Tajuan McCarty, survivor of human sex trafficking, shares her story

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Andrew Cryer

Photo: Cullman Juvenile Probation Officer Kathy Wilson, Cullman County District Attorney Wilson Blaylock and Tajuan McCarty

CULLMAN – Tajuan McCarty, founder of The WellHouse in Birmingham, on Tuesday night spoke to a large crowd at Desperation Church about the harsh realities that affect some people’s lives; she included her own story as a victim of human trafficking, among other atrocities, and her road to recovery.

The event was sponsored by the Cullman County Human Trafficking Task Force, Judge Kim Chaney, who was unable to attend and District Attorney Wilson Blaylock. Blaylock helped introduce McCarty thanking everyone in attendance for their time at the event. He also said he thought the event would educate those in attendance and “open eyes to what we’re talking about.” Subjectively, the event went above and beyond that goal.

Blaylock explained that when people think of human trafficking they think of, “vans loading folks in from Mexico, bringing them across the country for labor purposes.” However, he said, “Human trafficking also involves the sex trade; human trafficking is modern-day slavery. It occurs in every state.”   

Cullman Juvenile Probation Officer Kathy Wilson also gave McCarty a brief introduction. “She is very familiar with the horrors of domestic violence and sex trafficking. The WellHouse organization has rescued almost 300 women since it opened its doors in 2010; not only does the WellHouse provide a safe place to live, but special emphasis is placed on the victim’s mental, emotional and spiritual recovery. Before opening the WellHouse, Tajuan spent years working for the Alabama Department of Human Resources, gaining extensive experience in social work and community outreach. She teaches at the University of Alabama at Birmingham as an adjunct professor preparing future social workers to serve the needs of the community. She holds a Bachelor of Science in social work and two master’s degrees in public health and public administration.” 

McCarty started the WellHouse with $30 while she was on food stamps, but the organization has grown over the last few years. She expressed her gratitude to the Cullman task force. “Awareness has really grown in Alabama and not too long ago, I didn’t even understand my own victimization. I didn’t even know that I was a victim until I opened WellHouse.” She continued on the topic of victimization, “We don’t know our own victimization. If a child grows up being abused and sexualized, how do you expect them to know anything different just because they turn 18? Just because she turns 18 doesn’t make her a criminal; she’s still a victim. None of the rescues that I’ve done started in adulthood.” 

She then went to state the key points she hoped for the crowd to take away from their time listening to her speak, “Prostitution is never a choice, strip clubs are never a choice, pornography is never a choice and drugs are not the problem,” she said, diving into her personal story of being a victim of human trafficking.

“There are so many similarities across the board that it’s unbelievable. It started for me when I was 12 when I ran away from my home in Carrollton, Georgia; I ended up in Birmingham that night. The truck driver dropped us off to a group home. I ran away because my mother was abusive and I thought that she was going to kill me.”

She continued her story mentioning her first interaction with a social worker, “Within the first five minutes of me meeting her, at 12 years old, she asked me, ‘When is the last time that you had sex?’ I was 12; 12-year-olds cannot consent to sex.” She continued with how that interaction made her feel. “Immediately, something was wrong with me. The week before, I was raped for the first time. It was three boys; I thought that it was my fault and to have an adult ask me that question the next week… there had to be something on me, something must have changed about my person or my demeanor for her to ask me that question. Something had to be wrong with me,” she said, echoing her earlier point that victims will not know that they are victims later in life if they are used to that environment.

“She then proceeded to put me in handcuffs and in jail for three days. It really angered me even more. My father was in and out of prison, he recently died in prison, and my mother abused me. I was an only child and now, everything in my life was my fault,” stated McCarty. “At 13 I was in a psychiatric ward in a co-ed adult unit for 17 days; at 14 I remember standing in front of a juvenile court judge as he told me that I was unforgeable and that there was no hope for me.”

She says that when she tells that story to foster children, “There is always one child that says that someone told me that recently. We are still blaming our kids,” she said.

“When I ran away for the last time at 15, I met my first pimp. I knew him from a previous runaway; where was I going to go? My mother was abusing me, my father was in and out of my life, social workers continued to lock me up, judges said that there was no hope for me, foster homes didn’t want me… then this man took me home and loved me. He loved me like I’ve never been loved,” stated McCarty.

She continued with what her pimp would have her do. “There were four other girls there; two of them worked in the streets and two of them worked in a strip club; the first few weeks I was selling drugs. We all had a quota to make every night; my quota was just selling drugs—at first.”

She then mentioned what happened to girls who didn’t make their quota. “Their punishment didn’t happen in private; their punishment happened in front of all of us. This guy was a nice one, but the punishments were anything from a rape, a gang rape, torture or a beating—whatever he decided that night.”

On how she first got involved with prostitution, McCarty said, “One night I wasn’t given enough drugs to make quota. Did I make quota that night? Yes, I did… I was paid for sex at 15 years old. It was rape; regardless of how I acted, how I looked, regardless of what I said it was not consensual. I had to perform otherwise I’d get beaten when I went home.”

The onslaught of horrors in her young life didn’t stop there. “Between 15 and 26 years old, I’d been sold in every state besides Alaska and Hawaii; I’d been sold in Canada and Mexico too. I was trafficked to Birmingham so much that it became almost like home.”

McCarty cited a study that concluded that 40 percent of all human trafficking in the U.S. happens in the Southeast.

“Birmingham, Huntsville, Atlanta, Nashville and Chattanooga—that’s the circuit.” Cullman is right in the middle of that circuit and McCarty said, “When I got off of exit 308 I was able to identify three places that I know it happens at. One of the largest arrests in U.S. history happened in Ft. Payne; 40 people were arrested for trafficking,” she said.   

McCarty concluded by sharing her response to a popular question that she receives: “Can you make a difference?” Her response: “If I could save one, then my life is a success.”

After McCarty spoke, the floor was open to questions, which the crowd was eager to ask. One such question was, “Why don’t those pimps hunt you down to get their girls back?” McCarty explained, “Because we’re not affecting their business.”

She then quoted a pimp that she had talked to in the past, who told her, “I could walk into any middle or high school event and point out five to ten girls that would leave with me, willingly, within 30 minutes.” These girls are easily replaceable, says McCarty, perpetuating the problem. “There is no cookie-cutter outline for a girl that will be trafficked. They’re everywhere,” stated McCarty.

To learn more about the Cullman County Human Trafficking Task Force, visit http://qrne.ws/cchttf.

For information about The WellHouse, see http://the-wellhouse.org/.

Go to https://www.dhs.gov/blue-campaign to learn about the Blue Campaign, the unified voice for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) efforts to combat human trafficking.

 

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