Today we are talking to Heidi and Ian Provo.
They are parents of a daughter who was rescued from the gruesome grip of human trafficking. What is shocking about their story, they are what we would consider a normal suburban family- doing the best they can as parents and not once ever suspecting their family would fall victim to the tragedy of human trafficking.
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Interviewees: Heidi and Ian Pravo (Rahab’s Daughters)
Interviewer: Natalie Ruiters
List of Acronyms: NR = Natalie Ruiters, HP = Heidi Pravo, IP = Ian Pravo
Intro: Hi friends and colleagues. Welcome to our Free to Fly podcast. Free to Fly is a faith-based organisation that is fighting human trafficking. We are very excited to present to you one of our episodes, brought by our host Natalie Ruiters, where we will speak about topics around human trafficking.
Today we welcome Heidi and Ian Provo. They are parents of a daughter who was rescued from the gruesome grip of human trafficking. What is shocking about their story, they are what we would consider a normal suburban family- doing the best they can as parents and not once ever suspecting their family would fall victim to the tragedy of human trafficking.
The listener’s discretion is advised.
NR: Hi, I’m Natalie Ruiters, I am representing Free To Fly South Africa. For those of you who do not know us. We are an organization that runs a safe house for trafficked survivors, under the age of 18. Above that we are very big on Awareness and Prevention, hence our series on awareness. Today we’re chatting to Heidi and Ian Pravo from Illinois, USA, their daughter was sex trafficked. They’re both educated professionals, and I just love to introduce them. Ian is an adjunct professor and a licensed clinical social worker certified as level two complex trauma specialist. Heidi is an educator and advocate for survivors of human trafficking and domestic violence. She is also the National Head of Moms against trafficking for Rahab’s daughters. As parents, they both knew the red flags to be looking out for. And yet, just like that their precious daughter was trafficked.
So, welcome. Thank you for having this conversation with us and sharing your story. Ian and Heidi, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and why the fight of anti-human trafficking is close and dear to your heart.
HP: Absolutely. It’s near and dear to my heart because our daughter, whom we love dearly, was actually trafficked. She was trafficked for about nine months, and we worked diligently to get her out. Also, I’m an educator, and now an advocate for Rahab’s daughters, which is an anti-trafficking organization, and I work with survivors directly.
IP: And my reasons are the same as my wife’s, for the most part, because of what happened with our daughter. I later became involved with the organization Heidi became involved sooner than I did. But I now volunteer with that organization also, and I do clinical assessment on people who are just coming off the streets and getting pulled out of human trafficking. And I do that voluntarily, as a licensed therapist and mental health professional, so I help out with that and other things.
NR: Wow, that’s really inspiring. You know it’s really inspiring that out of such sadness and brokenness and a nightmare for the family as a whole; both of you have risen above it all and decided to really fight against human trafficking. We appreciate you. I think like for many of us, the notion that it won’t happen to my family is so real. Would you agree with that, and do you think you had that notion before your daughter was trafficked?
I knew that it went on in my hometown and I knew that it happened here in the United States even. But, you know you just never think that it’s going to happen to you and your child or your family member. And so, I did become aware that it was happening within our community, and as an educator, I wanted to help my students and I saw some of them being lured into trafficking so, I did know that it was going on but, I really didn’t think that it would ever happen to us.
IP: Yeah, the same thing for me, I never would have anticipated or predicted that – that would have happened to my daughter, you know it happens. I’ve worked with victims of sexual abuse throughout my career. And you don’t ever expect that your child is going to become part of that terrible life.
NR: I can’t even imagine, ja. Heidi, when we chatted a while ago, I know you had attended a few workshops on human trafficking, and you felt equipped to notice the signs of grooming into these trafficking circles. Can you share on why you attended the workshops? Well, you said that it was because you’re an educator and you wanted to sort of look out for your students basically.
NR: Did you see any red flags with your own daughter that you had sort of learnt in these workshops?
HP: Absolutely I did. The workshops that I took were from other organisations that work with survivors, and they taught me things like, you know, looking for signs of, you know, large gifts being bought that the money couldn’t be explained. They had told me, you know, be aware that they could be branded, or they could have tattoos, such as dollar signs, barcodes and name of a person. They had taught me that drugs are often involved. You know, sometimes it’s a child that has never been involved in drugs and then suddenly, is very heavily involved in drugs. Isolating themselves away from family and friends, not sleeping well. Suddenly dating an older person, whether male or female. Physical signs of abuse. Having different, you know, lots of different cell phones on them and having hotel keys on them, things like that. So, when Molly became involved, we noticed that she was isolating herself quite a bit. She was avoiding family members; she was avoiding friends. Suddenly she was hanging out with a young girl who was in our youth group whose family came to investigate our church. And we had no idea that this young girl was already involved in trafficking, but they had similar interests. So, you know, being good Christians, we wanted to welcome the family and we wanted our daughter to welcome her as well. And so, she started to begin hanging out with them. And we noticed that this young girl was involved with a much older man. That she was doing drugs, she was skipping school, she was not attending youth group. And she started to kind of have physical signs of abuse.
