This one is personal.
The following content contains topics of a sensitive nature. Domestic violence and human trafficking are at the forefront of this article. This is intended for adult readers, in an effort to raise awareness on what these crimes really are, how they happen, and what we can do to fight them.
Exploiting a person through force, fraud, or coercion.
A pattern of abusive behaviors used by one person to control another person in the context of an intimate or family relationship.
"She is a survivor in every sense of the word."
I met Corissa while volunteering at Bethany House of Northern Virginia. I was in talks with the organization about starting a fitness program for Bethany House clients, when I volunteered for their upcoming candlelight vigil. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get to know people and the organization better, before starting weekly classes. I was able to meet the Director of Programming and Counseling Services, Tanya Palang, who had agreed to implement fitness classes into the program; and her intern, who would be assisting in the implementation process. Along with a lot of other awesome, like-minded people that you can get to know a little later.
During this event, a short conversation between Ms.Tanya and her intern caught my attention. It was regarding a new client, going through the intake process. I could tell right away that it was a sensitive case. Only because of the seriousness in which they spoke. My simple question of “how many participants will I have”, set off discreet discussion about where Corissa was and when she would arrive.
On Day 1 of the BHNV fitness class, I encountered Corissa in the parking lot as I was arriving. She said, “are you the fitness lady?” with a great big smile, as she took her kids out of the car. It was my first day - I didn’t know anyone there. It wasn’t until about 2 years later - after we had gone from client/coach to friends - that I made the connection that it was Corissa they were referring to that day at the candlelight vigil.
Corissa has gone from client, to after-care, to employee and ambassador for Bethany House of Northern Virginia. Additionally, I have watched her grow on a more personal level. She is a survivor in every sense of the word. Maybe it isn’t for me to say, but I doubt anyone would disagree - Corissa has been an inspiration and a leader for other clients going through the program.She is now working to help other victims with their recovery through support groups; and raising awareness on domestic violence and human trafficking by sharing her story publicly. She has a relentless drive to use her story to serve the greater good.
Corissa was recently a guest speaker for an event hosted by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and Department of Homeland Security - Combating Human Trafficking in Aviation. The speech that she delivered was not exactly the speech that she originally wrote. It needed to be edited to cater to this specific event and audience. Understandably so.
However, I personally feel it is important for her speech to be shared in its entirety. So here it is… With her permission. Corissa's Speech.
"First, I want to address some common misconceptions about human trafficking. It's a topic that often goes unrecognized or misunderstood, and it's crucial that we shed light on the truth to combat this heinous crime.
It is a myth that human trafficking victims should seek help when in public. The reality is that human trafficking is a covert crime, and victims may be reluctant to seek help in public due to fear of retribution from traffickers. They often face the danger of harm to their families and may be forced or coerced through threats or violence.
Corrupt officials and complicit individuals further enable human trafficking rings to evade detection, even within our own borders. The lack of trust in law enforcement due to alleged involvement is one of the reasons why this crime is so under-reported. Seeking help from the public or law enforcement could tragically cost the victim their life.
Another common misconception is that human trafficking only happens in other countries or to people from foreign countries. The fact is that human trafficking is a harsh reality right here in the United States, affecting American citizens at the hands of American citizens. The United States is ranked as one of the worst countries globally for human trafficking and it is vital that we dispel these myths and acknowledge the harsh realities of human trafficking right here in America.
I was born and raised in West Virginia - a place known for its natural beauty but also plagued by poverty, addiction, and high crime rates. Growing up in one of the poorest counties in America, I faced numerous challenges from a very young age. My life has been a constant struggle, and I have lived in survival mode for as long as I can remember.
When I was just a toddler, I tragically lost both of my parents to domestic violence. My father was convicted of murdering my mother, leaving me to grow up without them. The trauma of losing my mother and the circumstances surrounding her death deeply affected me as a child and teenager, shaping my view of the world and my place in it.
