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Survivor finds safe harbor: Regional navigator shares story

EDITOR'S NOTE: Where names were not known, fictional names were assigned for the purpose of clarity. Monica Miller never expected to be someone police officers turned to for guidance. As the northwest regional navigator on sexually exploited yout...

Monica Miller, the northwest regional navigator on sexually exploited youths based in Bemidji, shared her story of surviving sex trafficking with the Brainerd Dispatch last month. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)
Monica Miller, the northwest regional navigator on sexually exploited youths based in Bemidji, shared her story of surviving sex trafficking with the Brainerd Dispatch last month. (Kelly Humphrey, Brainerd Dispatch)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Where names were not known, fictional names were assigned for the purpose of clarity.

Monica Miller never expected to be someone police officers turned to for guidance.

As the northwest regional navigator on sexually exploited youth based out of Support Within Reach in Bemidji, Monica coordinates support services for victims in 20 Minnesota counties, including Crow Wing and Cass counties. The position is one of eight in the state and was established through the 2013 passage of the Safe Harbor law, which redefines youths under 18 in the illegal sex trade as victims rather than criminals.

For Monica, the role is more than just a paycheck - as a survivor of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking herself, she's on a personal mission to ensure victims get the systemic support she did not receive as a troubled teenager.

"I never would have thought in my life that I would be a part of helping train police officers," Monica said. "I'm supposed to be dead."

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After nearly two decades of bottling up the pain and shame wrought by her experience, Monica, 38, is sharing her story - one of many such stories carried by those whose lives have been turned upside down by sexual exploitation.

"My story is different than some people's," Monica said. "I believe that all of our stories, all of us as a whole, make up what trafficking looks like and what exploitation looks like for the United States."

A rough start

The average 9-year-old child, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is just beginning the stage of development where peer relationships become more complex and body awareness increases. The likelihood of experiencing peer pressure and negative body image also increases - a pivotal time when adult guidance can help children avoid risky behavior.

At 9, Monica faced many of these challenges herself. Unlike most fourth-graders, however, Monica had already been drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana for a year - two things she had relatively easy access to.

After leaving small-town Waseca with her father to live in Washington, D.C., for a year, Monica returned a different girl than when she left, she said.

"I started using drugs and alcohol when I was 8. For me, it was really about trying to just cover up the pain and trying to be happy," Monica said. "I was being bullied, and I just didn't know how to cope with anything. ... When we moved back to Waseca, I learned to hang out with the older kids. I would use and get high or drunk with them."

Throughout elementary school, Monica continued to hang out with older kids as her friendships with those her age dissolved. At 12, she got her first boyfriend - an older boy who became her first sexual encounter.

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"He ended up sexually assaulting me," Monica said. "I didn't tell anybody, (except) I told my best friend. She ended up - because I was depressed and so unhappy - she ended up going to our principal and telling. They called my parents and it just got really ugly from there."

Ugly, she said, because rather than being viewed as a victim of sexual assault, she felt blamed for putting herself in the situation in the first place.

"That was the feedback I got," Monica said. "I ended up skipping school a lot and just getting into trouble."

Another older boyfriend came along, one who helped Monica run away from home and hide out in nearby Owatonna. After some time there, the boyfriend's mother turned Monica in at a youth homeless shelter, from which Monica's own mother soon retrieved her. This would be the first of many times Lolly Randall would intervene in an attempt to help her daughter, whom she'd lost physical custody of in a bitter divorce a decade earlier.

She began living with her mother full-time and attended school in Owatonna, where soon enough she was skipping school again. Her truancy led to a Child in Need of Protection or Services designation, known as CHIPS, which assigned a guardian ad litem and social worker to help her get back on the right track.

On trial

On Nov. 6, 1991, Monica was 14 years old and a freshman at Owatonna High School. In what had become routine for her, she decided to skip class - this time, with two 18-year-old men who lived just a few blocks from the school.

"These were known drug dealers, and I think they were gang affiliated and had been in trouble with the law," Monica said. "My understanding is, cameras caught the three of us leaving campus together, so somehow, the school found out that when I skipped that day, I was with them."

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Monica said what happened next was another first for her - the loss of her virginity.

"They gang raped me. They took turns with me. I left, and I had no intention of telling anybody," Monica said.

Confronted with more trouble at school, however, Monica reported the rape to a first-year assistant principal. He, in turn, reported it to the police, and the Steele County Attorney's Office sought third-degree criminal sexual conduct charges against the men.

The impact of reporting the rapes again led to negative consequences for Monica. Because of the suspects' gang affiliations, Monica said she faced death threats and could not attend school for a time. When their cases went to court, Monica was put on the stand and soon felt as if she was the one on trial rather than her accused rapists.

"They had my friends go up there and lie about me," Monica said. "My using (of drugs and alcohol) just got really worse. ... I had to sit in this little courtroom and they (the men) were there. It just became really traumatizing."

While both men admitted to having sexual intercourse with Monica to police, according to criminal complaints, just one ended up with a sentence after Monica's mother decided to pull the plug.

