Local sex trafficking survivors tell their story

30 sex trafficking cases prosecuted in WNY in the last 3 years

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC-TV) - The story of sex trafficking does not start on the street.

It often starts at a home built on the pretense of security.

Proof of that rests in the stories of both Caitlin and Stephanie, who grew up in Western New York.

“I went to good Catholic schools, good Catholic school girl, good upper middle class upbringing,” Caitlin said.

“I grew up with 2 parents although they got divorced they were both 2 loving parents that were there in the suburbs in a good neighborhood,” Stephanie said.

Like so many other teenagers, both Stephanie and Caitlin were ensnared by addiction.

“I was not in a very good place in my life, I was drinking alcoholically,” Caitlin said.

“My mom found out I was using,” Stephanie said. “I went to rehab and I relapsed and I was afraid of getting caught so after I relapsed I just stayed out for hours and never came home and then this happened.”

A predator saw their vulnerability and struck.

“I was living out of my car, my family didn't want to have a whole lot to do with me at this point and he offered me a place to stay,” Caitlin said. “He offered me a better opportunity that what I had going for me currently, in my current situation.”

“I didn't understand what was going on, I wasn't clear-headed at all, I just wanted to get high,” Stephanie said.

The addiction became the shackle, while fear of physical violence and homelessness became the chain.

“Then he brought me to New York City and put me on the street and told me what do to, the rules the street, not to talk to any other pimps, what to say to clients, how to sell myself and I didn't have a choice in the matter,” Caitlin said.

“I wasn't allowed to eat, I wasn't allowed to sleep, day in and day out if someone called it was like, ‘Let's go! Let's go!’” Stephanie said. “I wanted my mom, I wanted my parents, I wanted to leave.”

Tiffany Lee prosecutes sex trafficking cases for the US Attorney's Office in Western New York.     

“In our district for the last 3 years, we've had over 30 cases so the situation is more prevalent than the public understands,” Lee said.

Stephanie's case became one of them after her daring escape.

“We were on our way to a client's house and we were stopped at a red light and I was so desperate to get out, I just ran out of the car and I had knocked on every door on that street until someone answered and I hid there,” Stephanie said.

Western New York prosecutors also helped Caitlin who, after being trafficked and arrested all over the country for 8 years, was finally seen, not as a criminal, but as a victim.

“They saw my medical records where he had put me in the hospital for assault over 20 times,” she said.

Both Caitlin and Stephanie hope their story will clear up any misperceptions about sex trafficking.

“The face of sex trafficking is more like a runaway teenager or battered woman,” Caitlin said.

Caitlin and Stephanie met, by chance, after their escape and discovered while talking their trafficker was the same man, Kenneth White.

His operation was so intricate the two women never knew about each other.But they know each other now and they both help other survivors as white serves a 13-year prison sentence.

“There's nothing I can do to go back and change those 8 years, I would love to, but the only thing I can do now in my life moving forward is I did marry a wonderful man and I went back to school, whole 4.0, I've been accepted at the Master's program at University of Buffalo for social work,” Caitlin said.    

She also has two kids, just like Stephanie.  

“I think my purpose is not only to help them, but to be a good mother and raise them and to have that blessing shows I'm finally worth something,” Stephanie.

Stephanie and Caitlin's story did not start on the street and because of their resolve, it is not going to end there.

There are many resources for sex trafficking survivors in Western New York.

In Rochester, you can call Worker Justice Center of New York at (585) 325-3050.

The International Institute of Buffalo and its WNY partners worked with 200 survivors of human trafficking, of which sex trafficking is a branch, in 2016.

The survivors hailed from 16 countries, including the U.S.

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