NR: Is this the friend?
HP: The friend, yeah, and I became afraid because, I was her youth group leader. So, I kind of said to our daughter, you know, “Hey, I’m concerned for your safety and hers. I would like you to kind of back off from hanging with her”, and eventually the parents started telling us you know oh she’s doing much better. That guy got arrested, he’s no longer dating her. She’s doing better. She’s got a new job. And so, we felt like it was safe for our daughter to hang out with her again. And, we had no idea that her family was actually involved in the drugs, and things and so were supplying the girls. So, for us,
we really wanted to, you know, have her hang out with a friend, but suddenly she had asked us to go to a barbecue, and she did not return at the time that we had, you know, talked to her about, and she did not call us or anything and that was very unusual for her. And come to find out they had given her drugs at the party. They had raped her, they had put it on film, and they had started telling her that if she didn’t comply with them and come with them, that they would harm her or harm us. So, we saw signs of being fearful and things like that. And as soon as we had taken her for medical help, she became very belligerent, resistant to telling the doctors anything about what had happened and wanted to go home. As soon as we got home, we had no idea that the individuals that had done this to her were contacting her. Telling her to come with them and not to tell us anything and so, as soon as we got her home, she took off with them. And that’s when her journey really began, and she was gone for many months or weeks at a time and then she would come home for a bit and be on drugs and be dope sick and then have to go back and return to them to get the drugs and other things. So, it was quite scary for our family.
NR: Sjoe. That’s quite a story. I would imagine that you would have been (?) … How did you feel towards the family, being involved in the trafficking circle? The family that you try to include in your church, in society, community, and yet they had betrayed you.
IP: I felt incredible betrayal. I had incredible disdain towards them. They’re no longer active participants in our faith, but I was very hurt, because we had taken this family under our wing and been very kind to them and that they would supply my daughter drugs. And that their older daughter was instrumental and having my daughter human trafficked. You know, again I felt extremely betrayed. If I were to see this person today or run across them, I got a lot of feelings of anger still towards that person.
HP: Well and in the beginning, I just felt shock! Just absolute shock and dismay that this had happened. Felt guilt, for you know, even allowing them to be around my children. I felt absolute anger. That Mama Bear in me came out, and really just wanted to lash out at them and get them arrested and things. I just really felt hurt, really felt hurt and betrayed.
NR: I can well imagine. Yeah, sjoe. Quite a big thing.
HP: Right, fear too! You know, I especially felt fear. During our daughter’s ordeal, she was actually trafficked only a block away from where we lived, so it’s not where we live, but where we went to school, and where I work. And so, for me, I could see the house, just outside the doors of my school. And so, it was terrifying. I didn’t know if they were going to harm me. If they were going to come after my son. If they would come to our house. We had traffickers coming around our house. Driving around our house, leaving things in our driveway. So it was, it was quite terrifying, actually!
NR: I would imagine so. So, tell me, with all the fear that you had, did you report it to your police station?
IP: We did report quite a bit to the police. But Molly, that is her name. She was 19 at the time, so she’s a legal adult here in the States. And, you know she’s passing it off as I’m doing this voluntarily, she was being very manipulated and coerced. And the police are more interested in charging people with prostitution than they are with looking them as victims of human trafficking. And so, you know, there’s only so much they can do. You file reports, they take information but that’s really as far, as it went.
HP: Well, and we had some law enforcement officers that would come to the house that believed us and would try to research it and go out and reach out to her. And we were also working with an anti-trafficking organization called Race, and they were out looking for her. They had a task force that was also part of the police department that was going out and looking for her, because there were other individuals who were minors that were being trafficked with her. I was reporting all of that to both the FBI, and to the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children, just because of my background and being a mandated reporter. For me it was no child is going to be a part of this on my watch.
HP: So, for me, at you know every incident that I saw on social media, and every incident that I got wind of. That was absolutely what I was doing. I was reporting all of those things to get her to safety and to keep the other children safe.
NR: So, Ian, you just mentioned, they’re more interested in like charging or arresting for prostitution. Is prostitution illegal in the States?
IP: It’s illegal. There’s a couple of states where like in Reno and Nevada. There’s a few but it’s not legal in the United States except for , like I said Reno, Nevada are like one or two places in the country.
