* Hidden in plain sight: Forever Found helps children caught in sex trafficking

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This is the story of three local teenagers*  —  Kayla, Rachel, and Bethany

Fifteen-year-old Kayla F. grew up in and out of the Ventura County foster system. In 2017, she was living in a group home, going to school, and doing her best to make the most out of trying circumstances. One night her best friend in the group home talked her into sneaking out to a party. Her best friend’s boyfriend picked them up and drove them to an apartment. As they entered, Kayla could feel that something wasn’t right. She was shoved to the ground, her phone and purse were taken, and she heard the horrifying words, “You are mine now.” 

 In Ventura County, a child does not have to have a pimp in order to be considered trafficked. If a child feels they need to perform sexual acts in order to obtain basic needs like food and shelter, they are considered to be trafficked. 

Shannon and Taylor Sergey, co-founders of Forever Found, started their faith-based organization in Simi Valley ten years ago, out of a deep desire to help those who have been caught up in the sex-slave industry. After five years of building support for such groups outside of the U.S., they became aware of the growing problem at home. 

Forever Found has mobilized two teams— the REACH team (Responding to Exploited Adolescents with Care and Hope) available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and a long-term mentor program. REACH assists law enforcement, Child and Family Services, and probation whenever anyone under eighteen is thought to be sexually exploited. Its response includes providing food, clothing, emotional support, dignity, and transportation.  It does not provide shelter, but it provides the individual resources and referrals to help construct a plan for long-term solutions. 

Recently, the REACH team was contacted by a social worker to meet with Rachel. She had made new friends who pursued her, flattered her, and made her feel special and cared for. As time went on, she fell in love with an older man who was consistently hanging out with the group. He made promises of the life they would have together if only they had the money to get started. He convinced her that selling her body was not a big deal, and it was only for a little while until they could save enough money to get their own place. 

When Rachel’s appearance, personality, and grades began to change drastically, a social worker was notified who ultimately suspected she was a victim of sex trafficking. Child and Family Services then contacted Forever Found.  Hillary from the REACH team made contact with Rachel and her social worker.  Hilary was able to talk to the girl about the ways traffickers manipulate them in order to make them feel that selling their bodies will help them accomplish their dreams.  She gave Rachel some books (Scars and Stilettos, by Harmony Dust*) and introduced her to the mentor program.  Although Hilary could not rescue Rachel from her circumstances, she could equip her with tools and a caring support system. 

Forever Found matches two mentors to every person 12 to 25 years old. These mentors are not therapists, but members of the community who focus on modeling healthy relationships, teaching life skills, and encouraging positive self-care and self-talk. Every staff member and volunteer who interacts with the youth go through a rigorous background check and 25 hours of training before they are activated. According to Jennifer Gabriel, the local program director, there were 82 child referrals, boys and girls, in 2019 alone. There are currently 35 mentees in the Forever Found mentor program. 

One of those girls, Bethany, a high school freshman, did not have stable support at home. Her mom deserted the family when Bethany was in grade school, and her dad was an alcoholic who could barely keep a roof over their heads. Eventually, Bethany ran away. After months of sleeping on the couches of different friends, she eventually moved into a tent with her adult boyfriend. Soon after, her boyfriend convinced her to sell her body in exchange for clothes and food. She was further exploited, as she began taking drugs to cope with the emotional pain. Eventually, Bethany ended up in a juvenile detention center where her life began to turn around when she was introduced to the Forever Found mentor program. 

Bethany’s mentors helped her to understand her real value as a human being. Although Bethany continued to struggle with the temptation to be drawn back into old habits, she quickly discovered that her mentors were the most consistent adults she had ever had in her life. They helped her set goals, get a job, and learn how to have healthy fun. They introduced her to the holistic therapies that Forever Found offers, and helped her to work through the pain of emotional abandonment that she had experienced in her young life. 

These stories offer a glimpse into the reality that is taking place in the lives of the children around us. There are ways that you, too, can become more aware of the telltale signs that children you know may be victims of the sex-trade industry. Forever Found exists to prevent, rescue, and restore these young people to a more dignified and healthy life. Visit www.foreverfound.org to find out how you can be a part of the change. 

“’Scars and Stilettos‘ by Harmony Dust is her personal story as a victim of teen sex trafficking.  She now leads Treasures, an organization helping women in the sex trade discover their true worth.”

* In order to protect the exploited minors, names and some identifying details in these stories have been changed.

Shannon and Taylor Sergey are the co-founders of Forever Found.

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