Discussion of news topics with a point of view, including narratives by individuals regarding their own experiences

In 2011, when Tiffany Simpson was 17, she was arrested for child sex trafficking in Georgia.

But Tiffany herself had been a victim of sex trafficking for years at that point. Her trafficker had trapped her in his web of abuse and deceit, and he used her phone to lure another 13-year-old girl to a construction site. The police followed them there. They rescued the other teenage girl, but they arrested and charged Tiffany with the very crime that had happened to her.

When Tiffany wrote to me the first time from Pulaski State Prison more than a year after her arrest, she asked me, “Am I just a prostitute or a victim of sex trafficking?”

An upcoming habeas hearing will determine if Tiffany, now 28, will have a chance at freedom.

The federal law known as the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, first passed in 2000, says that any child induced to commit a commercial sex act is a victim of child sex trafficking. This does not mean that states cannot arrest children involved in prostitution. And even in states like Georgia with “Safe Harbor” laws — which protect children from arrest from prostitution — minors can be charged with other, related crimes. As the co-founder of Karana Rising, a survivor-led nonprofit serving and advocating for survivors, I have supported more than 2,000 survivors and helped create court programs and safe homes for child survivors of sex trafficking. More than half of survivors I have worked with, such as Tiffany, were arrested during their own trafficking.

When Tiffany and I began to write letters in 2012, her freedom felt distant at best. Now, after the release of women including Cyntoia Brown and Alexis Martin, her release seems more and more possible. Brown was granted clemency in 2019 after serving 15 years for killing a man she was allegedly sold to when she was 16. Martin was granted clemency in 2020, after she was convicted in 2013 at 15 for her role in the murder of her pimp.

Unlike in Tennessee and Ohio, though, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) alone cannot grant clemency to Tiffany. Tiffany’s first chance of parole is in 2025. Tiffany is represented by Susan P. Coppedge of Krevolin & Horst, former ambassador at large to monitor and combat trafficking in persons. In the upcoming habeas hearing, the law requires Tiffany to demonstrate that her previous counsel was ineffective in representing her, resulting in a 30-year sentence.

During Tiffany’s 2011 sentencing, the judge asked her how long she had been “shacking up” with her then-34-year-old trafficker. When Tiffany shared that she was “prostituted out right before I was 15,” the response by the judge was not to identify her as a victim of sex trafficking in need of protection. Instead, he replied, “I’m done … . I’m going to give you 30 years, 20 to serve.”

When she was sentenced, Tiffany was set to serve more years in prison than she had been alive. On our phone calls, she tells me that these days, she misses her mom and grandmother. Most of all, she misses her 10-year-old son, who was born two months after she was arrested. As it stands now, when Tiffany is released, she will be registered as a sex offender and be unable to live with her son or receive certain jobs or housing opportunities upon release.

Many sex trafficking victims such as Tiffany do not understand that they are victims of trafficking. Their traffickers will threaten them — tell them that if they try to escape, they’ll be arrested and treated like criminals. By forcing their victims to commit crimes ranging from robbery or trafficking another person, they can further isolate them from seeking help. When Tiffany was charged with sex trafficking, she already believed she was a bad person, unworthy of being seen as a victim, she told me.

“In a way, my trafficker was right. The police didn’t believe me. No one even tried to investigate my trafficking,” Tiffany said during one of our recent calls. Her own court-appointed attorney referred to her as “damaged goods” during her sentencing.

The intergenerational roots of sex trafficking are easy to spot, if you know the patterns. Tiffany was 6 when her dad was sent to prison for life for killing another person. Tiffany’s mom struggled with drugs and alcohol and lost custody of her daughter when Tiffany was 13. Tiffany says she was 14 when she was trafficked for the first time. But teachers, courts and law enforcement did not recognize Tiffany’s victimization.

Tiffany eventually became trapped in what is known as a trauma bond, which means her brain had developed a way to rationalize the abuse from her trafficker as a way to survive. She has said that her trafficker’s fleeting displays of affection felt “like an ocean of love” because she missed her mom and dad.

Her trafficker isolated her from her family, Tiffany told me, and she would often be beaten if she did not want to have sex for money. But, she said, she stayed with him because of the shame of the bruises and his threats to kill her if she ran. Traffickers often use social isolation from friends and family to ensure their victims do not have others looking out for them. The abuse and trafficking continued for several years, Tiffany said.

Many survivors of sex trafficking are also threatened or coerced into committing crimes themselves by their trafficker. According to Tiffany, this was the case for her, too; she had messaged a 13-year-old friend who ended up being trafficked by her abuser. This is when police arrived to arrest her trafficker, and Tiffany was arrested, too.

There are key ways that survivors can and should be protected from being arrested as a result of their own trafficking. First, federal and state-level affirmative defense laws must include all offenses to ensure every survivor is protected. Second, defense attorneys and courts must be trained on how to identify and defend victims of trafficking who often do not know they are victims themselves. Third, laws to vacate the records of trafficking survivors must also include all offenses so that when released from prison, they are fully free.

Tiffany’s petition for freedom has more than 33,000 signatures, and a recently released short film, “Lack of Love,” has hundreds of views. Yet the obstacles to her freedom are vast; attitudes toward survivors of sex trafficking shift slowly.

Tiffany was never a criminal. And today, she is not just a victim and survivor of sex trafficking, she’s also an advocate for other victims. She shares her story with other female inmates, educating them on what sex trafficking looks like from her own lived experiences. She’s helping other girls the way she herself was never helped.

Her habeas hearing could be the first legal step toward freedom for a child victim of sex trafficking who should have never been sent to prison in the first place. I can’t wait to see what Tiffany will do when she’s finally free of the bars sex trafficking has for too long held around her life.

Andrea Powell is co-founder and executive director of Karana Rising.

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