IP: That’s it, that’s it. It’s a crime, and people get arrested and charged for it here, if they’re caught.
NR: Okay. Okay, pretty much like in South Africa.
HP: Yeah, really the thought of some of the police officers were that she really was just a child acting out. That maybe she had run away, that she was being disobedient, that she was “sowing her wild oats”, is the quote that I got from some police officers and, how do you know that she’s just not a wild child?
IP: We got that from a lot of our friends too. A lot of people dismiss this as adolescent rebellion, petulance and did not look at it, you know, smoking marijuana, well that’s not going to lead to it. They didn’t understand the severity of what was happening.
HP: Well, and they really kind of dismissed it. They dismissed it, but you know that we were kind of being over dramatic, so to speak, and even our friends they couldn’t wrap their head around it as we were talking to them. You know, they were like,” No you guys have taught her right from wrong. She wouldn’t do that”, you know, and so it just really was hard for them to even wrap their minds around.
IP: The amount of denial that existed with this for all of us, was very real for our friends, and extended family. There were a lot of dismissiveness, ‘It can’t really be that bad.’
HP: And many of them said to me, “You know, this sounds like something made for a TV movie. It doesn’t sound like real life”. And I will tell them, “This is my real life, unfortunately this is my life”.
NR: So, with all of this happening, did you second guess yourself as parents?
IP: I did. It became very real for me. There was an incidence when she was coming home after about nine months. When we got that dreaded phone call in the middle of the night from the police, telling us that our daughter had overdosed on heroin and that we needed to come to the hospital. We didn’t know she was dead or alive. She was alive, she did live but, she was hooked up to machines
and things like that. She was unconscious for about a week. And that’s when it became real for me. Heidi on her own was chasing her down online and through these organizations. I went to the hospital and saw her all painted up with makeup, hooked up to tubes. And then I came home, and I was in shock, and I was in disbelief. It was very traumatic and I remember just walking around the house saying, “How did this happen? How did we come to this? What did I do? What didn’t I do?” Oh yeah, you’re like: “How do I let this get to this far?” And it was very overwhelming. You have a feeling of, as a father of feeling of complete helplessness. You want to fix this and make it better. You can’t.
HP: And for me, like I said, I went into Mother Bear mode, you know. For me it was not on my watch. I’m getting my daughter back and I’m gonna do whatever I need to, to get her back. And so, for me, I was seeing things on her social media. I was working with these agencies and finding photographs of her. Videos, like videos of sales of her. So, it was devastating. As a mother, to see those horrific
pictures of her posted online and these men saying, you know how they were going to exploit her. It was horrific. And for me it was very triggering, because I’m actually a survivor of childhood abuse and so for me, it was even more so traumatic. The triggering brought back all those memories of being a kid and being victimized and so it was really, really difficult.
IP: And as Heidi said earlier, it was after the hospitalization that the flood of nefarious characters were coming by our home. Surveying our, home driving by. We knew threats were made against us, and then having to go to bed at night and sleep with this incredible anxiety because you don’t know what’s going to not show up at your front door. Up to that point, when Molly would come back. There were times, she had bruises all around her neck and body she would be strung out on heroin. It killed us as parents to see that, it was devastating. Just the paternal anguish that I experienced was, was horrible.
HP: I remember vividly one night when she came home. We had helped her to get away, she had run home and said you know, “I ran away and I need you to call the police right now!” The police came and they basically said, “There was nothing that we could do.”
IP: They weren’t going to do anything.
HP: And so, we just felt hopeless. As parents we felt helpless. We felt a lot of guilt, you know. Did we not teach her the right things? How did she find herself in this situation? We had talked about it to our kids. We haven’t minced those words from our children. We had taught them, you know, about drugs and alcohol. We had friends that had been in domestic violence situations, so they have seen that and seen the process and the damage that comes from that. And so, you know, for us it was like, “Where did we go wrong?” We felt that way at first, and that took a long time to kind of work through in our healing process.
NR: I can well imagine. So, she was hospitalized. Did she come home? How long was she staying in hospital?
IP: She was there in hospital about a week and then that’s when we got her transferred to a safe house in another part of our state.
IP: And then from there she’s just been in and out of treatment for substance abuse. But that got her off the streets and got her out of the main line. She was in hospital about a week, but she wasn’t conscious for half of that time. They had to give her a lot of Narcan. They had to do a lot to counteract the effects of the heroin. She had taken a series of overdoses on numerous medications. She was lucky to live.
NR: Sjoe. And so, in that week that she was in hospital and you guys were going through all these emotions: feeling guilt, and fear, and helplessness. Did you seek counselling? What kind of support, did you have to get through that week and beyond that?
