Deborah Monroe was only 13 years old when she was taken.
After years of toxic relations with her family, she ran away from the little home she had.
Eventually, she found her way to the Jackson County Fair. That was where she met a man, a very affable and kind man.
“I was hungry, I was tired, he gave me something to eat, he gave me a beer; that was the first time I ever drank alcohol,” Monroe said. “The next thing I know I was on my way to Detroit. I didn’t know what his intentions were, because he hadn’t been anything but nice to me.”
This is one of the stories told in the documentary, “Break the Chain,” which was shown Oct. 20 at MCCC.
After the film, producer Laura Swanson answered questions alongside Michigan State Police community trooper Trissa Duffin.
The documentary follows the lives of Deborah, a survivor of sex trafficking, and Kwami, a survivor of labor trafficking.
The documentary also investigates the problem of human trafficking in Michigan.
“He took me to a place called Crestwood Motel; it was a place where they were prostituting and that’s where I turned my first tricks,” Monroe said.
“That night, I was told by the older girl that what I needed to do was stand in line, I had to give him every dime that I made.”
This story is sadly all too common, vulnerable people being taken advantage of for the profit of others.
Though the issue of sex trafficking is often ignored, its sibling labor trafficking is outright neglected.
Half of the film followed the story of Kwami, a boy from Africa who was taken to America.
He was exploited and abused by his caretaker, and used as a source of cheap labor alongside other children.
These children had no idea that the life they were living was not the American life, and that the abuse and hatred they received was not normal.
“He had never been to America, and he had no idea how he was supposed to be treated in America,” Swanson said.
Kwami had his name and identity changed to get into the country illegally; the man who exploited him lied upon applying for asylum and claimed Kwami as his son.
Kwami had to pretend to be four years younger than he was, and he was not allowed to speak with others. Kwami could only agree with what his trafficker said.
The reason people would dehumanize and exploit another person like this is quite simple, the profit gained from it is massive, Swanson said.
There’s little barrier to entry, the victims can do the job over and over, and the demand is always high, she said.
The law even protects the ones buying sex, pointing the finger at the prostitutes as the criminal and the customers as victims.
Monroe, who attended the MCCC screening of the film, spoke from her experience.
“The females were looked at as the criminals because usually they didn’t have family or support, and was out there, to them, committing the crime, even though they were forced into it,” Monroe said.
Generally, the men were seen as middle class men with families, jobs, and as members of the community, so they weren’t prosecuted and got away with buying sex, she said.
The issue of blame for sex trafficking might seem obvious, but when people begin to discuss who is to blame for labor trafficking, things quickly become muddy.
The more people point their finger, the more they realize, eventually the finger points back at them, Swanson said.
People buy goods made by companies who utilize labor trafficking, and by voting with their wallets they are in fact promoting this sort of behavior, she said.
In efforts to cut costs as low as possible, companies will hire independent contractors to round up a group of people desperate for work and pay them a barely livable salary while trapping them in debt, the film said.
The film couldn’t even list the companies it found responsible, for fear of legal action against them.
“I was told you can’t say that, you’re gonna get sued, you can’t do that, you’re gonna get sued, almost daily,” Swanson said.
People are ignorant of this problem and who’s at fault, and it’s in part due to media misleading people, said the film.
Trafficking is not the overblown dramatic performance media often make it out to be.
People are trapped in the industry, not by chains and being locked in a basement, but by their own inability to leave, Swanson said.
The common preconception seems to be that people are locked up, unable to leave by force of some means. Swanson said that she even had this thought when starting the documentary.
“How are they transporting them here? What boxes are they using?” She joked.
In reality, most people willingly follow their trafficker.
The victims of trafficking are manipulated into staying, preying on insecurities and addictions the people may have.
“It’s really, really hard not to go back to something you know,” Swanson said.
Duffin related the experience to those facing domestic abuse, and how they feel trapped into staying.
“They will leave their trafficker seven times before getting out,” she said.
This was Swanson’s purpose for making this film, she said. She wanted to dispel the preconceptions of what human trafficking is, so the truth can be brought into the light.
“That’s why I decided to quit doing work as a psychologist and get into film, so that I can educate people, and move them through art,” Swanson said.
One of the biggest problems people face with this topic is when they think something is wrong but don’t know what to do, Swanson said.
“They don’t even understand what is happening is human trafficking,” she said.
People don’t know about the resources available to them to help them out of that situation, and people outside of the situation don’t realize what is happening.
When asked what people could do to help, Swanson said that many victims feel as though they are ignored or that their calls for help are taken as jokes.
“One of the biggest things you could do is ask if they’re okay,” Swanson said. “And really believe them.”