MICHIGAN — Human trafficking is a horrible crime in the U.S.and yet, we have no real statistics.
Jane White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, said there are lots of statistics on human trafficking, "but if you ask me how many are based on evidence, the number is incredibly small. Good research has not been done."
Without good numbers, it's impossible to know whether efforts to stop human trafficking are helping, impossible to know whether we'll be able to stop what happened to Ruth Rondon from happening to other women or men.
Rondon of Grand Rapids is a survivor and 18-year victim of this seemingly invisible crime, human trafficking.
"Well, I had a pretty abusive childhood," Rondon said. "My sister and I went to school with welts on our arms and legs. We had to bend over on the bed with our shirts off and take the whip."
Familiar with abuse, and with no support system, Rondon was first raped at a shopping mall at a young age.
"I really had nobody to go to," she said.
Within a few years, she was befriended by a man who became her boyfriend and manipulated Rondon into having sex with men to help him financially.
This is how sex trafficking begins for most victims. It's not abduction and threats like you see in the movies. It's a manipulation of trust, usually the manipulation of a young victim who is isolated and has a traumatizing past.
After Rondon had sex with the other men, she said her boyfriend thanked her and said she was the girl he had always been looking for.
"You know, when I look back at that, I know dang well he was trying to break my spirit," Rondon said.
She says it worked.
"When I started learning about the tactics that traffickers use, I look back," she said. "They gain your trust, they promise you the world, they treat you like a queen and then there's a crisis that only you can help them with."
How many people like Rondon are trafficked every year in Michigan for either sex or labor? The state doesn't have that number.
Turns out, all the statistics you've probably seen online claiming to know the exact numbers behind human trafficking, are fabrications.
"When people give statistics that are false, it harms real victims," said Bridgette Carr, director of the Human Trafficking Clinic at the University of Michigan. "I have said to many people, 'What you're saying is not true and you know it.'"
"They have said to me, 'But I need to raise money for my organization.' And I have said back, 'It is not a neutral proposition. You are harming real victims when you use these false statistics.'"
Based on calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, The Polaris Project has found that in 2019, there were at least 14,597 sex trafficking victims and survivors in the United States.
There was a minimum of 282 sex trafficking cases in Michigan specifically.
But we have no way of knowing how high these numbers really are, and, without real numbers, we have no way of knowing if any current human trafficking work is truly effective.
"The downfall is that we may be throwing money, time, and resources at things that don't actually combat human trafficking," Carr said.
Part of the confusion is different definitions of who is actually a trafficking victim. Whether someone qualifies can depend on whether they cooperate in court.
Carr believes that to gain factual human trafficking statistics, we need state legislatures and law enforcement to count all human trafficking victims as victims and form a single coalition to fight for them.
"We need a coalition of researchers, funders, and people in power, the right legislators, law enforcement officials, government officials, to work together," Carr said. "We need funders to fund the research. We need researchers to do the research. We need those in power to give us access to some of the raw data that they have. When those three things come together, we'll have a number. We just haven't done it yet."
Once we have that true number of how many people are being trafficked in Michigan, Carr said, then "we can start to measure whether the things we're doing to fight it actually help, harm, or make no difference."
It's estimated that the average victim of trafficking survives for seven years.
Ruth Rondon is alive today. She got out of the circle of manipulations, drugs, and sex because of a kind detective, a friendly jail mate, and repairing key family relationships.
"I am happy today, and I am a victor today," she said. "I have taken different steps into freedom more and more and more ever since I escaped. This is the ultimate freedom right here."
Carr said, if you would like to help victims of human trafficking today, the best thing you can do is help the homeless or those you see struggling on the streets. The idea is that, if people in need had more good options, crimes like human trafficking would be far less prevalent.
If you would like to learn more about Ruth Rondon and her story of triumph over trafficking, you can read her memoir: "The Realities of Human Trafficking: From the Inside Out to Freedom."
This story was originally published by Sarah Grimmer at WSYM.