IP: Well, initially the first thing we had was a tremendous outpouring of support from our family, from our friends from members of our congregation, members of other congregations, there were some people who came by and checked in on us. They knew we were hurting. And that was helpful. I’m a mental health professional, I do therapy, and I teach this stuff to college students. But in this case, I knew I wanted to get counselling. I needed help, but I couldn’t. I did look and search but there was nothing there. My biggest issue was: how do I work through this? Is this normal what I’m feeling? What should I expect out of this. Certainly, there are professionals out there I can seek who can help me get through this. Well, that didn’t happen till about a year and a half later.
IP: What I really found helpful was when Rahab’s daughters referred us to ‘Through the eyes of a parent’. We did Saturday mornings for an hour and a half – two hours for eight weeks, where they taught and processed with us. That eventually came but it came much later. Also, the subject matter was very difficult to discuss. People would comfort us, and say, “ We’re so sorry,” and then repeat: “ You guys are the best parents, you guys are the best parents. We know you guys work with difficult teens.” It was an uncomfortable subject to discuss. What do you say? And I knew that too and I didn’t want to overwhelm my parents, they are elderly. I didn’t want to overwhelm too many people with it. So, I tried looking for an organization that could help us from a mental health perspective to work through this but that didn’t come till much later. So, I felt a tremendous amount of support, but I also felt very, very alone with this whole human trafficking thing. I just felt: “Who’s gonna help me with this? Nobody knows about this.”
HP: Well, and we searched the globe, literally,to find support groups for parents. And at that time, there were none.
HP: There were far and wide, and our local counselling office that deals with sexual assault counselling. I went and got counselling there with a counsellor and I still continue having counselling, because it’s a long process to heal from everything thats happened; and there are things that will be triggered, that will bring you right back to those moments. And there are still times when she’s struggling with her own mental health or relapses from drug abuse, and it’s very difficult. So, for me, I do go see a counsellor on a regular basis. And now they do have a few agencies that do offer support to families, but they’re few and far between. And we definitely need more of those. But the Convergence Resource Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, actually offers ‘Through the eyes of a parent’ program. It was really helpful because we were working together as parents sitting with someone where we could discuss it openly, and we could talk about our feelings that we hadn’t talked about together alone. So, it gave us that venue to do that and to work with mental health professionals.
NR: And to feel safe. Yeah?
NR: So Ian, you are a health worker, and in this time you’re going through a lot of what you were feeling. Were you still able to work and really be present with your clients. Would you call them “clients or patients”?
IP: Clients, patients – yeah clients. At that time, I wasn’t doing as much therapy, and I think that was good. I was doing more teaching at that time, and their issues, most of my clients that I deal with, it’s a lot of mental health things with anxiety, depression, relationships, things like that. So, I’m able to compartmentalize I’m not dealing with this – at that point, I wasn’t dealing with a lot of sexual abuse stuff. So, I was able to separate. But the teaching was difficult because I had to go to class, put a smile on my face and pretend that everything was just fine. That was what was difficult, but I used that as a way to just be in control and express and by teaching and working with students.
HP: For me teaching was difficult, but at the same time, I had little kids. I work with kids that are 15 months to three years old. So, they brought such joy to my face as I walked in, and they would be “Miss Heidi!”I would pick them up and cuddle them and sometimes just sit and rock them. There were days that it was hard to get out of bed, but they were what got me out of bed every day,
NR: Aw, that’s amazing!
HP: Cause I knew that I’d be able to see them, be with them all day!
NR: Oh, that’s incredible. That’s incredible!
NR: What was the family dynamics? I know you’ve got a son. And how did he react? Did he know what was happening. How old was he?
IP: Yeah, our son Matthew, I will just say his name. He’s a year older than our daughter. Okay, so she was nineteen, he would have been twenty, and they were close. They’re eleven months and three weeks apart in age so for one week every year they’re the same age.
