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Sweet 16 party honors women recovering from human trafficking

By Rita Price • Feb 15, 2016 at 9:00 AM

As Michelle Soncrant shopped for a new outfit, she veered between amused and perplexed. What to wear to a decades-late sweet-16 party thrown for human-trafficking victims on Valentine's Day weekend?

"Purple," she decided. "That was my favorite color when I was 16."

Soncrant, 47, knows she cannot re-create a youth lost to teen pregnancy, drug addiction, prostitution and abuse. But she and the other women who gathered in a hotel conference room on Friday night could still sit amid the pink roses and celebrate their recovery.

"I just thought we could love on them a little," said organizer Marlene Carson, founder of Rahab's Hideaway, a shelter and housing program for victims of human trafficking.

"They never experienced a sweet 16, didn't get to go to Valentine dances," she said. "But they do want their lives back."

Carson, herself forced into prostitution at 15, has long pushed for greater awareness about the sex trade. She fears the nation's growing problem with opioid-medication and heroin abuse threatens progress on that front, putting more young people at risk of trading sex for the drugs they crave.

"The opiate epidemic is a gateway," said Carson, 53.

According to a recent report, the Central Ohio Human Trafficking Task Force processed 152 trafficking tips last year and rescued 54 victims.

Soncrant said girls and women trapped in prostitution often face a "dual" fear: the threat of violence or death if they try to escape, and the potential for agonizing withdrawal symptoms if they stop using drugs.

"You get raped, you get beaten, you're treated like garbage," the North Side resident said. "You begin to believe you're not worth anything."

The man who acted as her pimp held her down while his name was tattooed onto her neck. At her lowest point, Soncrant said, she was living in a drain tunnel in Las Vegas, emerging to make money the only way she knew.

Then one day, an older man pulled up as she was working a street and told her he had a shop nearby where she could shower and eat. "And then he looked at me and said, 'Don't you have a family who loves you?' ''

Soncrant still thinks of him as her angel. He wound up helping her escape to the bus station so she could return to Ohio. After years of drug treatment and relapse, Soncrant finally held onto her sobriety and has been "clean since Jan. 20, 2010," she said.

She graduated from college, works as an addiction counselor and has reunited with a son and daughter.

"I have grandchildren," Soncrant said, smiling.

She plans to begin pursuing a master's degree soon. The name on her neck has been covered and transformed to a lily in bloom.

Not all of the 40 or so women expected to attend the "Sweet 16" conference are human-trafficking victims, but all are at some point on a recovery journey, said Carson, who hopes to hold more events this year.

She said Columbus-based Spirit Aeronautics sponsored the inaugural gathering, which started on Friday in New Albany with dinner, speeches, testimonies of faith and a comedy performance, and was to end today with a shopping trip.

Soncrant was glad, too, that she booked herself a quiet room to relax. She has catching up to do. "I'm just being nice to me," she said.


©2016 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)

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