306 – Survivor Voices Leading Change, with Jerome Elam

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Dr. Sandie Morgan is joined by Jerome Elam as the two discuss the importance of advocating for male victims of trafficking.

Jerome Elam

Jerome Elam is president and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force, Child Sex Trafficking Survivor, Survivor Leader, recipient of the Award for Courage presented by the National Council of Jewish Women, a member of ECPAT Global Survivors Forum, a member of ECPAT Global Network of Survivor Led Organizations. He’s a staff writer and columnist for Community’s Digital News, a special adviser to the Utah Attorney General, a Marine Corps veteran, recipient of the US Attorney General’s Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award for Anti Trafficking work, and chosen as one of New York’s New Abolitionists.

Key Points

  • The Warsaw Human Dimension Conference unites 57 OSCE member countries to report on how they’ve been addressing human trafficking and it is global in attendance.
  • Human trafficking is multifaceted because there is forced criminality involved, making it less likely for men and boys to be identified as survivors.
  • Jerome Elam describes grooming as psychological quicksand in which the predator grooms the victim through the five stages listed in the episode.
  • Because of the shame that surrounds male victims, they are less likely to disclose the crimes, and through the grooming of a child’s environment, the victim is less likely to be believed by the adults around them.



Sandra Morgan 0:00
You are listening to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast episode #306: Survivor Voices Leading Change, with Jerome Elam.

Welcome to the Ending Human Trafficking podcast here at Vanguard University’s Global Center for Women and Justice in Orange County, California. My name is Sandie Morgan and this is the show where we empower you to study the issues, be a voice, and make a difference in ending human trafficking. Our guest today is Jerome Elam. He is president and CEO of Trafficking in America Task Force, Child Sex Trafficking Survivor, Survivor Leader, recipient of the Award for Courage presented by the National Council of Jewish Women, a member of ECPAT Global Survivors Forum, a member of ECPAT Global Network of Survivor Led Organizations. He’s a staff writer and columnist for Community’s Digital News, a special adviser to the Utah Attorney General, a Marine Corps veteran, recipient of the US Attorney General’s Alliance Lifetime Achievement Award for Anti Trafficking work, and chosen as one of New York’s New Abolitionists. He’s so much more and you’re going to learn about that in our conversation. Welcome to the show, Jerome.

Jerome Elam 1:59
Thank you Sandie, it’s an honor to be here.

Sandra Morgan 2:01
You just came back from Warsaw, Poland for the OSCE Conference, there’s 57 member countries. Tell us what that is, why you were there, and maybe a couple of other things I’m going to ask you.

Jerome Elam 2:17
Absolutely. Thank you for that question. The Warsaw Human Dimension Conference is a yearly conference that is put on by the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe’s Office of Democratic Initiatives and Human Rights, that brings together the 57 member countries of the OSCE where we can basically give them a report card on how they’re doing in terms of addressing human trafficking. So one of the things I’ve been really grateful for is opportunity to work on what we call the National Referral Manual, which is a guide book used by the 57 member countries of the OSCE to help combat human trafficking. We are able, at the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference, to talk to these countries about how they’re following the guidelines, how they’re doing combating human trafficking, and to give them any guidance we can to help them improve their approach to it.

Sandra Morgan 3:09
Well, who’s we? Because I know you’re there, I know a few other people, it’s not all survivors.

Jerome Elam 3:16
No, exactly. I am grateful, I’m actually in my second term as a member of the OSCE OHDIR, survivors of trafficking Advisory Council. But I was at the Warsaw Human Dimension Conference as a member of the Council, but also as a member of Civil Society, representing my nonprofit Tafficking America Task Force. The global community can attend this conference and really talk about these important issues, and we both know that human trafficking is evolving faster than the law can keep up with it. So we’re here to talk about how to institute cutting edge approaches to keeping innocent victims from being scooped up by human traffickers and exploited. This is the world community. There were people there from all over the world and I was grateful that we all shared that singular passion to bring it into human trafficking.

Sandra Morgan 3:32
And just recently, we interviewed Ioana Bauer and she’s been a participant there too. So in the show notes for our listeners, I’ll put a link to her interview last time too. So I want to ask you, as a survivor, what is your greatest challenge when advocating for male victims of trafficking?

