McHenry County takes on ‘contagion’ of sex trafficking and exploitation: ‘It can consume anyone’

Refuge for Women offers long-term residential care in McHenry County for women fleeing traffickers

Victoria B., on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, in the office of Refuge for Women in Crystal Lake. Refuge for Women helps women who have been sex traffic from all over the United States.

She was raised in a loving home in rural North Carolina with both parents and a large family. But a man who she thought loved her manipulated her down a dark path, where she stayed for 10 years until finding refuge in McHenry County.

At 24, she was happy, going to school and had a good job. When out with friends one night, she met a man. He asked her to a movie and then to church.

After that, he led her on a downward spiral of drugs, homelessness and prostitution to support their addiction – and it resulted in several stints in jail.

“He was good. He said what I wanted to hear. He knew what he needed to say,” said Victoria, a McHenry County resident who spent a decade in an abusive, drug-addicted relationship, being sold for sex by a man who initially pretended to be a faithful churchgoer.

Victoria B., on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, in the office of Refuge for Women in Crystal Lake. Refuge for Women helps women who have been sex traffic from all over the United States.

In 2017, while in jail “detoxing physically and mentally,” she decided she had had enough.

She was buoyed, she said, by the love of her father, who never stopped trying to rescue her.

“Someone saying they loved you and cared for you, no matter what you do, I saw what love was,” she said.

She said she also owes her survival to God, in whom she has deep faith.

After leaving jail for the last time, she entered into a program in North Carolina that helps women get off the streets and out of trafficking and drug addiction.

On March 5, 2018, she landed in Chicago and entered into the Refuge for Women residential program in McHenry County.

A refuge for those seeking help

The faith-based nonprofit provides housing and programs focused on rescuing women from sexual exploitation and human trafficking, said Meredith Hodge, executive director for Refuge for Women Chicago based in Crystal Lake.

The organization has two homes in McHenry County and also operates residences for women in Kentucky, Nevada, Pennsylvania and Texas.

For the safety of its residents, the Northwest Herald is not naming the specific locations of the homes and agreed not to provide Victoria’s last name or hometown to protect her identity as a victim of sex crimes.

[Human trafficking and sex exploitation is] a social disease and a contagion that can affect anybody.”

—  McHenry County State's Attorney Patrick Kenneally

The man Victoria was with in North Carolina often arranged “dates” so that she could make money to buy the drugs to feed their habit. The addiction began with pain pills and eventually led to heroin and fentanyl, she said.

This man, she said, shamed and manipulated her into believing that it was her idea to go on the “dates.”

Threats, shame and manipulation are common tools used by those who traffic and exploit people, Hodge said.

Victoria became homeless and would steal food and other items so she could eat or pay off drug dealers. This often landed her in jail.

All the while, she said, her parents and others noticed something was wrong. They asked questions and tried to help, but she, like many, denied anything was going on.

“I was hiding a secret – a huge secret,” she said.

Now 40, she is happily married and pregnant with twins. She works to help other women in a program in Elgin leave the life she endured for years.

What happened to Victoria “happens everywhere,” she and others who work to rescue people from exploitation and human trafficking said repeatedly.

“It can consume anyone,” she said. “You fall into a trap before you even know it. I knew in my mind, ‘This is not OK.’”

She said her drug addiction became “all consuming, and the only thing you are thinking about is your next fix.”

“I didn’t recognize the person I was,” she said.

‘Happens in plain sight’

Victoria said she’s sharing her story in hopes of helping other women. She recently participated in a panel discussion on human trafficking and sexual exploitation sponsored by One Hope Community Church in Huntley held in the Cosman Theater at the local park district building. Among the panelists was McHenry County Sheriff Robb Tadelman.

Hodge, whose rescue group also was a host of the event, was among the speakers.

Hodge said those who seek help from Refuge for Women find their way there through various paths, such as street and strip club outreach, rehabilitation and detox programs, domestic abuse shelters and law enforcement.

