DAYTON, Ohio (WDTN) – Jennifer Vanderpool went over the details of her new tattoo with artist Wave Judd at Raditattoo Me Tattoo and Tattoo Repair Parlor here recently. The design incorporated several crows and a quote from the movie Forrest Gump, when the character Jenny Curran prays for an escape from her abusive father.
Jennifer, a survivor of abuse and human trafficking, found the symbols fitting for her experience; they were designed to cover a tattoo forcibly given to her by a pimp at age eleven.
At age nine, the Dayton native said a family friend started sexually abusing her and threatened Jennifer with her younger sisters if she told anyone.
“That was the beginning of the end for me,” she said.
Her aunt overhead a threatening phone conversation with Jennifer’s abuser and confided she went through a similar experience when she was a child.
“She was going to do for me what someone did for her to help ease the pain,” Jennifer explained. “She told me to close my eyes, give her my hand and trust her. I did and she shot me up with heroin.”
Regarded by the nine-year-old as a secret between aunt and niece, the two used the drug together, calling it ‘medicine.’ A short time after her first high, the aunt asked Jennifer to help her repay a drug dealer.
“She put makeup on me, gave me ‘medicine’ and took me to her drug dealer an dropped me off,” Jennifer said. “(She) told me to close my eyes and if it hurt to just relax because it would be over soon.”
Jennifer recalled several more instances when her aunt used her as payment for drug debts.
She said one summer when the rest of her family thought she was on a vacation with her aunt, the two were attending a party when a dealer kidnaped her.
Jennifer remembered being taken to a farmhouse in Darke County with other young girls for an entire summer. She said their captors injected them with heroin in high doses, then took it away and used the agonizing withdrawal to coerce them into sexual acts with strangers in hotel rooms along the I-75 corridor.
By the time her aunt repaid the drug money, Jennifer felt brainwashed. She said the experience catapulted her into a cycle of addiction and trafficking for more than a decade.
“After I lost everything and everyone, I just gave in,” she recalled.
Jennifer spent her adolescent years bouncing around Miami Valley hotels, abused by her traffickers and forced to lie to loved ones.
Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer said addiction like Jennifer’s is a driving force behind many victims trafficked into what he calls modern slavery.
“The opioids take over your brain,” Sheriff Plummer said. “You’re not the same person once you get hooked on opioids. So you just work for your next high.”
Law enforcement says human trafficking is growing along with a booming opioid epidemic. Sheriff Plummer expressed his frustration the drug crisis is also draining resources that could be used to help victims and bust traffickers.
“One problem with the opioid epidemic, we don’t have enough resources so we’re understaffed. We can only do so much,” the Sheriff said.
The Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office staffs one detective dedicated to human trafficking cases, while most of the staff addresses drug-related issues.
In 2017, the Ohio Attorney General’s Human Trafficking Commission investigated 202 human trafficking cases, a figure almost 50 percent higher than 2016. The attorney general’s annual report explained the higher number could be attributed to more awareness following a statewide campaign.
The number of arrests and convictions in 2017 both decreased from previous years.
Sheriff Plummer explained arrests and convictions often rely on victims’ cooperation and many are too afraid, ashamed or addicted to come forward.
Most of Jennifer’s pimps never served time for human trafficking offenses. The aunt who originally sold her at age nine eventually died of a drug overdose.
In her late twenties, a judge sentenced Jennifer to four years in prison for drug charges. She said the incarceration was a blessing in disguise.
“Prison saved my life. It gave me the chance to get the time I really needed to have a clear head and figure out who I was,” she said.
Jennifer, 34, is now recovered and working to build healthy relationships.
Her tattoo cover-up was part of the revival. Wave Judd volunteered his time for the project after the two connected through Survivor’s Ink, a non-profit dedicated to helping trafficking survivors cover old tattoos.
Jennifer said by sharing her story with 2 NEWS, she hoped to generate awareness.
“The more people that are aware of human trafficking and knows signs to look for, the more they could save somebody,” she said.
According to a report by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office, in 2017, there were 208 potential human trafficking victims identified. You can read the full report at the bottom of this article.
Safe Harbor House in Springfield: https://www.safeharborhouse.org/
Oasis House in Dayton: http://oasisforwomen.org/