Jerome Elam 4:39
That’s, unfortunately, an easy question. Awareness, getting people to understand the gravity and the scope of the problem when it comes to male victims of human trafficking. Now, unfortunately, as men and boys, our westernized concept of ego doesn’t allow us to admit that we’re victims or that we’re vulnerable, so we’re less likely to disclose, and we have 14 times the suicide rate of the norm, and 38 times rate of drug overdose as victims of sexual assault and trafficking, and we’re 50% more likely to be incarcerated as juveniles

Sandra Morgan 5:15
Wait, wait, be incarcerated? But you’re the victim! Tell me why, for what?

Jerome Elam 5:22
Well, one of the things you have to understand about human trafficking is it’s so multifaceted, the sense that when you’re being trafficked, there’s forced criminality. I mean, typically when it comes to men and boys in particular, they’re more likely to be arrested for shoplifting or petty theft than they are for human trafficking or be recognized as victims of human trafficking. What it is, is they exploit you for every ounce of your humanity, so you’re forced to do all these things with your life being threatened if you don’t, and so you’re arrested, but you also can be arrested for prostitution, which again, we really push the advancment of Safe Harbor laws that recognize that victims of human trafficking aren’t criminals. And so that’s been a slowly evolving modality, but you can be arrested as a victim and incarcerated, and spend years in prison and jail, until it’s actually figured out that you’re a victim, you were forced to do this. So there are so many people that I know in particular, that have these long criminal histories when they were a victim of human trafficking, and then they have to fight to get those records expunged, because they were put on trial and convicted of a crime that they were not guilty of. They were forced to do this.

Sandra Morgan 6:44
And I think, to that point, we’ve talked about that on this podcast. We want to “rescue”, and I’m using air quotes for our listeners, because rescue is just a word that has so many problems. What are some of the problems when we hear the word “rescue”?

Jerome Elam 7:06
Sandie, great question. Unfortunately, that’s a narrative that is very seldom realized. I mean, typically, the majority of victims, of human trafficking get out of their own volition, they find a way out. I mean, there’s not this knocking down the door, rushing in with a flashlight, scooping the victim up and running out. Typically, either you come to the attention of law enforcement through another crime, or you’re arrested for prostitution, and then eventually it’s figured out. Rescues do happen, but that’s not how victims typically get out of being trafficked. I mean, that’s an urban myth.

Sandra Morgan 7:44
Yeah. Okay, good. I love to pound that home every chance I get, because we have to start looking for exit pathways for victims so they become survivors, leading change, or just leading the life they really wanted. So we’re talking about exit strategies, I want to go back to how it begins. And I know you’re an expert witness on grooming. When we talk a lot about how children are recruited, oftentimes online, and the conversation these days about online safety for kids is huge. I don’t think we realize that trafficking is one of the risks. So talk to us about grooming.

Jerome Elam 8:40
Yeah, grooming. The way I describe grooming is psychological quicksand. What this means is that when a predator targets a child, they actually entice them through giving them gifts, and let me just put this in the context for myself. As a child, my mother was an alcoholic, pregnant at 17. I was born into an environment where there was domestic violence, drug abuse, I was being molested. So if anybody paid attention to me for five seconds, I mean, they had me. When I was targeted, this person showered me with gifts, gave me affection. So I would do anything for this person, because I’d never know what it was like to feel like I mattered, and they made me feel like I mattered. And so once that happens, then they begin to slowly rope you in by you know, they’ll tell you a dirty joke, they’ll show you pornography, and then they slowly get to the point where they begin to molest you. In my case, as in many, they threatened my mother’s life and said, “Well, if you talk about this, we’re going to kill your mother.” Regardless of how big a train wreck your parents are as an alcoholic or whatever, as a child you’re still going to do whatever you can to protect them. I was in a prison of silence by these threats of violence so I didn’t speak out, and it just began to escalate. I was trapped. Also, I want to make a point about grooming in that I’d like to say that, they not only groom the child, they groom the adults around the child. This individual in particular, this predator, will gain the respect. Let’s say Jerry Sandusky, for example, will gain the respect of everybody around that child, so when that child tries to speak out, they’re not listened to. Now, what we know from the research is that a child that is a victim of abuse or trafficking has to tell a total of nine adults before they’re believed.

