program track on addiction and mental health in 2021 to work with his brothers and sisters who are exiting out of the life of trafficking.