By Terry FitzPatrick, Senior Writer-Producer/Deputy Communications Director of Free the Slaves
Trafficked into sexual slavery at 14, Tina Frundt now heads her own anti-slavery organization. Based in Washington, D.C., Courtney's House is scheduled to open a shelter dedicated to rehabilitating survivors of sex trafficking. Frundt is the 2010 recipient of the Frederick Douglass Freedom Award, given every year by Free the Slaves to survivors of slavery who now dedicate their lives to helping others.
Tina Frundt says that no little girl dreams of becoming a sex slave when she grows up. That's why Tina risks her life in the middle of the night to reach out to teens that are trapped. She knows their pain and fear. "The reason why I'm so compelled to do this work is because I'm a survivor of sex trafficking," Tina says, "and quite honestly, nobody did this for me."
It takes Tina just ten seconds to let a sex slave know that someone cares about their plight and can help them escape. She does it on the streets of Washington, D.C. at night. Walking casually along, she hands off a simple trinket that contains a telephone hotline number. It's a covert encounter, and Tina works hard to blend in so that traffickers won't become suspicious.
"If we were handing out papers or a big sign that said trafficking hotline, they wouldn't call it because they know we didn't know how to come at them correctly," Tina says.
Tina's innovative approach works. Sex slaves do call her hotline. And once they've made that call, to a hotline staffed entirely by sex slavery survivors, they know there's a path to freedom.
Tina bounced through more than 20 foster homes before being adopted by loving parents at age 12. She was insecure and vulnerable when a guy in his 20s approached her one day as she was heading to a neighborhood store in Chicago.
"I didn't know what trafficking was," Tina says. "I didn't know what a pimp was. I didn't know what slavery was. I had no idea."
The older guy struck up a friendly conversation. He wasn't threatening. Tina thought she had nothing to fear. The guy began to buy her gifts and drive her to school. He was building up trust, while secretly planning to snatch it away.
On her 14th birthday, Tina accepted a ride from the man, but this time he trafficked her to Cleveland, Ohio, where she was raped and trapped as a sex slave.
For more than a year, Tina was forced to serve up to 18 men a day. She was beaten and burned with cigarettes if she failed to earn enough money for the trafficker. She was warned that calling for help would be futile.
"The trafficker told me that if I ever told the police anything, that they would arrest me and no one would help me. And everything he said was true. Everything."
Tina escaped sex slavery by going to jail. The trafficker had broken her arm with a baseball bat, but when police came, they saw Tina as a criminal, not a victim.
Tina says she hit bottom at least ten times after that. But everything changed when she helped herself by helping others to freedom. She began by hiding escaped sex slaves in her own house. She then started to speak out, telling her story to the public.
"I don't think people understand that there can be sex slaves in the United States," Tina says.
Tina started her own anti-slavery organization with a small inheritance she received when her adoptive mom died in 2008. It's called Courtney's House, named for one of her daughters. The group runs the street outreach project and telephone hotline. A first-of-its kind shelter for U.S.-born teenage sex slavery survivors in the Washington metro area is scheduled to open soon. It will provide a safe and supportive environment for survivors to begin rebuilding their lives.
It's difficult for Tina to tell her story in public, but she does so to build awareness that American children are being forced into sex slavery on American soil. She has brought her message to the United Nations and the U.S. Congress.
She passes out flyers and speaks to Washington commuters through a megaphone to alert them to what happens outside their office buildings at night. She conducts training workshops for groups in other cities to make their street outreach teams more effective.
Her personal experience makes Tina a beacon of hope for others coming out of sex slavery.
"I listen to Tina because she is not just someone with a college degree or has done some research on this," says Shamer, a sex slavery survivor. "She's someone who's walked in my shoes."
Tina thinks of Shamer and the many others she has rescued as her family. And many love her like a mom.