Sandra Morgan 10:38

Jerome Elam 10:39
Yeah. I’d like to quote Jerry Sandusky’s first victim to come forward, went to his high school principal and said, “Jerry Sandusky is molesting me.” His principal said, “What do you want to get Jerry in trouble for? He’s a great guy.” So we have that wall that we run into with with children, especially not being believed. That’s where we’re really need to, through this podcast and through our work, make sure that we listen to children, and that we recognize the signs so they don’t go through this hell I did, for seven years, as a victim of child sex trafficking.

Sandra Morgan 11:12
So can you share how old you were when the grooming started?

Jerome Elam 11:18
Absolutely. I was five years old and like I said, it was a very chaotic situation, with my mom being an alcoholic, she was dating you know, every dirtbag. My first memory as a three year old, is the sound of my mother’s face being slapped by this person she was with. I was in this, kind of, this hell, where I didn’t know which way was up, it was so chaotic. At five years old, my mother met a man that we thought was the answer to our prayers. When he started giving us gifts, taking us places, we thought, this is Prince Charming on his white horse riding up and saving us. Well, we didn’t know, and let me just say this happens quite often, that predators will target children through the mothers. They’ll romance the mother to get to the child. So here I am in a situation where I thought things would get better, and then he starts to molest me, and it just escalates and gets worse from there.

Sandra Morgan 12:20
So let’s talk through the stages. And tell people how to get to your website, because I found this on your website.

Jerome Elam 12:28
Right. It’s traffickinginamericataskforce.com.

Sandra Morgan 12:32
That’s a lot of letters.

Jerome Elam 12:34
I know, I’ve got to shorten that up.

Sandra Morgan 12:35
That’s okay. Say that one more time.

Jerome Elam 12:42

Sandra Morgan 12:44
Okay, so let’s talk through the stages. What is stage one?

Jerome Elam 12:49
Stage one is definitely the targeting. It’s where someone is being targeted by a predator. When they spot a child that they want to go after, they’ll go ahead and make a plan in their mind, about how they want to actually begin to groom this child and begin to target them. And so I think the identification of the victim is definitely where the whole thing launches and just escalates from there.

Sandra Morgan 13:20
Okay, stage two, gaining the victims trust.

Jerome Elam 13:26
That is so key. Because again, as in my case, when someone is kind to you for the first time in your life, and they’re buying you gifts, and someone actually picks you up after school when they say they’re going to because when your mother’s an alcoholic and you’re standing on the curb until dark waiting for someone to come and get you, and then you’ve got someone who is there ahead of time with comic books, with candy, with sodas and giving you all this attention, then that’s when they begin to establish that trust that you’ve longed for, as a victim, you’ve longed for that. I think that’s, again, that’s what we struggle with as adults, as adult survivors is learning to trust people again.

Sandra Morgan 14:16
Wow, I never thought that predators might use picking a kid up from school, but if you’re often forgotten, that’s a huge trust builder.

Jerome Elam 14:29
It really is. We talk about children especially, Sandie. The thing about being a kid, like I say, it doesn’t matter how horrible your parents are, in your mind as a child, you’re making these excuses for them. I mean, I’m a bit older and there was a show called The Brady Bunch. You’re always imagining that you’re living in a Brady Bunch world. I mean that’s your fantasy, but you’re really living at the lowest level of Dante’s Inferno because you’re in that hell. As a child, that’s the only way you survive, is that you concoct these fantasies. But the reality of it is so much harsher, that you’re just abandoned, neglected, and you feel worthless. I think that one thing I like to speak about, which you know, I’m writing a book, and it’s in my book, is we talk about what we call a culture of helplessness. I think as a victim, especially a child victim, you’re really ingrained with that culture of helplessness, where you feel like you have zero power in your life, you can’t really decide anything, you can’t control anything in your life. When a little thing like someone picking you up on time, or someone making sure that you’re actually fed, which was my case as well, making sure that you actually have a meal, that is like walking on the moon to you as a child victim.

Sandra Morgan 14:31
Well, and that speaks to stage three, filling a need.

Jerome Elam 15:58
Yeah, and again, like I say, as a child, I was desperate for affection, like a drowning man is desperate for oxygen. As a child, you crave that. When you grow up in that vacuum of of love and affection, you crave that as a child. One of the things that I like to talk about is I spent 25 years with a trauma therapist recovering from being trafficked as a child, and I would often sit there week after week and say, “Why am I here, and so many kids didn’t make it.” One thing that we came up with was that I had one person in my life, who was my great aunt, who showed me unconditional love. She gave me that tether to this world, that actually was a shield against the darkness that kept me in touch with the warmth and hope inside my heart, and I never, ever lost that. Most often, when we talk about victims who don’t make it, a lot of times, we see people who have been so deprived of unconditional love, and just so just so beaten down by their situation, that they just cannot find that hope and love in their heart. That’s what I try to do, as a survivor and as an advocate, is show people that that there’s a hope and love in your heart, no matter what happened to you in this life, God’s always going to love you.