I found myself homeless at the age of 16. It was during this period that I was targeted and groomed by a much older, 29-year-old man with a reputation in the community as a drug dealer, pimp, and an abuser of women. He exploited my vulnerabilities, my desperation, and my yearning for belonging and affection; taking advantage of the lack of support I had. I moved in with him, despite efforts from some of my relatives to involve law enforcement and plead for my removal from the situation. Their attempts were unsuccessful, as authorities claimed that no crime was being committed and there was nothing they could do.
Initially, this individual showered me with extravagant gifts and made numerous promises of a better life; while simultaneously undermining my family and isolating me. Before long, I found myself completely cut off from everyone. It was during this time that he introduced me to drugs and I quickly became addicted. This is a common tactic used by traffickers to entrap and control their victims. I was finally set free from his abuse after 9 years when he died suddenly from a cocaine overdose.
After four years in recovery, I was faced with financial hardship and made the unfortunate choice of getting involved with local drug dealers. What I thought would be a one time means to an end, became much more.
I discovered a child trafficking and human sex trafficking operation, along with other serious crimes, being operated by the people I had gotten involved with. What I initially believed to be a drug trafficking ring turned out to be something far more sinister. Due to my knowledge of the situation and those involved, my life from that point until the day I fled West Virginia was a nightmare. I have survived numerous sexual assaults, stalking by multiple individuals, domestic violence, sex trafficking, voyeurism, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and more. I was coerced into performing tasks that I did not want to do. When I refused to comply, there were threats made to have their associates pistol whip me in front of my children. These criminals would take pornographic photos and videos of me, as a means of control, and threaten to shame me by exposing the photos to my family and share them online and with people in the area, if I didn’t comply and do what they wanted. They sold the content by uploading it to porn sites and sharing it locally.
"It is important to note that the porn industry and the sex trafficking industry are very closely linked."
For a long time, I didn’t even know I was being recorded. I discovered hidden cameras in my home that I shared with my children. Cameras can enable traffickers to earn money from hundreds, if not thousands, of people through mass online distribution across the globe. It is important to note that the porn industry and the sex trafficking industry are very closely linked.
As a result of this happening to me, I was subject to an enormous amount of cyberbullying and cyber stalking, which was extremely traumatizing. I later found child pornography on one of their laptops, and the images still haunt me to this day.
I encountered several obstacles while seeking assistance. Despite contacting several law enforcement agencies in West Virginia, support was inadequate. Each time I reported an incident, it further endangered our lives. I also reached out to the National Human Trafficking Hotline on multiple occasions, but was informed that an FBI agent was not guaranteed to call me back. Although I was provided with contact information for human trafficking shelters across the country, none of them accommodated women and children together, and there were no available beds. That’s when I began calling the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
Despite reaching out to several domestic violence shelters over a two-month period, none of them accepted people from outside their state or county, or they were full. Furthermore, every time I mentioned sexual assault and human trafficking, I was advised to call the sexual assault hotline, which only provides counseling. I was getting absolutely nowhere. Everywhere I turned was a dead end.
The abuse became unbearable during the pandemic. I was on the brink of giving up and ending my life. My three children gave me the strength to keep going. I knew that I had to protect them and was willing to do whatever I had to do to keep them safe, which included relocating, starting a new life, and never looking back. I knew it was time to make some major changes in my life because I would never allow this to happen to my children again. I prayed day in and day out for God to send us help. That’s when I came across two individuals who are basically angels to me. Joey, who has over 20 years of investigative and intelligence background, and Dana, a retired FBI agent. They assisted me with fleeing and finding a safe place to go.
Joey and Dana sent me the contact information for Bethany House of Northern Virginia. I was very quickly accepted into their program, and on October 22, 2021, I got rid of my phone and all electronic devices, put my 3 kids in my vehicle and what I could fit of our belongings, and never looked back.
During the trip, I became increasingly aware of God's presence and since relocating, God has continued to bless me. Bethany House provided me with the love and support I had never experienced before. They created a safe, beautiful, and loving environment for my family to heal and to start rebuilding my life.
