Over and over, Kaitlyn rubs a sanding block up and down a piece of birch that was once the back of a chair, scouring away its faded varnish and imperfections.
She’s dressed in flip-flops, sky-blue pipe jeans and a tourist T-shirt from Puerto Rico. With strawberry blonde hair corralled into a ponytail, she looks like a high schooler.
Once a week, Kaitlyn, 21, turns up for an art therapy class at the Florida Dream Center, a Pinellas County group that helps victims of human trafficking. For two hours, volunteers shower her with encouragement and hugs. Then she heads back out into the night.
Staffers at the center know where she’s going. They’ve seen the small tent hidden between a railroad and the back of a warehouse where she has lived for about a year with her mother’s boyfriend. They said the older man persuaded her to have sex with other men for money at a dingy 34th Street motel.
More than 150 people, mostly women, have walked through the doors of the Florida Dream Center over the past five years, refugees from a largely hidden world where violence, threats, drug addiction and false promises are used to coerce victims into prostitution. The group’s mission is to put their lives back together.
Some victims find the center through word of mouth. Police bring others to the refurbished fire station in mid-Pinellas. Last year, they included two Chinese women rescued from a Palm Beach County massage parlor in the prostitution sting that resulted in the arrest of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
To protect their identities, the Times is identifying the women by first name only and not naming the girls.
The art class is one of the first therapies they’re offered. Victims take old pieces of furniture and refashion them into miniature beds for a dog or a doll. It’s called, “Restored … Once broken now beautiful.”
When they decorate the beds, their past trauma spills out.
One bed is adorned with stars and a crescent moon and the message: “Always KISS ME goodnight.”
The woman who built it told volunteers that men had only ever raped her, not loved her. She yearned for affection, even just a goodnight kiss.
The class is about more than expressing hurt. It teaches the women and girls they can make things and have control over parts of their lives, said Pastor Bill Losasso, the center’s president. It’s a first step toward rebuilding their self-worth.
“They take something that was broken, unlovely or unusable and make it beautiful again,” he said. “This is what we want for them. This is therapy on wheels.”
Still, there is no easy path toward rehabilitation.
After three weeks in the class, Kaitlyn has been to church and occasionally accepted the center’s offer of a place to stay. But every few days, she returns to the tent. She said the 49-year-old man is her only link to her mother, who has been in jail since December.
“She’s scared to start over,” said Shannon Walker, the center’s human trafficking coordinator. “She’d rather be homeless.”
Dejanira arrived at the Dream Center one recent evening dressed in black jeans and an East Lake High School hoodie she got from the center.
Her thick, dark hair is cut short, almost to a boyish length. She doesn’t wear makeup.
She said she “poured her heart” into the pink and purple bed she built in the class. The word “Pain” is painted on the headboard and “Stress” on the wood beneath the mattress. As the six-week class progressed, she added seahorses, a starfish and messages like, “Follow your heart.”
Named after a beauty contestant from Puerto Rico, Dejanira moved to Tampa when she was 9.
Her parents were mostly absent, and she was raised by her grandparents. She ended up in foster care after being sexually abused, she said. She was reunited with her mother for a few years before moving back with her grandmother. At 17, she was thrown out.
She had been homeless for a while when she met a man at a store. She thought he was nice and she was desperate to get off the streets. His offer of somewhere to stay was a house with other girls who were being sold for sex.
The doors of the house were locked and the girls kept apart. They were controlled with drugs and threats, she said. She was captive there for two years before she escaped when the back door was left unlocked.
“I have been through mental abuse, physical abuse, you name it,” she said.
Deja, as she likes to be called, was homeless again when she arrived at the Dream Center. She has two children from a relationship in her early 20s. They are in foster care.
With help from the center, she now has an apartment and a job at a local store. She is taking classes on domestic violence and parenting so she can get her children back.
She tells her story between long pauses. Sometimes, she can’t admit what happened. The words come quicker when she talks about the help and love — “a breath of air” — she found at the Dream Center.
“The feelings drown you inside,” she said. “You can’t drown if you have that gasp of air.”
Mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder are common in trafficking victims, said Joan Reid, a licensed mental health counselor and an associate professor of criminology at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.
They are prone to substance abuse, anxiety and dissociative disorders, mental health conditions that develop to keep traumatic memories at bay but may disconnect one from thoughts, memories and surroundings.
Reid first came across women forced to have sex for money when she was working at a rape crisis center in Pinellas County around 2004 and again when she worked at a juvenile detention center that housed girls from across Florida.
She was so moved by their plight, she earned a Ph.D. in criminology so she could research the issue. She has since completed more than 10 years of studies on child sex trafficking.
Traffickers turn the heads of potential victims with compliments, Reid said. Then they destroy their confidence, telling them they’re trash. Another tactic is to entangle victims by involving them in criminal activity like shoplifting, drugs or recruiting other girls, she said. Then they fear they will end up in trouble if they seek help.