Sandra Morgan 17:24
Wow. Filling that need sometimes looks like providing the seeming love connection, and the things people do for you when they love you, whether as a child or as an adult.

Jerome Elam 17:40
Absolutely. One of the things you have to understand, and one of the things that we do in my advocacy work, is we go in to the school system and we teach about what we call healthy relationships. Because what you find is that coming from a very dysfunctional environment, you have no idea what healthy love looks like. So when this predator comes along, and just gives you attention, you interpret that as love and affection, it’s really not. That’s why we go into schools and teach kids: here’s what a healthy relationship looks like. We get so many kids disclosing that they’re suffering, abuse, trafficking, or something else, because they don’t understand. They don’t have any kind of relative gauge of what it should be like. So until you actually teach a child what they deserve, and what love looks like, they are searching for it and have no idea what it looks like.

Sandra Morgan 18:41
Then we start moving into this darker part of the stages of grooming, isolating the child.

Jerome Elam 18:49
Oh gosh, that’s key. Because again, that’s where, they gain the trust of all the adults around the child, the child’s not listened to, and then they’ll alienate the child from any connection they have, whether it be friends or whatever, they’ll alienate that child and say, “That person is not really good for you. I don’t really trust them. I don’t think you should be hanging out with them.”

Sandra Morgan 19:12
But that sounds like they care for me if they’re trying to protect me. Yeah?

Jerome Elam 19:18
But it’s not the truth. It’s, just a tactic they use. I mean, they wear a mask, and the mask they wear is that they’re loving, caring, respectable individuals, but you pull that mask off, and it’s just pure evil. It’s someone whose sole desire in life is to molest and/or hurt children. There’s that facade that exists there, they use that to bait you and then rope you in, and once they have you in this position where you want to be around them so intensely because you’ve never had this attention, then they know they can begin to do what they want to do.

Sandra Morgan 19:18
And in that isolation then, there’s no buffer adult to protect you, and they have you alone, which was their goal.

Jerome Elam 20:13
Exactly. Once you’re alone, you can be lost to the darkness, because they start out slowly, and begin to do things that escalates. We have to understand that there’s that trap of shame. When you’re being molested as a child, especially as a male, there’s this shame that you bear at what’s happening. They use that against you. They’ll say, “Well, if you say anything, I’ll tell people that this was consensual, you wanted to do this.” So there’s that shame that’s there as a male, that also keeps you quiet. You’re in this tight trap you just cannot get out of, and are just desperate, and you’re begging God to come and help you and save you.

Sandra Morgan 21:00
So that isolating, and the abuse begins to be much more overt. I get that. The fifth stage: sexualizing the relationship, is a little more complex.

Jerome Elam 21:18
Oh gosh. I would say it begins with a hug, then it moves to a longer hug, then a hand on your leg, then they begin to grope you, and they make it seem like you owe them this, that you’re indebted to them. “Hey I bought you this, I bought you that, I’m doing this for you, I’m treating your mom well,” and so that you’re indebted, that you owe them this and that you should let them do this. Then that just progresses. And again, you’re just so trapped in that situation, that before you know it, they’re molesting you daily or several times a day, and then getting worse from there.

Sandra Morgan 22:13
And how does desensitization factor into this sexualizing?

Jerome Elam 22:20
I think they try and desensitize you to tha fact that physical contact is normal. They normalize it in your encounters with them that this is something that everybody does. I mean, I remember them saying that this is something that everybody does. They want to desensitize you to the severity of what’s happening to you, even though everything inside you is screaming, this is wrong, that this shouldn’t be happening to you. But then you’ve got this authority figure telling you, “no, this is all normal, this happens all the time.” This is where you struggle with that trauma, because one of the things about being a victim and survivor, especially a victim, is you question yourself because here you’ve been just brainwashed by this predator to believe that that this was something that you initiated, which is what they often say, and they also make you believe that you wanted this, which is totally, totally wrong.

