A Kokomo woman knows about commercial sexual exploitation all too well, and now she’s hoping to give young girls going through similar experiences a way out.
Danyell Jackson is co-directing a new nonprofit, The Phoenix Transition Housing Inc., that will serve as a transitional home for victims of child sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation for girls ages 10 to 18. The issues, she said, are far more common than people are aware and are happening right here in Kokomo.
“It’s a pretty common underground problem right now, especially with COVID. That’s one of the things I’ve realized is COVID is increasing this quickly because people don’t have, with quarantine and things being shut down, they don’t have access to things that they did,” Jackson said. “So if people have issues, like drug issues, and they can’t get the things that they want, then they trade their children for it. It’s kind of a common issue.”
Jackson’s own experiences with commercial sexual exploitation began in Kokomo when she was 9 years old. A family friend started grooming her and abusing her, and when she was 12, he traded her to his friend for profit.
She called herself lucky, though. At age 13, she realized she had parents who cared, and she could make enough noise to get it stopped. And she did.
“I was a lot luckier than most girls. I kind of got out of things, but most girls are not that lucky. They need help, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Jackson said.
Though Jackson called herself lucky, it took a toll on her mental and emotional health. Her abusers never faced any punishment, and until she went through therapy, she blamed herself for what happened to her.
“I have some amazing family and some amazing friends, and I went through some therapy and kind of came to the decision that the best way for me to accept that I didn’t do anything when I could have is that I’ll just help everybody else I can,” she said. “ … I realized there’s no one to blame except the person who abused me, and that’s one of the things I want these girls to understand. They are not to blame. This is not their fault.”
The Phoenix Transition Housing Inc. is in its infancy, and the first board meeting for it will be held on March 4. Afterward, Jackson plans to fund raise to purchase a house that will serve between five and 10 girls at a time, and it will have 24/7 staffing. There will be a therapist, nursing staff, and direct support professionals in the house as well.
The nonprofit will work with police departments, the Department of Child Services, schools, and other agencies to take referrals. Jackson said, as far as she can find, there are no other programs like this around.
She hopes the nonprofit also will bring awareness to these issues that are often misunderstood.
“Most people think of it as something that’s a cartel-type problem. It’s not. It’s more of a familiar type of situation than most people realize, and it’s also a big problem with the foster care system. A lot of the kids will come out of the foster care system and run away and do things where they get stuck in this,” she said.
“The biggest misconception I have found is people think this is an undocumented immigrant problem, and it’s not. The majority of this is American citizens, and the other biggest misconception is people think because they hear trafficking that they have to be moved out of the country or to another state. They don’t. If you move from one county to another, you’ve been trafficked.”
The nonprofit also will encompass girls who have been commercially sexually exploited, which includes girls who have been included in child pornography or sold for profit.
Jackson encouraged anyone who suspects illicit activity to make a report, even if they’re not certain. Signs of sexual abuse or trafficking include girls feeling withdrawn, and since there’s usually a benefactor, Jackson said to watch for girls showing up with gifts they normally wouldn’t have, like a new necklace.
She also encouraged parents to pay attention to who their children talk to online.
“Nowadays there’s a lot of online grooming going on, so just pay attention to who your kids are talking to online. It’s a huge issue. That’s a big one. If you see your kid online a lot more than they used to be and they’re a lot more secretive than they used to be, start paying attention because a lot of time groomers will reach out with children their age,” she said.
The first board meeting for The Phoenix Transition Housing Inc. takes place Thursday, March 4, at Inventrek Technology Park, located at 700 E. Firmin St. The meeting is open to the public. Those wishing to support the nonprofit can make donations online at https://ca.gofundme.com/f/z742v-the-phoenix.