Survivor shaming

Trial looms for young mother who says she was made to prostitute herself while pregnant.

illustration by serene lusano

This is an extended version of a story that appears in the November 16, 2017, issue.

The work starts most nights around 10 p.m., when Monroe drops her son at daycare and drives the nearly two hours to a cavernous UPS warehouse jutting out of the dark. Dressed in sweatpants and boots, she takes her place at the belt and waits for the gears to wake. If the conveyor starts churning before 2:45 a.m., she knows she’ll get a lunch. If it doesn’t, she knows she’ll be toiling through the arrival of the morning light.

She was lucky to get this job and is grateful to have it.

“If I go to work in a bitchy mood, I don’t have to talk to anybody,” Monroe said. “I get to be in a bitchy mood and just do my three trucks.”

The work is hard but honest. And it’s better than what she did before.

In September of last year, Monroe was arrested in a Lathrop hotel parking lot on suspicion of loitering with the intent to commit prostitution. She’d wandered into the middle of a vice sting being conducted by the San Joaquin County Sheriff’s Office and spent the night in jail. Some of that time her hands rested on a pregnant belly.

Monroe doesn’t dispute what brought her to that parking lot; she followed a thread of texts sent by an officer masquerading as a john. But the real reason she was there, she says, is because her former pimp had tracked her down and threatened her and her family. He accused her of owing him thousands of dollars. He vandalized her car and roughed up her body. (SN&R previously wrote about Monroe in 2015. The newspaper isn’t using her real name because of the threats against her.)

On September 26, 2016—17 days after Monroe’s arrest—Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1761 into law. The legislation specifically extends what’s called an affirmative defense to victims of human trafficking. The gist is this: If someone is forced to commit a crime against their will, they shouldn’t be the ones held accountable.

“If you can get information that somebody is a victim, why would you want to use resources to prosecute them?” said Stephanie Richard, the policy and legal services director at the Coalition to Abolish Slavery & Trafficking, or CAST, which sponsored the law.

But that’s what’s happening to Monroe, she and her advocates say. The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office is actively prosecuting Monroe for one count of misdemeanor prostitution, despite a letter from CAST identifying her as a human trafficking victim and urging the dismissal of charges.

If the case goes to trial, it will serve as a test balloon for the new state law—one that could show California’s trafficking survivors what the criminal justice system really thinks of them.

It’s not like Monroe hasn’t been here before.

A few years ago, she was working out of a Santa Rosa hotel for a pimp she’d known since middle school, according to interviews with Monroe and a four-page assessment of her case from CAST. Identified in the CAST assessment as “Cee,” the pimp groomed her for the streets by mixing sweet talk with cruelty. When she resisted his ways, Cee grabbed her by the hair and reminded her that he knew where her daughter was.

By the time she was working the Bay Area circuit, Monroe was earning $1,000 a night for Cee through a blur of dates, mostly arranged online. If the web traffic slowed, he put her on the streets. Monroe made sure the web traffic didn’t slow. It felt like there was always another knock at the door. When Monroe went to answer it, she found a police officer standing there.

Monroe says she instinctively hung up on the pimp who was monitoring her outside. Cee stormed to the room and banged on the door, demanding to know why she abruptly ended the call. When the officer opened the door, she says her pimp told police he was just there to give her a ride.

Monroe was led away in handcuffs. Cee was excused and kept his clean record. It was one of six prostitution-related arrests Monroe took in two years.

“The way I see it, they manipulate us [too],” Monroe said of law enforcement. “I’ve never heard of a situation where it’s been helpful.”

That’s exactly what law enforcement shouldn’t want to hear, say CAST’s Richard and Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who wrote AB 1761.

“You do wonder about all those who got caught up in the system,” Weber said of trafficking victims arrested for prostitution and other crimes. “We didn’t see that at the time. We saw them as criminals. We only knew that prostitution, in our minds, was wrong. What choices do they have?”

According to CAST’s assessment, Monroe only escaped Cee through the help of a client who later exerted his own dark control. Identified as “Jay,” CAST’s letter says he impregnated Monroe and told her she owed him $15,000. He didn’t care how she made it.

Monroe fled again, but Jay tracked her to her mother’s home. He “physically assaulted her and refused to leave until [Monroe] threatened to call law enforcement,” reads the CAST assessment, written by senior staff attorney Rita Patel. “Despite suffering abuse at the hands of Jay, she continued to feel emotionally bound to him, and often felt she should return to him, an indicator of ’trauma bonding.’”

She went back to work for him. Last September, she was arrested a seventh time. After she got out of jail, she gave birth to a son. Irate that she had blocked his calls, “Jay” left a venomous message that made it clear he still had power over her life.

“So, hmm, you want to get this kid thing all up out the way? Think about what the fuck you doing ho,” the man’s voice says. “Enjoy your day whore.”

Along with the CAST letter, Monroe’s public defender presented the San Joaquin County DA’s office with the threatening text and voice mail messages.

“I don’t think there’s any question at all that it’s conveying a threat,” said her attorney, David Drivon.

On November 10, the DA’s office returned with its offer: 90 days in jail and three years on probation. The prosecutor wasn’t dropping its case.

“They’re really screwing her,” said Kristen DiAngelo, founder of the Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, which has worked with Monroe since 2015. DiAngelo was in the courthouse conference room with Monroe when Drivon came back with the offer.

“That’s after they heard the tapes and know all she’s been through,” DiAngelo added. “Now they’re upping the stakes. It’s insane.”

A spokesman for the San Joaquin District Attorney’s Office didn’t respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment.