Sandra Morgan 23:22
Well, and sometimes that pivots on developmental stages, where curiosity is part of how you are developing, and they exploit that to make it look to the child, like they were responsible. And that, I think, is one of the most twisted aspects of the grooming process.

Jerome Elam 23:52
And I will just tell you, from my own personal experience, they would say stuff like, “Oh, this is just practice for when you’re with a girl.” They use that one on you, “Oh, this is just practice, all guys do this to get ready to be with a woman.” There’s all these head games they play with you, and that’s it’s really a struggle to, especially when you’re a child and this happens to you, to begin to stop those tapes playing in your head that this predator put there and begin to understand what you’re worthy of and what you deserve.

Sandra Morgan 24:31
And that sixth stage is when they literally control you. And how did you break out of stage six?

Jerome Elam 24:43
It’s an unfortunate story because what happened with me is, I was trafficked from the age of five to the age of 12, so seven years, and I tried to tell a total of 10 people, including an ER doctor. One of the things that happens when you’re a victim of human trafficking is that you’re given a false identity, and in one case, I was given a false identity and I didn’t respond to the name quickly enough. So I was thrown to the ground and this person had cowboy boots on, and they kicked me until they bruised three of my ribs. I went to the emergency room, and the handler or trafficker that took me in, stepped out of the exam room to smoke a cigarette, so I whispered in doctors ear, “They’re hurting me, please help me.” Well, I didn’t know that this trafficker had told the doctor that I was accident prone, attention seeking, and made up wild stories, so I was not believed and I came back three hours later with three broken ribs, to teach me a lesson about not speaking out. After seven years of going through this, and nobody listening, and I was just filled with such hopelessness, I ended up in my mother’s rose garden, when she cared more about the roses than she did me, with a bottle of vodka and a bottle of sleeping pills. I took the sleeping pills and drank the vodka, and drifted off to sleep. I distinctly remember, I heard a voice talking to me and it said, “Your time on Earth isn’t done. I want you to go back and fight for every child that’s suffering as you have. I thought back and I recognized that voice that was my African American friend, Steve, who had been murdered, had been killed by the traffickers while I was being trafficked. So I woke up in the emergency room, and guess what? There was a nurse there, and that nurse dug her heels in and said, this boy needs help. The doctors were complaining about the paperwork and she said, “No, this boy needs help and we’re going to get him help.” So she, an angel I call her, was there for me that day and saved me from being trafficked. That’s why I’m grateful to all nurses and I love training, educating nurses, because if there’s anybody that’s going to be trusted, it’s a nurse, because the nurses are there, they care. It can be a very hard situation, you’re busy all the time, but they always take the time to make sure that you understand that you matter to them, and you’re not there to get out of the room as quickly as they can. That’s why I love nurses. She saved me that day and then I was able to get out of being trafficked, and bounced around the foster care system. Then when I turned 17, I joined the United States Marine Corps, and never looked back.

Sandra Morgan 27:41
Wow, Jerome, you do remember, I’m a nurse?

Jerome Elam 27:44
I do.

Sandra Morgan 27:45
When I tell my story of beginning to be an advocate in anti trafficking, I always start with working night shift. My first victim of human trafficking was a 14 year old boy, so this is such a meaningful interview. I just looked at the time, our time is up. We’ve got so much more to talk about and we will definitely schedule another opportunity to chat. In the meantime, I’m going to put links to everything in our show notes, and I’m going to give you one minute for your closing statement call to action for our community.

Jerome Elam 28:33
Absolutely, thank you. I just want to say as a survivor of child sex trafficking, I will never have the joy of being a boy laying in a field of grass, or watching clouds and picking out figures in their shapes, but what I can do is fight to my last breath to make sure the next child has the right to be loved and cared for and not be trafficked, and taken advantage of.

Sandra Morgan 29:01
Thank you.

Jerome Elam 29:02
Thank you.

Sandra Morgan 29:08
That was such a powerful conversation, and now we are inviting you to take the next step. Go over to endinghumantrafficking.org. You’ll find all the links that we’ve mentioned in this conversation, and so much more. If you want to get involved, you need knowledge, and insight, and preparation, training. You can find our anti human trafficking certificate, you can find a link to come to Ensure Justice in March. You can become a subscriber so that you get episode updates in your inbox twice a month. Thank you for listening and we’ll be back in two weeks.

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