"It got to the point where my mom said, 'That's enough,'" Monica said. "It wasn't very long after that, that I ended up going to my first inpatient treatment center for my chemical use. ... I didn't see that I had a problem. Looking back, I thought that what I was doing was normal. I didn't want to talk about the things that had happened to me. I really just wanted to die."

After the completion of treatment, Monica's social worker recommended she move to a halfway house and attend school at an alternative learning center in Austin, Minn., where the next chapter of Monica's story was about to unfold.

'I thought he was my boyfriend'

While some details, like how long she stayed in the various treatment centers and halfway houses she was sent to throughout her life, run together for Monica, there are others that remain surprisingly clear for her. One of those was the place she attended school in Austin, where she met a 17-year-old boy named Juan.

"I can picture it," she said. "You have this really nice brick building, the high school, and then our school, it looked like a metal shack."

Juan sneaked cigarettes to Monica and they became friends. Before long, Juan was encouraging Monica to run away from the program. The two hatched a plan and executed it soon thereafter.

Free from the restraints of monitored living, Monica and Juan went to party at one of his friends' houses.

"I think I was the only female there," Monica said. "They poured me a drink. I was drinking it and then it seemed like just immediately, I was out. I don't remember much, other than I woke up and I was on the bed, my clothes were off, all the lights were on and there was a guy on top of me. When I looked over I could see (Juan), who I thought was my boyfriend, standing at the door collecting money, and there was a line of guys."

A swift hit to the head knocked Monica out again, and the next time she woke up, she found herself in an unfamiliar basement with a much older man - likely in his 30s, she said - who spoke only Spanish.

"What I ended up finding out was, I was locked in the basement of his mother's house," Monica said. "I couldn't leave. He kept me drugged up and did whatever he wanted with me (sexually). If I would make any noise when I heard he'd go upstairs, he would physically hurt me. ... I honestly have no clue if it was a couple days or a couple weeks. It felt like forever."

Whether someone learned of Monica's presence in the basement she is unsure, although one day the man returned her to Juan.

"He (Juan) acted all happy to see me," Monica said. "He said, 'He took you from the party and I didn't know where you were ... and I've been searching for you.' I don't think that's what happened, but I believed him."

Juan told Monica people were looking for them because they'd run away, and the two of them needed to get out of town as fast as possible - to Texas, he said.

While waiting for Juan's friend to pick her up to begin the journey, Lolly again appeared to rescue her daughter, swooping in and thwarting the planned trip south to return her to Owatonna.

"There was no way I was telling anybody what had just happened to me," Monica said. "I think there was even this part of me that thought I deserved this. ... But I didn't want to be locked up anymore. I wanted things to be different. I wanted to just try to forget and start over. I remember begging my mom to stay home, don't send me somewhere else. Because of the CHIPS she didn't have a choice."

The next stop for Monica was an all-girls halfway house in Mora, a placement she vehemently resisted.
"I kept telling my parents, 'I'm not going to stay, I'm going to run,'" Monica said.

Within 24 hours, she did run, with the help of her new roommate, Kiara, who already had a solid plan in place for whomever agreed to join her.

"It was maybe November. We walked and hitchhiked through the snow down to Minneapolis," Monica said.

Once there, Monica said things went even further downhill for her, and quickly. She was immediately launched into the seedy underbelly of the crack cocaine epidemic and illegal sex trade of the big city.

Numbness takes over

The first night in Minneapolis, Kiara brought Monica to the home of a much older man, whom had apparently offered them a place to stay. This offer, as Monica would soon learn was often the case, contained a catch - he expected sex from both of them, which Kiara insisted they oblige.

The next night, Kiara took her to the home of her brothers, when again, Monica was forced to have sex against her will, waking up to one of the men on top of her.

Her body had been objectified so many times by so many men at this point, Monica said she was beginning to become numb to it all.

"I think I learned at a really young age, and through all of this, you just let men do what they want because that's what you're there for, that's all you're good for," Monica said.

A glimmer of hope appeared when Kiara took her to a third location, where inside she met a seemingly normal family with children who told her she could stay there as long as she liked.

"They were cooking up chitlins and cornbread ... and everybody was laughing," Monica said.

In another apartment in the same brownstone building somewhere in North Minneapolis, Monica met James, whom she described as a "very good-looking and well-put-together man."

"He was all sweet to me and had a new outfit for me," she said. "He said, 'I need you to do me a favor, to help my sister (Janelle) here with her kids while she's sick. If you can do this, you can stay here and I'll provide food for you and you'll be safe.'"

So she became the caretaker for the children of Janelle, who Monica eventually learned was a crack addict. A few days later, Kiara returned and told Monica she needed her help shopping.

"As we were walking there, this man threw this plastic thing at us," Monica said. "It had a piece of paper in it and it said the sexual act he wanted. He wanted (oral sex)."

Kiara told Monica to do as the man asked and he would give her $5. When Monica recoiled, Kiara told her if she didn't, Kiara would beat her up and tell James she resisted.

"So that's what I did," Monica said. "When I was done, she made me go into the store and we took purses and we stole clothes. We'd take them back to him (James), and we'd maybe get a dollar."