I am deeply thankful for all the support and encouragement I have been fortunate enough to receive from the people working, volunteering, and backing this incredible organization, as well as for the new opportunities that have been presented to me. The progress I have made on this journey has been an immensely gratifying experience, and I am truly grateful to have the chance to make positive changes in my life. I recently went from aftercare client to full time employee at Bethany House. In addition to the work I do there, I am grateful to be part of Robin’s Hope, an organization dedicated to empowering survivors and providing them with the resources needed to make positive changes in their lives. Through my role as group facilitator for the Breaking the Cycles of Abuse group, I help individuals from across the country who have experienced or are experiencing similar challenges, find healing and support.
Through Joey’s consulting firm, Joey Ortega Intell, I have learned various aspects of counter-surveillance, cyber security and other parts of their tradecraft to help me not only stay safe and out of reach of my stalkers, but also give me the skills and confidence needed to never be a target again; but rather a person such predators avoid.
My children have made significant strides both academically and in their own healing journey thanks to the support they have received at school and from Bethany House. Prior to our arrival here, I was concerned about their well-being, but now they are thriving and enjoying their childhood. I am proud of their achievements and resilience, and excited for their future.
My story is not unique. It's just one of the countless stories of individuals who have fallen victim to human trafficking. It's essential to understand that human trafficking can happen to anyone, regardless of their background or where they come from. It preys on vulnerability and thrives in the shadows of society.
By sharing my story, I hope to shed light on the harsh realities of human trafficking and the vulnerabilities that make individuals susceptible to exploitation. It's crucial that we come together to support survivors and work tirelessly to prevent others from enduring similar experiences. In my capacity at both Bethany House and Robins Hope, I have encountered numerous women and children facing challenges similar to those I once endured. It is clear that the demand for safe housing far exceeds our current capacity, and it is disheartening to be unable to provide shelter to those in need. While we have been fortunate to acquire an additional property, it requires extensive renovation before it can accommodate new clients. Our goal is to have it operational by the year's end, and this endeavor requires support from the community in the form of both funding and assistance.
I hope each of you here today will consider supporting Bethany House of Northern Virginia. Your generous contributions, regardless of the amount, would be greatly appreciated and would play a significant role in furthering our mission. Thank you."
This is a fraction of Croissa’s story. She is gearing up to share more through her autobiography.
When I first started seeking out an organization to partner with, I would've most likely gone with anybody that could accommodate my schedule. But after working with Bethany House of Northern Virginia, I've learned that not all shelters are the same. In additional to their personal touch, offering clients individualized counseling and programs, they are able to accept clients from all over the country. This was huge in Corissa's journey.
Tiffany Santana, Executive Director of Bethany House of Northern Virginia, explains it like this,"Programs that are funded by local governments are restricted to serving only those who are residents of that locality because taxpayers should benefit from the services provided by the local governments to which they pay their taxes. Because we are funded by the generosity of individuals, businesses, and churches, we have the freedom to serve survivors who come from al over the country. "
She goes on to explain that this also poses a challenge because "we don't have the security of being part of the approved budget of a local government."
This is why financial support from individual contributors is crucial. I don't mean click the link and make a one time donation. I mean, ongoing support that they can budget for.
Mr. Barquero has elected Bethany House of Northern Virginia for his monthly donation to be withdrawn directly from his paycheck each month. By doing so, his employer matches his contribution. This is the type of effort I'm talking about.
Another eye-opening take away - victims often do not identify as victims in cases of domestic violence and human trafficking. That’s why it is crucial that if YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING. If you're wrong - no harm done. But if you're right...
Robin's Hope Join Corissa's (virtual) support group, Breaking the Cycle of Abuse, Wednesdays at 1pm.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) tip line 1-866-347-2423
National Human Trafficking Hotline 1-888-373-7888
Bethany House of Northern Virginia Helpline 888-80-HELPS (43577)
Joey Ortega Crisis Consultant 805-824-8314