At 15, Theresa Flores developed an innocent crush on an older boy. He had jet black hair and a beautiful smile. Whereas the other boys she knew wore blue jeans and T-shirts, he wore pressed slacks, Ralph Lauren shirts, and gold jewelry.
They attended the same high school and church.
At the time, Flores lived with her white-collar parents in an affluent Detroit suburb called Birmingham. One day, that boy offered to give her a ride home from school in his Trans Am. Flattered, she agreed.
“It wasn’t like he was a stranger,” she said.
The teen turned the wrong way out of the parking lot, suggesting they go to his own home “for a second.” Raised in a strict Catholic household, Flores responded the way all parents hope their child would in an uncertain situation. “Take me home,” she said. “My mom is waiting.”
But the boy disarmed Flores with three simple words, “I like you.”
At his home, Flores was offered a can of soda that turned out to be spiked with drugs. Falling unconscious, she was raped by the older boy while his cousins photographed it.
“What followed was blackmail through pictures,” Flores said.
They threatened to post the photos at her school, send them to her father’s work, and even show them to her family’s priest. Riddled with shame and the fear of disappointing her parents, Flores stayed quiet. She was taken out and sold to men at night with the promise that, by doing so, she could earn back the pictures.
“But there were always more pictures being taken. I feared it was never going to end.”
To keep her in their grip, her traffickers told her they would kill her family.
Changing laws on behalf of victims
Flores, now 55, has committed her adult life to fighting human traffickers and advocating for survivors. Human trafficking is using physical force or coercion to exploit victims sexually or through labor.
The Ball State alumna and licensed social worker now lives in Columbus, Ohio. She is the author of The Slave Across the Street. Published in 2010, the memoir was a Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestseller.
But the book is just one element of Flores’ high-profile personal battle.
In 2009, the Ohio attorney general appointed Flores to the state’s Human Trafficking Commission. Her testimony to its Senate convinced lawmakers to create Ohio’s first law against human trafficking; it was made a felony. Neighboring Michigan got tougher. The Theresa Flores Law eliminated the statute of limitations on some trafficking cases and lengthened it for bringing charges.
One year later, she founded the Columbus-based SOAP Project (Save Our Adolescents from Prostitution).
In 2017, L’Oreál Paris, the cosmetic manufacturer, recognized Flores with a Women of Worth award. The honor celebrates women who “selflessly volunteer their time to serve their communities.”
Her story has even been featured in an exhibit called Invisible: Slavery Today at Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
In sharing details of her experience, Flores has helped shed light on a crime that some assume happens only in other countries, or in rough neighborhoods.
Human trafficking is the second-largest criminal enterprise in the world today, according to the United Nations. Some child victims are runaways or kidnapping victims. But many, like Flores, live at home with unsuspecting parents.
Texas believes 79,000 kids in its state are being trafficked at any given time. If you extrapolate that, it’s potentially a huge number nationally.
Forced to stay quiet
Flores was a good Catholic kid who came from a functional family.
She was a virgin. She didn’t do drugs. She attended Mass and ran track.
Her dad made good money as an engineer with General Electric. Her parents loved their children but were also strict. They did not allow Flores to shave her legs or date until she was 16.
“I didn’t look like the typical person this sort of thing happened to. I didn’t fit the mold, if there was one,” she wrote in her memoir.
Like a military family, though, the Flores family bounced around the country. Every two years, GE transferred her father to a new post. With each move, Flores struggled to fit in, despite being smart and pretty with beautiful, strawberry-blond hair.
Having recently moved to Birmingham, she was socially disconnected and—above all—vulnerable.
The blackmail worked like this: Her abuser would call a separate phone line that rang into Flores’ room only. Dressed in her pajamas, she would sneak out of the house, sometimes in bare feet, to meet the boy and his cousins in the Trans Am parked nearby. From there, they would drive her to meet men at motels and private homes.
To the men who bought Flores, she was less than human, she wrote. They celebrated in her degradation and pain.
Flores endured it all in silence, partly out of fear, but also out of humiliation. She became withdrawn and anxious. She developed migraines and stomach problems. Her grades dropped. Even on nights when she was at home and in bed, she didn’t sleep well.
Her parents noticed the changes and sent Flores to counseling. But she still stayed quiet.