Meredith Hodge, the executive director of Refuge for Women, talks with Victoria B., on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024, at the groups office in Crystal Lake. Refuge for Women, who has been in McHenry County since 2016, helps women who have been sex traffic from all over the United States.

Women who are exploited and trafficked range from teenagers to grandmothers and come from all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds, she said.

“It is prevalent, and it happens in plain sight,” Hodge said. “It really doesn’t discriminate.”

The organization, the only one of its kind in McHenry County offering long-term residential healing programs, has helped 48 women since 2016.

Sixteen have successfully completed the program, which is key to them not returning to that life, Hodge said.

Through Refuge for Women, Hodge, who also is a member of the McHenry County Human Trafficking Task Force, has helped women who have been manipulated or threatened or who have struggled with substance abuse disorder or mental health issues.

Some of those she has helped have come from solid, supportive families, including those led by pastors. Some have college degrees, and some have served in the military. Some are well traveled, Hodge said.

“All of their experiences are so different, but the end result is the same,” she said. “There is such a similar thread no matter where they come from or what they look like.”

Exploitation can take many forms

McHenry County State’s Attorney Patrick Kenneally also was on the panel. He described human trafficking and exploitation as “a social disease and a contagion that can affect anybody.”

He said those he has seen trapped in exploitation and trafficking include wives and high school girls from well-to-do families, as well as marginalized people, immigrants and those who don’t know English.

Some cases have involved women or girls brought in from outside the county following arrangements made online for them to have sex for money. Websites have sprung up created for the sole purpose of sex trafficking people in and out of the county. There are known massage parlors where trafficking and exploitation occur, Kenneally said.

He also said pornography, which often leads to sex addiction, carries blame for the increase in trafficking and exploitation.

Because so many charges involving sex crimes that are filed in the McHenry County courthouse fall under the human trafficking umbrella, Kenneally said, it is hard to say exactly how many such cases are currently pending in the courthouse.

“I can say it is an ongoing problem in the county that has to be addressed on multiple fronts,” Kenneally said.

Those involved in rescuing people from these crimes said it takes not only family members but also the entire community to be on the lookout.

Warning signs

Dawn Moeller, clinical manager of emergency services at Advocate Good Shepherd Hospital in Barrington, said hospital employees are trained to make observations starting at the intake process.

They pay attention to who is starting the conversation. Does another person answer questions for the person in question? Does the person have proper identification with an address? Does it appear the person is being dominated over by another?

Hospital employees also look for other red flags: Do they look fearful? Are they submissive? Do they appear bruised, neglected, unclean? Are they coming into the hospital frequently for injuries, sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancies?

Tattoos also can be potential indicators that a person is being sold for sex: Bar codes, dollar signs, crowns, chains and something reading “property of ...” all can be images of concern.

Misty Marinier, executive director for the Child Advocacy Center of McHenry County, said she has seen cases where parents have sold their own children into sex trafficking. Other times, as in Victoria’s case, it’s someone’s own husband or boyfriend, and it often starts with them saying something like, “I love you, and no one will love you like I do.”

Marinier encouraged people to be aware if a young girl who does not have a job suddenly has a cellphone or two cellphones, has cash on them and is coming home with gifts they can’t explain.

Traffickers seek out people who are vulnerable, struggling with mental health and substance abuse or appear to be lonely. Victims sometimes are targeted at school and on the internet through social media. Marinier cautioned parents to monitor their children’s social media accounts.

“There is no ideal trafficker,” Marinier said.

Joan Flores, program director at Refuge for Women, said sex traffickers, who can be men and women, can be “very charming,” but they have no remorse, empathy or shame. They are selfish and “very good liars.”

“It can start with the love-bombing,” Flores said. “But it is all a front. They are patient until they reel her in.”

Those who need help can contact Refuge for Women at 224-357-0078 or or call the National Human Trafficking hotline at 800-373-7888.