The clothing they stole was mainly women's lingerie, Monica said, and she suspected this was the clothing James would give to the women who worked for him, just as he had gifted new clothes to her. She had not yet realized she was considered an employee rather than a girlfriend to James, however, and he began to get increasingly sexual with her to assuage her concerns about what Kiara had forced her to do.

Knowing what she knows now, Monica said she believes Kiara may have been acting as a recruiter for James at the halfway house.

"She knew exactly what to do with me, how to break me," Monica said.

The party favor

Some days or weeks later, Monica was unsure, James told her the cops were coming to the apartment building and she needed to leave. Men would meet her three blocks away in a van to take her to safety, James said.

"They ended up taking me to their house and there was about 10 to 12 guys there. They made it sound like it was just a party. We got drunk, we got high. But later, I ended up finding out I was the party favor," Monica said. "They all took their turns on me. A couple of them got pretty violent."

After the men returned her to James' apartment building, in which he housed other women and crack addicts he supplied, Monica told Janelle she was raped.

"She's like, 'No, you weren't,'" Monica said. "'You know exactly what happened.' And that was when I really realized he just sold me."

For the following couple days, Monica was in so much physical pain, she could not even care for Janelle's children.

"I felt like I had rocks in my stomach," Monica said. "I couldn't eat anything, I had fevers."

Meanwhile, back in Owatonna, Monica's mother was frantically trying to get help from anyone who would listen. She'd managed to determine who Monica had run away with, and, after locating Kiara's brothers and paying them for information, where she was. Told the police would not help, Lolly said she and her sister finally found Monica in James' building and rescued her once more.

"I was mad at my mom for finding me," Monica said. "I wanted to go back. ... I think there must have been a part of me that knew that what I was going through wasn't OK, but I think I was too afraid to be locked up again."

Locked up was exactly the state Monica was in soon after for a stay in a children's hospital psychiatric ward. She was then transferred to a children's home in St. Cloud for a year-long stay, where for the first time she shared some of her experience in a healing support group. It was the last time she would tell her story for many years.

"It was just like, 'You're a whore, you're a prostitute, that's not abuse.' I learned at that point, I was a prostitute and that was my choice," Monica said. "That was a part of who I was, and that was a part of where my addiction had taken me, and that was this secret I would have to live with for the rest of my life."

'Anything is possible'

In the intervening years, Monica's drug and alcohol abuse was the one constant in her life, the one thing that kept the self-loathing and shame at bay. It was also self-medication for her undiagnosed mental illness.

"I used for long periods of my life," Monica said. "I got involved with gang members and drug dealers and being around people that I shouldn't have been with. Just this really high-stakes lifestyle."

Monica said she was very promiscuous during this period of her life. Doctors told her she would never have children after contracting gonorrhea, chlamydia and later cervical cancer from her time in Minneapolis. She also said she sought to recapture some of the power she'd learned her body had over men, and used it to get things she wanted. She had relationship after relationship with men who verbally and physically abused her. A couple of these relationships nearly killed her when jilted lovers attempted to take her life in two separate drive-by shootings in Mankato.

This on-the-edge lifestyle was an addiction in itself, Monica said, "because it kept me from having to really think about anything that happened in my life."

Defying the diagnosis she received, Monica did become pregnant twice and now has a daughter and son. As hard as she tried to become sober for them and for herself, she continually returned to using.

When it got so bad she was considering signing over her parental rights to her mother, Lolly gave her an alternative.

"She walked in with the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) list and put it on the table and said, 'There's a different way,'" Monica said. "That was seven and a half years ago. ... It's been a fight. It's been a struggle. It's not been easy. Every year I feel like I learn a little bit more about who I am and what I am. Some of this was realizing these soul wounds, or these dark secrets that I hold onto, if I don't deal with these, I'm going to end up going back."

A few years ago, Monica returned to school, intent on working in the chemical dependency field to help others emerge from addiction. Two years into the social work program, Monica learned what youth sexual exploitation and trafficking was for the first time.

I finally was able to put what had happened to me all those years into a whole different context," she said. "That totally, totally changed my life. I'm a victim, this is not my fault, these men should have never done these things to me. Somebody should have seen the signs that I was hurting. I shouldn't have been 13, 14 years old in these situations for this to happen. The system failed me. My mom did things to try to get me out of the situation I was in, and nothing happened."

Her recognition of systemic failure in her own case led her to change paths in her education, focusing on how to counsel other victims of sexual exploitation and sex trafficking.

Which led her to today, to a position where she has the opportunity to impact the lives of sexually exploited youths in a positive way.

"We have to stop judging somebody based on their circumstances, and start asking them about their story," Monica said. "That's what I hope I can do. I'm not looking to change the world. If that's what happens, then that's wonderful. For me, it's just about making people treat people like people. It's getting these victims to be looked at as a person.

"My hope in this job is education. Not pretending that it doesn't happen. It happens everywhere. What to look for, where to look, in places you wouldn't think. To help victims if I can. To let them know, if I can live the life I lived and I can be in the job I'm in right now, anything is possible. For any of them."

CHELSEY PERKINS may be reached at 218-855-5874 or chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com . Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchChelsey .

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Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at chelsey.perkins@brainerddispatch.com or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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