IP: So they’re very close. And Matthew is not like us. His personality is different to mine and my wife’s. We’re all about articulating and expressing feelings and psychoanalysis. That’s not our son, and so for me, it was very important that he was watching and seeing my wife, absolutely saturated and embracing human trafficking from every angle: talking about Molly, being upset about Molly, and it was a little too much for him and I know Heidi wanted to sometimes reach out to him, “how are you doing?”, and what do you want to talk about.. And so, I made a decision at that time, that whenever he wanted to, you know, he’d come up, “hey Dad, you want to go to the store with me, I’m gonna play this video game, you want to come play, I’m gonna watch this – do you want to”. Whenever he wanted my attention or came to me, I would stop whatever I was doing, it didn’t matter if I was in the middle of the work. And I would give him my undivided attention because he needed his dad. He was connecting and identifying more than me. And I was explaining to Heidi, he needs space, he doesn’t articulate and express like we do. He’s better at writing his feelings on paper, and he would talk about our daughter here and there a little bit. And the biggest concern we had was, how is this gonna come out, – because if you go through something traumatic – and he had seen his sister collapsed on the floor, he had seen some of this. And so, it was real for him. How’s he going to act out behaviourally, where’s it going to go with this. So, we’re waiting to see what’s going to happen. And what happened is he became a neat freak, a clean freak. He cleaned out our garage, he cleaned out our basement. He kept the living room, kitchen and family room immaculate, scrubbed things down, repositioned the pillows on our sofa, would get frustrated if we left a dish out and didn’t put it in the sink or didn’t put something away in the living room. And he worked through that. He doesn’t do that now, he’s away at school now, he doesn’t do that anymore. But that’s how it came out for him because it was a way for him to have control over something that would have little or no control.
HP: You have to understand too, he was seeing things on social media. He was having his friends see things on social media and making comments to him. And he would also physically see her in her drug induced states, and see people picking her up and things like that and he was terrified. He was absolutely terrified for her.
IP: We live in a city here in the United States in Illinois that, especially during that time had a very high rate of violence for its size.
IP: So, the possibility of going to bed at night and somebody shooting up your house, because they’re angry with you is a very real thing where we live. Well that never happened, but going to bed every night with that level of anxiety, thinking who’s going to come after us, who’s going to harm our family was what was incredibly overwhelming and stressful for all of us.
HP: We actually had one of her drug dealers come to the house.
IP: Oh yeah, we had people.
HP: They would knock on the door looking for her. So, we had people all around where we would just be terrified.
IP: People trying to contact Matthew, our son, to get to our daughter on social media – our foster daughter who lives out of state. We had to go to court and try and get a protection and restraining order.
NR: Was that successful?
IP: it wasn’t, because our daughter had to be there in person to testify.
HP: And at that time, we had her in a safe house, and we didn’t want to remove her from that safe house and bring her in harm’s way.
IP: When she was in the hospital a man, one of her clients, showed up at the hospital with a gun. The hospital was put on lockdown – this guy was actively trying to find her,
IP: So we went to court, and the case got thrown out because our daughter wasn’t there in person.
HP: It really felt like there was no justice.
IP: Yeah, it was difficult.
HP: At that time. I mean, there were people trying to catch up to them and apprehend them and things like that, but it just felt like no justice, for us.
IP: Once you’re 19 and you are a legal adult and you’re not a minor, law enforcement looks at it very differently. They don’t look at you as a victim. They look at you as an addict and a prostitute. And that’s pretty much it. There are some in law enforcement who have a different point of view.
HP: Well, really the laws need to be changed.
NR: I agree.
HP: That makes it more difficult for parents to really advocate for their kids, when they are over the age of 18. It also makes it difficult for those that are over the age of 18 to prosecute, because they have to prove force, fraud, and coercion. And you know, it’s re- traumatizing every time, you have to be involved in going to court or going through the law process. It’s very victimizing and traumatizing.
IP: And then we took our son with us because he had to testify, because it just was a lot and I apologized to him at one point and I didn’t do this, what I said was, “I’m sorry you have to go through this, I’m sorry that you’re having to experience this, I really am”, I think he knew. And he was more all about his dad at that point, because he’s connecting with me on a more male level. He saw Heidi as too involved. He didn’t want to hear about human trafficking, and I was the same way. Heidi’s way of dealing with this was to embrace and lock in and track Molly and be involved with all these human traffic organizations on the phone. Where I wanted to be as far away from the source of pain as possible; and being reminded and talking about traumatic things was not in my best interest. It wasn’t till about a year and a half later, that they asked me to be involved in ‘Rahab’s daughters’ and they wanted me to be the head of ‘Dads against human trafficking’ and I said, “no, cause, I know my wife tells her story again and again, I don’t want to keep telling that, so I’m okay with interviews and things”.
NR: Thank you.
IP: So then, I became involved in other ways. Because of my training. I was able to do clinical assessments for women who are coming off the street, and I’m able to separate and compartmentalize that because that’s not my daughter, it’s a different person. They asked me to get involved in doing music for them, that’s another hobby that I enjoy – working on a project with them. And they asked me to get involved in international travel and they pulled me in by the three things I loved the most: international travel, clinical assessments and music. So that got me drawn in. Now, all of our international trips were cancelled this year, because of COVID. I was supposed to be in India next month. Heidi was supposed to have been in Japan this summer, but we’re looking at going outside the country, we’re actually looking, at Africa and making contacts.
