By Lindiwe Vilakazi
In the District of Columbia, untold numbers of children fall victim to a type of abuse where an adult, oftentimes a parent or another familiar person, coerces them into sexual acts.
Mylan Barnes said she knows all too well what happens when children are left alone with predators who’ve ensnared them in sex trafficking and a life of crime.
Barnes, a Southeast D.C. resident and contract program specialist at The Restoring Ivy Collective, grew up with a mother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and a father who battled manic bipolar and substance abuse. At an early age, manipulation, and abuse became a way of life for Barnes. Her family and surrounding environment constantly compelled her to engage in criminal activity to survive.
Barnes’ rough lifestyle eventually came to a head when, at the age of 16, she and her mother stood before a judge as defendants in a criminal case that involved the severe injury of a community member.
The series of events leading up to those injuries consequently left Barnes at the mercy of the court. She was charged with attempted murder under Title 16, a federal law that allows the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the District of Columbia to charge 16 and 17-year-olds as adults for certain offenses.
Barnes’ charge carried a minimum of 30 years. Ultimately, she was committed to the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services for three years. Her mother was sentenced to five years in federal prison.
Barnes said she was too young at the time to understand how adults left her little space for a successful life.
“Growing up in the hood, there wasn’t any upliftment. The peer pressure of talking to older men, and the culture that was within it all fueled and projected that trauma that I had already experienced as a kid,” Barnes explained.
“A lot of survivors don’t speak about how [many of us] were touched in [our] household. There’s trauma that takes place before these at-risk behaviors start to explode. It develops from small things.”
Children are Unknowingly Caught in Web of Deceit
Barnes’ story mirrors that of children who find themselves in vulnerable, compromising spaces. In a February report, the Administration for Children & Families said that, in a racially and ethnically homogenous environment, Black children have the second highest rate of victimization.
The statistics highlight an alarming pattern of child neglect and abuse within Black communities. Minor children often do not understand the intricacies of child abuse and trafficking. This makes them easy targets for adults who manipulate them into compromising themselves.
Barnes recalled becoming aware of the severity of her childhood while at dinner with a colleague who disclosed her experience as a survivor of minor sex trafficking.
“I just broke down crying because I didn’t even know that it was sex trafficking,” Barnes said. “I used to think, ‘OK, I’m not being traded, it’s not that drastic, so I’m not going through that. At 16, 17, I thought, ‘Oh, this older dude just thinks I’m smart or wants to help me.’”
A Psychotherapist Creates a Sanctuary for Survivors
Despite the District’s reputation as a political and financial hub, Insider Monkey ranks it among the top three sex trafficking cities in the U.S. Brand new numbers show more than 148,000 online ads for sex within a 50-mile radius of Reston, Virginia.
District officials have attempted to counter human trafficking through a multipronged approach. The D.C. Human Trafficking Task Force, formed in 2004, has set out to increase prosecution of traffickers, and provide services to trafficking victims.
The D.C. Office of Attorney General has launched programs to teach youth about human trafficking, and raise awareness about the various methods that traffickers use to engage innocent victims.
In response to rising sex trafficking rates, the FBI released a statement stating, “We determine if the alleged commercial sex acts are being induced by force, fraud or coercion – or if the person induced to perform the acts is under the age of 18. If either case is found to be true, the FBI will initiate a human trafficking investigation.”
Local psychotherapist Dr. Beth Bowman told The Informer that child sex trafficking extends beyond the act of kidnapping. She described it as also including the organized manipulation of children to engage in illegal and derogatory actions.
“When we talk about domestic trafficking, we’re talking about kids who still go to school and who still go home,” said Bowman, founder and CEO of the Restoring Ivy Collective.
The Restoring Ivy Collective aims to build resilience within at-risk youth and adults and help them address vulnerabilities that traffickers can exploit. To fulfill that goal, Bowman, a child sex trafficking survivor once known as Ivy, leans on her specialty in trauma-informed yoga and adolescent/young adult anxiety.
“A lot of the time runaway teenagers are a high-risk population,” Bowman said. “LGBT youth that are getting kicked out of their homes end up having to engage in sex with adults to survive on the streets. That is [also] sex trafficking, it falls under the commercial sexual exploitation of children.”
Bowman said exploited teenagers face roadblocks in their attempts to escape bondage. For one, many are fearful of being criminalized for their connection to their abuser. Bowman also mentioned how law enforcement agencies often use sexually charged language to stigmatize minors for their forced participation in the sex trade.
Bowman, a white woman without a criminal record, added that this issue becomes particularly prevalent for Black women and women of color caught up in this system.
“The police treated me differently and sort of handled me with care in a way that my surviving sisters who are Black were not treated in that same way,” Bowman told The Informer. “They were arrested and put in institutions, and many of them caught felony charges or other types of charges,” Bowman said.
This is a reality all too familiar to Barnes, who joined the staff at The Restoring Ivy Collective in Washington, D.C.
Throughout her time at The Restoring Ivy Collective, Barnes, the only D.C. native on staff, has relied on her homegrown knowledge to help the girls and women she encounters start anew. She travels miles across the District to provide the very education and upliftment that she sought in her youth.
Along the way, she has learned to turn her troubled past into a blessing for others who have lost their way in the terror of child abuse. Barnes prides herself in being able to identify key vulnerabilities that many at-risk youth experience, which strengthens her ability to advocate for their needs.
“When you look at the violence interruption space, you don’t see too many organizations doing violence interruption work, primarily focused on domestic violence and sex trafficking,” Barnes said. “That’s why I feel that what I’m doing is so cool because I am a violence interrupter for us. I’m the person that we needed because we are making sure our voices are heard because that’s something that we don’t get.”
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