Affirmative defenses already exist for other categories of crime, but backers of AB 1761 felt it was necessary to single out human trafficking because of its insidious nature, wherein victims are frequently arrested and the perpetrators can have spotless records.

The Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office originally opposed AB 1761 over language that would have prevented law enforcement from using the victims’ sealed records to go after traffickers, explained Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Paul Durenberger. In an email, Durenberger said his office dropped its opposition after the bill was amended “to allow law enforcement the ability to access records previously sealed by the court for purposes of investigating future human trafficking perpetrators.”

Asked about opposition to her bill from the state sheriffs’ and district attorneys’ associations, Assemblywoman Weber said some of it stemmed from their fears that traffickers could somehow take advantage of the law. But she said that all the law does is give human trafficking victims an opportunity.

“It’s not as easy as people think it is,” she said.

The burden of proof is on the defendants claiming to be trafficking victims, the San Diego Democrat added. That means going before a jury of their peers and describing “the heinous things this person made you do,” Weber said.

Monroe’s story didn’t start in a seedy motel room, but in a small, Central Valley town where good things are supposed to happen to good people.

Molested as a child by a family member, Monroe left home at the age of 15 when she became pregnant with an older man’s child. That man later went to prison on drug charges, and Monroe, on her own with a baby daughter, reconnected with an old friend from middle school.

“He was my best friend before,” Monroe told SN&R in 2015. “So he knew exactly how to manipulate me and how to work me.”

The friend told Monroe she could make good money “just hanging out with men,” enough to support her and her daughter, CAST’s assessment states. According to the assessment, which was shared with the San Joaquin County DA’s Office, the friend drove her, a male associate and another woman down to San Jose. The two women were let out on a street, where the other woman explained what they were to do.

Monroe “started crying and tried to get back in the car, but Cee told her that she couldn’t get back in the car without making a certain amount of money,” the assessment states.

Soon, Monroe was being trafficked up and down the California coast. She caught six solicitation cases in 2013, all of which are still hanging over her head today.

Back when it all started with the man she thought she knew, there was one choice that was fully hers—she got to select the name she would use with clients.

The one she picked is a nod to Marilyn Monroe, the late screen idol who was herself sexually abused as a child.

When Monroe first broke free of her Bay Area pimp in 2015, she scrambled to Sacramento in a beat-up car with her young daughter, a few bucks in her pocket and the clothes they wore. All the money she made, every piece of identification, had been surrendered to the life she left behind. It took months to string together a semblance of stability. There were setbacks, some harsher than others.

An offer of help from the FBI came with strings, Monroe would later conclude. The agency loaned two victims’ advocates to drive her to various appointments so she could reclaim her birth certificate, Social Security card and the like. They gifted her with vouchers for food and clothing. She wanted their help in clearing the criminal record she established under the yolk of another. They wanted her to help them put the trafficker away. She skipped town when a staffer at the safe house she was staying at told her to cooperate with the FBI, she and DiAngelo say. (Read “Gone girl” by Raheem F. Hosseini, News, December 3, 2015.)

Monroe dropped her daughter off at her mom’s house and vanished. She went back to hustling, this time working for herself but going nowhere. She’d get robbed and speak of it as if it weren’t a big deal. Her street name and cellphone number were shared on websites claiming she was a police informant, and she downplayed the danger. She was far from her little girl and mom. She deserved to be, she said. She was ashamed, she said.

Eventually, Monroe returned to Sacramento to try again. She got a job at a recycling plant. She caught a break when someone read her story in SN&R and donated a used car. She started driving for Uber. She came close to getting an airport job in Oakland, but her record scuttled the security clearance. When the UPS job happened, she was elated.

“I actually, to be honest, love the job,” she said recently. “I don’t know anybody’s problems. They don’t know mine and I’m fine.”

In the drafty warehouse two hours from home, she feeds the empty cargo hulls of trucks bound for Fremont, Santa Clara and Mountain View. She sorts envelopes, shelves Amazon boxes and hefts rolled couches. She sweats. Six days a week, her kingdom consists of a conveyor belt, three trucks and her hands.

“To me, my life is amazing right now,” she said. “To get to go to work, come home to my kids and sleep all day, it’s really great.”

The only thing holding her back is this case, she says. She, Drivon and DiAngelo say the prosecutor is leaning hard on Monroe to identify and testify against her trafficker. Monroe says she won’t risk the reprisals. He knows where she lives and has already shown what he’s capable of. And even though “Jay” isn’t named on her son’s birth certificate, she fears he could lash out by suing for full custody. After all, she’s the one with the criminal record, not him.

Richard, with CAST, says California’s affirmative defense law for human trafficking victims wasn’t created to give law enforcement an additional pressure point to push.

“That system of forcing a victim to testify by holding criminal charges over him or her … in the long run creates the culture for traffickers to keep [victims] in a place of fear, given the coercion that takes place in those cases,” Richard said. “And should we force, or use coercion, in the same way?”

That question could get answered if Monroe’s case goes to trial. Drivon says his client will have to testify. He says the prosecutor will almost certainly ask her to identify the man she’s running from. If she refuses, she could be held in contempt of court.

Monroe says she doesn’t know what she will do.

Asked what it would mean for the prostitution charge to be dropped, the 25-year-old answers quickly.

“That I can breathe,” she said. “I can get a job anywhere. I can go to school and not have my record contradict me.”

Monroe says she’s still hoping to go to law school, to help women and girls who have experienced what she has. She’s not running from her past, she says.

“I don’t want to hide it,” she told SN&R. “I just don’t want to be stuck because of it.”