NR: You must come!
IP: Yeah, we can talk about that later, but we are looking, and then in May in 2023, our CEO would like us to go and do international work in India if the country is open. But things that that drew my interest, that was everything I was about. I don’t get to travel internationally very often in my life but love it. I love music so I get to create music for them. And anything that’s mental health, clinical assessments, psychological assessments, I enjoy that.
NR: And you say you love music so do you play instruments, or do you sing or do you write?
IP: I play. I played in a band for a number of years, and I do play an instrument.
HP: He plays more than one instrument
IP: Yeah, I, they asked me to do a song, I was primarily the bass player in the band. But I played for over fifteen years in a couple of bands, and I retired -I left the band when all this stuff with our daughter was happening, it was too much, too stressful to play and memorize all the songs and I couldn’t do it anymore. And the organization ‘Rahab’s daughters’ asked me to do a music video. And so, I’m using my keyboards, my electric guitar, bass guitar, and some built in percussion, and I had another musician friend record some additional guitar tracks and a vocalist I sang with my previous band. A couple of Wednesdays ago we went into a studio up the street from my house and did the final mix, recorded the vocals. So, we’re getting ready to film but it’s an anti-human trafficking video.
It’s called ‘The Walls of Jericho’; Which is a note to Rahab’s daughters and there’s some metaphor and symbolism in there, and we’re going to release that video to national and international organizations, but that’s what started to suck me into it, because I told Heidi, oh, a year or so before I became involved, “quit asking me to be involved with this I’m not doing it. I don’t want anything to do with human trafficking, I don’t want to hear about it, I don’t want to”. That’s where I was. But after we got through, ‘Through the Eyes of a Parent’ and a year or two had past, I was in a much better position and now doing this music video has been very therapeutic. It’s just, you know, I’m doing things I enjoy, and the potential to travel to another country again,
IP: That’s how she got me in.
NR: Well, good on you Heidi!!
HP: Well and for me, as a parent – We’ve always worked together in conjunction with one another when it comes to our kids. And so, during the time when our daughter was going through all of this ordeal, I felt disconnected, because he would tell me I can’t hear that, I can’t, I can’t focus on that. And so really at times I felt very alone. So, one of the reasons why I wanted him to become involved was so that I could feel that connection with him again, and that we could work on stuff together and work on healing together. And so, once we went through the ‘Through the eyes of a parent’ program, that helped us to connect with one another again. And to really be able to talk about it openly. Where, months before we hadn’t really talked about it openly together. And so, for us it’s really given us that connection, and it brings such light and hope and healing to us to be able to help those other survivors. And our daughter, now we have shared with her what we’re doing, is so excited for us. And really, you know she has prayed with us about helping to find those survivors, especially when we did our Super Bowl mission this year, and she’s really pleased with what we’re doing to help others.
NR: That’s incredible.
IP: And another point was when Molly our daughter was hospitalized. And I was very tearful. I was going through a difficult grieving period: my wife’s upset – I’m trying to comfort my wife and find that I’m really only trying to comfort myself. What are you? I’m going through the same thing she is; I don’t know how to comfort her. I don’t know what to say, I want to fix this and make this better. But no matter how much I cuddled and put my arm around her she’s upset. She’s crying. I can’t fix it. And that was what was frustrating. And I think men tend to, -we tend to, not all men, – I’m more emotive, but we handle and process things differently, we’re going through more of this logically assessing the situation and my philosophy was, I can hear this – It’s distressing me – I’m not going to be able to function effectively as a human being, if I have to keep reliving my daughter being human trafficked, and I don’t want to hear it. And then I also looked at it as there’s nothing, I can do about it, it’s pointless to keep reliving a nightmare. And you know we had one nightmare when we found out she was being sold online and we had her at the hospital and then another nightmare began. Then we had people coming by the house and there’s another, and it just didn’t end. I mean, finally, it did!
NR: In that time, when people came into your house. Did you ever consider moving, was there an option?
IP: We thought about it, but I didn’t want to give up my house. I was like no I’m not going to be scared off. There was a stubborn part of me that said no I’m not going to let these people win – and I told my wife repeatedly,
IP: We’re not giving up this house for these punks, I’m not doing it. They’re not going to scare me off. We thought about buying a gun, I considered that seriously. Now you can do that here in the States, a lot of people have handguns and a whole a lot don’t. But at one point I had considered that and said no I don’t want anybody’s blood on my hand, I don’t want to be put in that position. Let’s see how things go.