The trafficking lasted two years. Then, GE transferred her dad again, this time to Connecticut.
She had escaped. But the pain was far from over.
Miraculously, Flores resumed a normal teenage life, or, at least, the appearance of one.
She applied to Ball State. She was familiar with Indiana, having lived with her family in Fort Wayne, South Bend, and Evansville. And she knew the school’s social work program had a solid reputation.
Professor of Social Work Ronald Dolon, EdD ’77, taught Flores at Ball State. He remembers her as bright, conscientious, and quiet.
Today, her pioneering social justice efforts are inspiring a new generation of Cardinals.
“Theresa is a role model for our students and all social workers,” Dolon said. “Theresa inspired my social work immersive learning class to choose human trafficking as the course topic, and the students developed training materials to raise public awareness.”
Flores graduated from Ball State in 1987 as a social work major, background that she says “really helped me to do what I do. I don’t think I could run a nonprofit without my education.”
Her Ball State experience was valuable for a different reason — it was therapeutic.
A solid group of friends and classmates helped her heal and feel accepted, even though they had no idea the horrors she had endured. She became a resident assistant. She attended football games.
In her senior year, Flores finally opened up about her past. Through tears, she told her story to her boyfriend, a fellow student. She wasn’t even sure what to call the crime committed against her. The word “trafficking” didn’t exist back then.
He encouraged her to go to the police in Michigan.
She did. But the police told her the statute of limitations had passed and there was nothing they could do.
She focused on beginning her career as a social worker in Toledo, Ohio, helping pregnant teens. She got married and had children.
After graduation from Ball State, she decided to tell her parents what happened to her as a teen.
They were stunned.
With no way to get justice, she did her best to forget the past. But that changed in 2007, when Flores signed up for a law enforcement conference on human trafficking. Worried a client of hers might have been a victim, she attended to learn more about the signs of trafficking.
“I realized that was me, too.”
Not giving up
Flores has a law named after her and was featured in an exhibit at Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. Photo courtesy of Recoil Offgrid Magazine.
Flores began work on her bestselling book while pursuing a master’s degree in counseling education from the University of Dayton.
She graduated in 2007 and began pouring her soul into advocacy and awareness.
Flores has been a keynote speaker and a panelist almost too many times to count.
She has spoken to Kiwanis chapters, to a small room of retired Catholic nuns in Ohio, and to auditoriums full of college students. She has been a keynote speaker at numerous forums, has been interviewed by Natalie Morales of NBC News, and more.
It’s difficult for any survivor of any trauma to talk about it,” she said. “Fortunately, I’ve done this for a long time. This has become my mission. I have a great counselor and have learned techniques on how to handle it.
In addition to the Michigan and Ohio laws, Flores’ experience and expertise played a critical role in passage of the federal Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in 2018. The act allows the government to hold websites accountable for facilitating online sex trafficking.
U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, credits Flores for inspiring him.
“Theresa Flores has done something incredible,” he said in remarks on the Senate floor. “She has channeled her frustration and all of the trauma she went through into something very constructive.”
Despite the accomplishments and accolades, Flores said she still lives with fear.
Two of her three abusers are dead. One is still alive and in Michigan. Police know who he is and what he did, she said. They keep an eye on him.
Despite all the progress in recent years, Flores said she gets disheartened when powerful men in high-profile prostitution and trafficking cases escape justice.
Regardless, Flores isn’t anywhere near giving up the fight.
“We have to battle this on all fronts,” she said. “We have to hit the johns. We have to hit the traffickers. We have to do prevention and education. There needs to be a national campaign similar to what happened to domestic violence 20 years ago. It worked. It wasn’t overnight, but it worked.”
About Human Trafficking
Instead of violence, most human traffickers defraud, manipulate, or threaten victims into commercial sex (pay or goods for sex) or exploitative labor (working while being coerced, deceived, etc.).
There’s more labor trafficking than sex trafficking globally, experts believe.
Males make up to half of sex trafficking victims, one study estimates.
People can be trafficked in their hometowns.
Any minor in commercial sex is a human trafficking victim. Adults are victims when coerced or forced.
Victims won’t necessarily seek help in public; they may fear traffickers’ retribution.
Traffickers can include romantic partners and family.
From National Human Trafficking Hotline, Department of Homeland Security.