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Sex trafficking survivor now helps victims

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Theresa Leonard helps sex trafficking victims like Elena Halloran. (WFSB photo) Theresa Leonard helps sex trafficking victims like Elena Halloran. (WFSB photo)
(FBI photo) (FBI photo)
NEW BRITAIN, CT (WFSB) -

A Berlin woman is sharing her story 30 years after she was sold for sex by the woman who gave her life, and is now helping other victims who were sex trafficked too.

"At 9 years old my hair was done, put on make-up and provocative clothes for the highest bidder. As I got older, I realized I was trafficked and sold to the highest bidder," said Theresa Leonard.

The sexual exploitation of children is a multi-billion dollar industry, and it's not only happening overseas and across the country, but right here in Connecticut.

Leonard is a survivor now helping others deal with the same demons she couldn't escape until six years ago.

"I was trafficked. I was robbed, I was beaten, I was starved," Leonard said, adding that she was sold for sex by her own mother. "I was put in a corner and sold to the highest bidder."

Leonard said she never had a permanent place to call home. In fact, she was abandoned at birth.

"My mother left the hospital without me and I ended up in DCF (Department of Children and Families) system. I went from foster home to foster home to foster home," Leonard said.

During a scheduled parental visit six years later, Leonard said she was kidnapped by her mother before they went into hiding, and lived a life on the run.

Every day, Leonard, now 42, said multiple men paid to have sex with her, including her mother's boyfriend who was also their pimp.

"It was do this or I'm going to beat you and your mom," Leonard said, adding that the sex trafficking lasted until she was 12 years old and her mother's boyfriend was locked up.

Leonard said once he was gone, she didn't view it as trafficking anymore, she viewed it as a choice she was making.

"This is a choice I'm making at 11 years old, not able to put it together that I didn't have a choice, I was being manipulated and coerced," Leonard added.

Her trafficker was hooked on heroin.

"I thought my mother needed me, that she would be sick and lost without me and at 10 years old, that was the burden that laid on my shoulders; making money so she didn't have to be sick," she added.

William Rivera, director of Multi-cultural Affairs for the Department of Children and Families, said sex trafficking recruiters get their "workers" to believe that it is a good thing "an OK thing and in some cases if they get hurt, it's their fault, which in actuality it is not."

While Leonard has a long list of arrests and convictions for crimes, including prostitution, she has come a long way since then and said her faith pulled her through the tough times.

"That happens on every corner in every one of our cities in Connecticut. It happens on the Berlin Turnpike. It happens in the airport. In Wethersfield, Bloomfield. This is real, it happens in our backyard and guess what, that's unacceptable to me," Leonard said.

Rivera, who oversees the human trafficking response team, said sex trafficking is, and has been, a problem for a long time.

Since 2008, Rivera said there have been more than 200 sex trafficking cases reported to the agency.

"And everyone gets investigated, all confirmed victims are high risk," Rivera said.

Today, Leonard is giving back to women living in the same nightmare she survived.

"These are lost, broken women who are hopeless, feel hopeless, but I see hope in every single one of them, and the reason I see hope in them is because I see it in the mirror," Leonard added.

She is now working for the same transitional living program, Coram Deo, that she said saved her life.

"They're not forgotten. They are not lost. They are not trash. We are looking for them," Leonard added.

It was there that she said she had a level of understanding most of us will never know.

"For someone who's been sex trafficked or exploited, I get what it's like to be robbed of your dignity," she said. "I get what it's like to walk around looking at the ground, because it's hard to look society in the face. I get that."

From the ages of 9-12, she said she lived a tough life on the streets of Connecticut, sold to men for sex by a heroin-addicted mother.

"At one point, I was thrown in a garbage dumpster because my mother wanted to get high and this John had thrown me in a garbage dumpster," Leonard said.

Now, she was helping women like her former self, including 27-year-old Elena Halloran.

"For me, I know so much about physical pain," said Halloran. "I haven't dealt with my emotional pain and I can't handle it. And I cut in order to deal with it."

Back in her native Lithuania, Halloran said her father murdered her mother when she was just a month old. She was put into an orphanage, then ended up with an aunt.

"One time, I remember looking under a couch," Halloran said. "She had loads of money. With 50s and 100s under the couch."

From ages 3-9, an aunt took her every weekend and sex trafficked her to several men and women each night.

"My aunt would always treat me to things, and I always thought she was being nice and stuff," Halloran said. "Later on I realized it was manipulation, being bribed."

She said several Johns tried to kill her and that her aunt threatened her in other ways.

"I ran away several times," Halloran said. "I'd escape. Go outside and just hide behind the bush or something and my aunt started to give me alcohol and drug money to keep from getting away."

They were behaviors Leonard said she knew too well. That's why she helped people like Halloran make peace with their past and move on.

"It was putting the drugs down, putting the alcohol down and saying 'hey, I'm going to walk through this,'" Leonard said. "And I had people tell me 'I will walk through the fire with you. You don't have to do it alone,' and if it were not for those amazing people, I wouldn't be here."

Leonard said she once did intake at the transitional housing facility.

She helped Halloran, who was adopted by a couple in Connecticut when she was 9 years old, get disability. She said recognizing the painful past helps.

"The moment I could say 'wow, I was trafficked,'" Leonard said. "That was what was forced on me, I could begin healing."

"At 16 actually, I was watching an Oprah show and it hit me," Halloran said.

Leonard said she was in close contact with the Department of Children and Families, the same agency that helped her growing up. She continues to battle the child sex trafficking issue.

"This was happening right under our noses in Connecticut," Rivera said. "I think the increased awareness, internet easy access, utilization of the internet to prostitute children has increased inconceivably."

Strengthened state and federal sex trafficking laws have helped, according to Rivera.

DCF has toll-free care lines posted in public places like bus and truck stops. It also trains its own staff and police as well.

"These are kids who are sexually exploited and we really can't keep treating them like they are the criminals," Rivera said. "Rather than going after the prostitutes we need to focus on the Johns and the buyers."

Rivera said DCF's work was far from over. However, it's making strides.

"Actually, I hate this and it's because I hate this and what's happening to kids being sexually exploited and we have other team members helping," Rivera said. "I'm not the only one doing this."

The problem will continue because of what Rivera called "supply and demand."

"Men have to think about our role in this," he explained. "Because the consumers are predominantly men and when you get men to make commitments, they're going to stop having sex with kids. I'm not going to say it's going to completely go away, but maybe we can make a dent in this and start thinking about how to fix it."

For Leonard, that starts with helping victims.

"This journey from trafficking to sexual exploitation, this is a life-long process," she said.

Leonard said what happened to her impacted her personal relationships greatly. She only recently reconnected with her 24-year-old son after being absent most of his life.

But her faith, she said, continues to keep her going.

Copyright 2014 WFSB (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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