HP: Oh, and the organization had said, you know, put a security system in your home, put cameras around your house. Well, we rent; and so, you have to ask your landlord to do that. And there are laws here, that if you have domestic violence in your area, your landlord can actually have fines and fees if there’s a multitude of incidents there. And so, you know, for us to go to our landlord was like I can’t, I can’t lose my home. You know I can’t let them in on this, so that I lose my home. I’ve got to have my livelihood in my home, for safety. So, we knew that we could report, we knew that the police knew who we were. We knew that they knew of our situation because we were reporting so often. So, we just had to trust that, you know, if they came and they did us harm or were about to do us harm, that we would call them and they would come.
IP: But it’s the helplessness, it’s as a man, as a father, and you know, it’s interesting in psychology we go to different defence mechanisms when we’re traumatized, and the one I went with initially was what we call intellectualization, and that was to rationalize, use logic and analysis. So, I looked at the scenario, oh, this is just like one of my clients, I’ll just treat it like it’s another client, who’s been a victim of abuse. This is just another case scenario case; I’m going to approach it like that. Well of course it didn’t work. It’s my daughter, I couldn’t depersonalize it. It didn’t work, the attempts to use denial. It manifests in different forms to protect ourselves. And what I was trying, just wasn’t. And I knew it, I knew it as a professional, I knew I was trying different things that probably were not going to work for me.
NR: Absolutely. So, in this time you’re both responding in a very, very different ways. Ian has explained that he tried to comfort you, even though he couldn’t be there for you in the way that you needed him because he wasn’t contained himself. Heidi, how were you feeling, when Ian wasn’t able to comfort you in that way?
HP: At times I just felt overwhelmed. That was really an overwhelming feeling of sadness of disconnection from him. I felt alone, I had to turn to my friends, really to understand what was going on, to have someone to communicate to, and to really wrap their arms around me and say, you know, come on, we know that you like to do service for other people. And that brings you joy, let’s go do that. They would come and get me for dinner and say, come on let’s go out to eat or sometimes they just called me on the phone. My friend, my best friend, she would get up every single morning and at the crack of dawn, send me a meme, a funny meme to make me laugh or a meme that said I care about you. And that’s really what kept me going every day, because I was seeing and hearing things that were so, so difficult to even wrap my head around. And so devastating that there were days that it was dark, you didn’t want to get out of bed, you didn’t want to progress any further, you didn’t want to face the day of sadness, and what was going to come your way that day. And then there were other days that they would reach out and I would just feel joy, even in the pain.
HP: And I think you know; music was a big thing for me too. Music really helped, helped me feel light, helped me to cry when I really felt like a good cry, and just brought joy and peace to my heart. And so, for me, listening to music, my friends would send me songs to listen to or they would take me out to listen to music. And so, it was really uplifting and the service especially, service to others, just makes you feel good and makes them feel good and so for me it was serving all the women, you know, that I work with Rahab’s daughters, serving people in my church really brought joy, in all amongst that pain.
NR: Wow, that’s incredible. And Heidi, while you were feeling what you were feeling and you were feeling disconnected from Ian, did you recognize that he was in pain himself? Could you see that pain?
NR: And did it make you understand why he was responding the way he was. Did that give you understanding?
HP: It did. I felt there were times that I had to protect him, because I knew it was too overwhelming for him. And so, I really, at times felt like I needed to shield him from things that I was hearing and seeing. Because I knew he just couldn’t, at that time. And so I would have to turn to my friends or go into counselling and talk about it in counselling, just so that I knew I could be there for him. When I saw that he was frustrated and angry I would just try to make him laugh or I would be there with him that moment, or if he was sad, I’d sit next to him and we would talk or whatever the moment was. And so, we had to really look at each other and how we were coping that day, to really pull each other up in that moment, because you just never knew, there were times that I’d have a great morning. And then by the end of the day, I’d be a puddle on the floor, crying and upset, those feelings come and the feelings of grief. And so, you go through all these different stages of grief but it’s like multiple events of different grief. It goes on and on and on for months, you know.
IP: I had periods during that time though where I just broke down and sobbed. I had a phone call with my father, where I had to tell him what was really going on. And at the end of this call, he said “son, I’m really proud of you for being genuine and honest, for being real” and he was very supportive. Similar conversation with one of my church leaders when Molly was in the hospital – I just broke down at a number of those episodes. I’m not a crier and I had cried more in one year than I had in the previous twenty, I was going through a grieving period that was very painful for me.
NR: I can well imagine; did you ever feel vulnerable enough to cry with Heidi? IP: She’s seen me cry in front of her, oh yeah, oh yeah.
IP: Oh yeah,
HP: it wasn’t as much and as often as me, I think.