“It’s devastating, really hard to recover from.”
Larissa was 5 the first time she remembers seeing her mother get hit by her boyfriend.
By the time she was 8, her mother had fled, leaving Larissa to live in Largo with her aunt.
“I realized the world isn’t that nice of a place,” she said.
She was reunited with her mother at a house in Lealman but it didn’t last long. A dancer in a strip club, her mother became involved with a drug dealer. She vanished again, leaving her daughter with the older man.
“I ended up smoking crack and I became a 12-year-old prostitute,” Larissa said.
It was the start of almost two decades of drug addiction, arrests and exploitation during which she was under the control of several traffickers, she said. Over that period, she was arrested 18 times — three times for prostitution and several times for possession of controlled substances, court records show.
“They forced me to work in massage parlors, in strip clubs,” she said. “I landed in front of the most terrible and evil people you could think of.”
One pimp named Face controlled her with drugs, money and promises of fame and fortune, “anything that a little girl could want,” she said. While she was with him, she saw her face on a missing-child poster.
Larissa, 30, turned to the Dream Center about nine months ago and has been off drugs for about six months. She did not want to talk about how she escaped her trafficker and still fears she will be forced back into her old world.
She’s frightened to stay in one place too long or to let anyone get close to her, worried that they’ll be threatened by the men who hurt her for so long.
She finished the art therapy class a few weeks ago. The paint she stripped from the back of an old chair uncovered an ornate design of a heart, stars and an angel. She loved finding beauty in an unexpected place and made it the centerpiece of her miniature bed.
She also insisted volunteers help her add a secret compartment to the bed, just as the people she grew up around had, for hiding drugs and money.
Now, she regularly attends the Dream Center to take part in Thriver’s Group, run by a trafficking survivor. The center has helped her come to terms with her past, she said. She wants to train as a surgical technician.
“I was confused for so long. I would think of myself, as fat, skinny, abused, out of control. I could never just agree with it,” she said. “Now I understand I am alright. You are what you are.”
Accounts from survivors like Larissa have raised awareness of trafficking in recent years with more local and national agencies targeting the crime.
In December, Hillsborough County formed a commission to address what it sees as a rise in human trafficking and an expected uptick in the crime when Tampa hosts Super Bowl LV in February 2021.
The St. Petersburg Police Department also recently announced it will head up an anti-trafficking task force that includes 15 local law enforcement agencies, the FBI, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida.
Data suggests the need is great.
The National Human Trafficking Hotline received roughly 770 reports of potential trafficking in Florida in 2018. Almost 2,200 calls were made to the Florida Abuse Hotline during a 12-month period through October 2018. That includes 550 calls in a 10-county area that includes the Tampa Bay region.
Women or girls make up about 85 percent of the victims.
The Restored class is taught by Carla Rudolph, a retired architect and former owner of a construction firm.
Like all the volunteers, Rudolph is trained in trauma-informed care — an approach that recognizes the people she helps are likely traumatized and will have anxiety, trust issues and other problems. They learn not to expect normal responses, to be extra patient and sensitive when asking questions.
“We walk lightly; we show them love,” Rudolph said. “We’re very careful because they are broken.”
The Dream Center also has a clinical psychologist and a trauma specialist who work with victims. There is also help with housing and job training. Often, victims need help filling in missing parts of their lives like birth certificates and driving licenses.
The center also has a boutique of donated clothes, shoes, makeup and jewelry; many women arrive only with the clothes they’re wearing.
Across from the art therapy workshop one recent evening, three young girls sat on a pink and green blanket stringing beads into a necklace of hearts. Beside them were paper plates with snacks of broccoli, carrots and Oreo cookies.
The youngest two, 6 and 7, are sisters, brought by their grandmother.
The younger child is still waiting for her front teeth to grow in.
In August 2017, the girls were removed from their father by child welfare investigators in Missouri and sent to live with their grandmother in Dunedin.
Over several months, they told her about being sexually abused by their father and others. They repeated some of those accounts to a therapist, documents shared with the Times show.
Both the girls have struggled with nightmares, their grandmother said. The youngest compulsively checks that the front door is locked. She has anxiety about her grandmother dying and leaving them alone.
The older one has drawn pictures of herself with her hands tied. It took six therapy sessions for her to talk about what happened to her.
After 18 months in therapy, the girls have made progress, their grandmother said. They love going to art therapy, where they work on craft projects like a vision board — a magnetic board they decorate with magazine pictures that make them feel good.
But their grandmother worries how much anger and pain will emerge when they are older. She knows that victims of child abuse are more likely to commit suicide.
“It’s hard because I see the hurt and know no matter how much therapy they have, they will always be scarred.”
To report suspected cases of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-962-2873.