Being a voice for the voiceless: how a survivor wants to help victims of human trafficking

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I am a 35-year-old survivor of human trafficking, and I am determined to use my experience to help others escape the demoralizing and tormenting victimization of human trafficking. Not only do I want to help victims, but I also want to help improve how law enforcement, the criminal justice system, and the community can support them with compassion and understanding.  

             ​ My childhood was a life of physical abuse and a family of gang members, drug addicts, and alcoholics who spent time in and out of jail. Inevitably, I ended up in foster care and soon found myself on the same path as my family. I ran away from foster care right into the arms of my trafficker. For about twelve years, I was hooked on meth, in and out of correctional facilities and had three different traffickers.

At the age of 26, I got pregnant and used meth throughout my pregnancy. I gave birth to my son and when he was three months old, I was arrested for the last time. I left my son at a dope house and the police told me that I was going away for a long time. I told them, “I will tell you who I am working for if you take me to see my son before you take me to jail.” They agreed. I told the Task Force who my trafficker was, and felt I was betraying him, because the codes in the streets are that you don’t “SNITCH!”  They got the info they needed from me and took me straight to jail. I didn’t get to say goodbye to my son. I called the dope house that my son was at from the holding tank and he screamed when he heard my voice. I woke up that night, I felt like a human again and my heart shattered.

 I decided to change my life because my son needed a mom and I needed to break that generational cycle in my family. I ended up getting a 5-year prison sentence between San Mateo County and Sonoma County. When I came to Sonoma County, I got enrolled in a program called Starting Point. That is where I learned about trauma and addiction. I was inspired to get my GED, so every night I worked on my homework in my cell to practice for the exam. When I received my GED, I cried because I never received anything in my life but trauma and hate. I graduated Starting Point and I was released from custody.

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I was encouraged by my counselor to do another program called Women’s Recovery Services. So, I went to this residential program for women in hopes that it will change my life, it did. I learned about human trafficking and how I was a victim, not a child prostitute. When I found this out, a big burden was lifted off of my shoulder. I was free to share my truth without fear and shame, because it wasn’t my fault. I received TRUE love from both of these programs and that is where I decided I wanted to help others by sharing my story.

 This is where I started to get connected with my higher power, God. I felt his TRUE love when I would run at lakes and the sun would shine down on my face, or when I would pray and every fear and anxiety would leave my body, because I knew I was going to be ok. In 2013, I completed the program and stayed in shelters and SLE’S.

In 2014, I decided to go to college. I attended Santa Rosa Junior College and became a part of the Bear Cub Scholars for foster youth.  In 2016, I became the president of The Second Chance Club for formerly incarcerated students. I went to court to get my record expunged and I was granted. I have 9 years clean.

 I am currently a Drug and Alcohol Counselor at an all-women’s treatment facility. I am married now with five children and a grandson. I travel all over California to share my story and bring awareness about human trafficking. I won the Humanitarian Hero award from The Red Cross. I finally regained full custody of my son after 9 LONG years. Today, I co-facilitate a support group for human trafficking victims twice a month. Me and my team go to the streets every month to meet the victims where they are, and give them resources and flyers to the support group.

Simply breaking away was not enough. I was determined to use my experience with traffickers and the criminal justice system to help other victims of sex trafficking. First, I needed to go back to school, establish relationships with community leaders, and educate others about sex trafficking. I received an Associate in Arts degree in Social Advocacy, Behavioral Science, and Human Services, all with honors. I am obtaining my B.A. degree at Sonoma University and in the process of transferring to UC Berkeley’s Public Policy Graduate program. On Christmas Eve of 2018, The Governor’s Office called me and said, “You have been granted a full unconditional Governor’s Pardon from Governor Jerry Brown!” I screamed and cried because I was finally felt the true feeling of redemption. I serve on the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force and speak nationally about sex trafficking.

             ​ I wholeheartedly believe that a compassionate and trauma-informed approach from people working with trafficking victims can increase positive outcomes. My last arrest impacted me in ways that I am still currently processing. I developed the desire to help young women at risk because of my victimization and what I learned on my path to freedom.  I have a lot to offer these women in terms of hope, reassurance, and adopting a healthier perspective of themselves through me and my partner’s work at Redemption House of the Bay Area, a soon-to-open safe-house we are establishing for human trafficking victims.

             ​ My desire to advocate stems from the realization that statistically, I was destined to fail, but I chose to prevail. My abuse, foster care, human trafficking, addiction, and incarceration experiences give me a unique perspective to offer in developing human sex trafficking policy and practice improvements. I can use my experience and knowledge to help change policy and improve law enforcement training to recognize sex workers as victims, not suspects, and work with community partners to help them escape their traffickers. Changes in policy and practice extend into all aspects of the criminal justice system, including the courts, detention facilities, and probation and parole.

             When working with survivors, I recognize our bonding may be the space and opportunity that helps them to find their voice again. I help bridge the gap between broken families, broken social bonds, and trust with the criminal justice system. Showing victims the relationships and trust I have built with law enforcement and community leaders give victims hope that they, too, can create a life of trust, rehabilitation, and family within the network of law enforcement partners. There are days that my past pops up in my dreams or I will have flashbacks, but I am immediately embraced with love through my new family, God, and mentoring other victims.  I am so grateful to be able to share my story and bring hope to others that feel that there is NO other way. If I can turn my pain into empowerment to inspire others, then there is hope for the lost and broken. Our past doesn’t define WHO we are today!

Elizabeth Quiroz is a student at Sonoma State University, where she is working towards a Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and a Master’s Degree in Public Affairs. Her goal is to open up a safe house for human trafficking victims. She also serves as an Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor at Athena House Residential Treatment Center for women in Santa Rosa, California, and as a human trafficking victim advocate. Elizabeth is a sought after speaker and presents on various topics, including Criminal Records Expungement, Addiction Recovery, and Human Trafficking. For her work, she received several recognitions including the 2019 American Red Cross Humanitarian Hero Award, the 2019 Achievement, and Community Service Award from the Sonoma County Lowrider Council, and was also selected as one of the 2019 Faces of SSU, a project at Sonoma State University recognizing students for sharing their unique story and their on-campus leadership and contributions to the campus community.

You can find Elizabeth on Instagram.

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