PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The girls being sold for sex in Rhode Island are many of the same girls you see in your neighborhoods, according to a woman that was lured into that world as a teenager.
Now, Audrey Morrisey is dedicating her life to building a brighter future for sex trafficking victims.
“I was brought into the sex commercial industry as a minor,” Morrisey said in an exclusive interview with Eyewitness News. “I remember the first time I was coerced into going on a street corner.”
Just 15 years old and pregnant, Morrisey said it was the baby’s father who used seduction to pull her in.
“I was told ‘if you love me, you will do this,'” she explained.
Morrisey now works for the Boston organization My Life My Choice. It reaches more than 200 girls every year, victims of the vicious and violent child sex trafficking industry – most of them between 12 and 15 years old.
She said too many people think of sex trafficking victims as those brought in to the U.S. from other countries, when in reality “this is happening in our own backyards, in our own communities, in the United States of America.”
Victims advocates tell Eyewitness News there is a very organized network of girls being moved back and forth throughout the Northeast, up and down the I-95 corridor. They said these pimps mostly prey on girls who’ve been abused, neglected, or exposed to family violence and addiction. They’re targeted in their neighborhoods, at the mall, the bus station, and on the Internet.
“That suburban mom that thinks her daughter’s safe? I know quite a few suburban girls who are on the computer thinking they’re talking to a 16-year-old guy. They set up the meeting,” said Morrisey.
Just last year, 30-year-old Steven Ardrey took a 17-year-old girl from Medfield, Mass. across state lines to Rhode Island after months of communicating in an online chat room. He brought her to a hotel in West Greenwich, posting her picture online and advertising her for sex. He was arrested, charged and sentenced to 14 years in prison after someone recognized the pair from a missing persons report.
- Related: Statewide task force aims to help sex trade victims
- More Information: Read RI’s sex trafficking law
- More Information: Punishment for sex trafficking a minor in RI
“It’s so sad. It’s very sad that as a community, we’ve been blind to really what is right there in front of us,” said Peg Langhammer, Executive Director of Day One in Providence.
The organization has developed a Sex Trafficking Task Force to help Rhode Island victims. Langhammer said it’s made up of representatives from federal, state and local law enforcement, the Department of Children, Youth and Families, healthcare providers, and more.
Still, she says sex trafficking cases are tough to track.
“It’s very pervasive. We don’t have hard numbers on this. We don’t have good statistics,” Langhammer said. “For a while we were getting a case every week here at Day One. It depends on the week.”
The task force is also training members of the community to recognize signs of exploitation.
“What we’ve heard from kids again and again is that ‘no one ever asked me about this. If somebody had asked me if something was happening, I might have talked about it,’” Langhammer added.
Advocates say there are red flags to look for. For example, if a girl in your neighborhood is wearing jewelry you know her family can’t afford, or she’s all of a sudden wearing nicer clothes, or dressing more provocatively.
It wasn’t until she was in her 30s that Morrisey was able to pull herself out of that violent world. By spreading awareness and continuing to mentor these victims, she said she’s using the bad that happened to her, for good.
“I found my purpose,” says Morrisey. “I didn’t go through all of that for nothing.”
Sex Trafficking Resources:
- Day One: Works with victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and sex trafficking
- Lawrence Aubin Child Protection Center: Works with potentially abused children
- My Life My Choice: Works with victims of sex trafficking