#minorsextrafficking | Familial Human Trafficking in PA: What it is and how to stop it

Familial human trafficking is a growing problem across Pennsylvania. One woman is using her story of betrayal and abuse to warn the community and help survivors.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — Sarah Isaac-Samuel grew up in fear of her father and stepmother.

“From very early on was just a barrage of abuse, different types of abuse,” Isaac-Samuel said. 

At home, the Pennsylvania native faced physical violence at every turn. School offered no exit from her nightmare. In first grade, she told a teacher her parents were not feeding her or her siblings.

“They called home and asked my stepmom about it and then when I got home for lunch that day. There was a whole incident that took place, which gave me a huge heads up that it wasn’t safe to talk to anybody at school, because they talk to my parents,” Isaac-Samuel said.

Isaac-Samuel said she was first sexually abused at four years old.

By the age of ten, she faced a new horror. Sarah’s bus driver started molesting her regularly, both on the bus and in his home.

She didn’t know it at the time, but it was all orchestrated by Isaac-Samuels own stepmother, who would often take her to the bus driver’s house. The bus driver was paying her stepmother for access.

“She was making arrangements with him to take me to his house. Sometimes he would pick me up, you know, doing sexual things with me,” Isaac-Samuel said. “He got permission to actually keep me on the bus after all the other students had gotten off. He would actually force me to sit in the front seat, where he was fondling me on the bus.”

She tried to escape the abuse, often hiding in large pipes under the road and waiting for the bus to go by, but when her parents would find out she wasn’t at school, it meant more violence at home. The trafficking went on for two years. “With familial trafficking, everything looks normal. That’s the whole thing,” Isaac-Samuel said. “They try to make it look as if nothing is going on. It’s happening everywhere.”

“Familial trafficking definitely is something that we’ve been talking a lot about especially in PA where you have rural areas. That’s where familial trafficking, you’ll see it most often,” said Zozan Kucukaydin, Anti-Human Trafficking Services Coordinator at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape.

Kucukaydin said Sarah’s story is not uncommon. Traffickers are looking to fill a need, she said, whether it’s substances, food, or money. They often exploit the people they’re closest to.

“It’s really just about getting what they need in that moment and if it takes putting someone else into that situation to get that, that’s what they’ll do,” she said.

While they can be hard to spot, Kucukaydin said PCAR often speaks to law enforcement, healthcare workers and schools about the signs of familial human trafficking.

“The withdraw, the inattentiveness, any kind of sign that they’re fearful or submissive, these sorts of things that you can report,” Kucukaydin said.

Isaac Samuel said the signs were there, and Children and Youth Services even paid them a visit.

Her parents, she said, knew it was coming, making the home and family look perfect for a day. CYS asked the children about the abuse in front of their parents. Fearing retaliation, Sarah and her siblings denied it and the worker left.

“They always went back to my dad and my stepmom and got information from them,” Isaac-Samuel said. “They were the ones that were actually perpetrating the issues, the abuse, onto us. I think that people need to start listening to children and not see their outward behaviors as a problem, but as a sign that something else is happening.”

It would take decades for Isaac-Samuel to fully face her traumatic childhood. Her book, A Journey Back to Restoration, took seven years to complete.

“Doing the whole process of writing it, there was a lot of healing, because of all the different moments were brought up in my life that I had forgotten about,” she said. “My goal is to reach as many people as I can, raise as much awareness as I can, and provide as much help as I can.”

As part of that help, Sarah and her husband took in 37 foster children over two decades, many of whom experienced the same difficult realities.

“At least 17 of them they have some form sexual abuse and of those 17, eight are boys,” Isaac-Samuel said. “Of those eight boys, every single one of them were sexually abused by male figure in their life. It’s not just a girl problem.”

“My dad worked outside the home. My mom has a stay-at-home mom. As we got older, I was eight years old, and my older brother sexually abused me,” said Brent, a survivor from Pennsylvania.

A Central Pennsylvania native, Brent said his brother abused him for two years. He’d find the courage to stand up to his brother and stop the abuse, but he kept it all a secret.

His pain and unresolved feelings lead to a pornography addiction. It was only when he was finally able to face his past and find help, that he began to heal.

“In Pennsylvania, there’s a lot of good counselors and there’s a lot of great programs and so they really helped me out,” he said. “It really helped me to talk through everything.”

Brent met Sarah by accident and after some conversation, each shared their story.

“People do really bad things to people and the people who they profess to love, their own blood,” Brent said. “It cemented in my mind in my heart that I can’t know about these things that are happening or not doing anything about it.”

The two teamed up to make a difference. They’ve been invited to speak at events all over the world. Brent now helps run a ministry that supports survivors and prepares people in the medical field to identify trafficking and abuse.

Isaac-Samuel leads an art class that gives survivors a safe space to talk and a creative way to express their emotions on paper or canvas. She realized the power of painting while working with one of her foster children.

“He said he feels like a volcano ready to erupt, and he said he has so much darkness in his life, and these little yellow dots represented all of the people who were in his life, but these two big ones represented my husband and I, because we were the first people who actually believed him,” Isaac Samuel said. “He said nobody believed him, and if you heard his story, there is nothing but trauma in his life.”

Survivors of abuse, pushing forward together.

“He did this portion of the picture and I did this portion of picture and then we put them together,” she said. “It was kind of like going from darkness to light.”

What will it take to keep people out of the darkness?

“From a larger standpoint it’s about addressing of those systemic issues like homelessness and substance abuse and lack of employment opportunities, access to proper healthcare and education. That’s really where it starts,” Kucukaydin said.

Kucukaydin suggests it would also take a change in mentality.

“We can’t stop trafficking until we address the abuse that occurs in our communities and that broader cultural context in which it occurs,” she said.

“They supply it because people demand it. In the United States, we are the number one demander of sex with children in the world,” Brent added.

“It is definitely happening here in Pennsylvania. It is a scary thought that it won’t go away,” Isaac-Samuel said.

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