IP: And sometimes she’d be crying at the same time, it’s just, how do I comfort her? I’m trying to comfort myself.
IP: And that’s what was frustrating. And that’s where I desperately wanted professional help and an intervention of some kind to tell me this is what happens when you have a child that’s been human trafficked. This is how parents react, this is, and like I said it was about a year and a half later, we finally got that. And it was through the ‘Through the Eyes of the Parent’ program – that was very instrumental for me. And then I spent the following year, doing all my continuing education units and additional certification in human trafficking and trauma, since I was going to be doing clinical assessments for them. I upped my game; I went back online and did an online course for four months to get to the higher level of trauma certification. So professionally, what was a horrible thing, I ended up with a higher clinical certification, wrote a song, and the potential to travel out of the country – that was a horrible negative experience, it turned around into something very positive, but it was a process.
NR: Absolutely, and that’s incredible. That’s really incredible; I must just note that Heidi is such a strong woman.
IP: Oh yeah that’s why I married her.
NR: Strong and incredible woman Heidi, I really want to honour you for that. The fact that you, you would just reach out to Ian, you try and make him happy, you’re trying to share a meme with him, incredible woman. I really am so inspired by you.
HP: One of the things that I’ve always had in my head, is if I can just help one, even if it’s not my own daughter. If I can just help one person stay out of this life, it’s all worth it. Every pain, every fear, every everything, it’s all worth it.
IP: I just I want to share something with her very quickly.
NR: Please do!
IP: Just so you understand where we are.
HP: He’s going to share a picture with you.
NR: Please do!
IP: This December, we will have been married twenty-nine years, but this is us, when we were about to get engaged.
NR: That is so gorgeous. I love it. So, when will be your anniversary?
IP: In December, we’ve been married, twenty-nine years.
HP: That picture was when we were just talking about engagement.
IP: Yea, we weren’t formally engaged but we were dating. And that was taken a while ago.
NR: incredible, well this is so exciting.
IP: We’ve also done well as parents and tag teaming – we took in foster children. We have a foster daughter who’s gone into the same profession that I have, who lived with us a couple of years, or the last two years of high school. Who had been a victim of horrific abuse
IP: when people live with us, we took in foster children.
NR: such big hearts.
IP: And so we, we tag team very well as parents, in terms of children and so we were familiar with abuse, especially with sexual abuse. In my career I run across it, but when it’s a family member and it’s in a human trafficking context, all the education in the world doesn’t prepare you for that, it just doesn’t.
NR: I can imagine.
IP: It’s emotional, it’s not logical, it’s emotional,
NR: it’s emotional, absolutely. But you guys have done really well from the time that she was in the hospital, and she began her healing period, and both of you reconnecting and finding that space where you can be vulnerable and begin to speak about your process – you know what you were feeling and just find a place of healing like you both have done, something that Ian mentioned was playing music. I am a firm believer that tapping into your creativity brings huge amounts of healing. For me personally, it’s like painting and . . .
NR: painting and dancing and just tapping into your creativity brings a lot of healing. So, it’s really nice to hearanother health professional, more in the clinical side of things, actually speak of his journey, – your journey. In a very real way that music brought that healing.
IP: Oh yeah, again we will share the video with you once the filming is completed. NR: I can’t wait to see it, I can’t wait.
IP: We’re happy to share it with you and again it was very therapeutic for me.
NR: Thank you!
IP: And the video is going to depict somebody choosing leaving that life, but it’s not autobiographical or biographical, it’s just a general theme,
NR: it’s going to make an impact.
IP: It’s an upbeat song, it’s not a slow sad song, it’s very upbeat. It was intentionally written to instill a sense of hope.
NR: Even the Walls of Jericho. I think that that image is quite a celebration in itself. So, I think the song….
IP: It’s running away, the chorus is about running away from the walls of Jericho and finding your way back home. And because Rahab’s Daughters is a reference to the character Rahab from the book of Joshua, where they were destroying the Israelites, were bringing down the walls of Jericho. Rahab was identified as a prostitute and that’s where the name of the organization comes from. So, I use that as a metaphor for human trafficking.
NR: Wow, incredible. Heidi, do you want to tell us a bit about Rahab’s daughters?
HP: Absolutely. Rahab’s daughters is an organization that works tirelessly to help victims and survivors of human trafficking, and we provide resources for them, such as food, clothing, shelter, mental health counselling, medical health, all those kinds of services.
HP: And what makes us very unique is that we take in mothers and their children. We know that 83% of children that are with parents that are being trafficked will be trafficked themselves, so we know that they absolutely need that nurturing and care just as much as the survivor themselves.
HP: We also are a survivor led organization. Our organization is run by Sharmila. And she is actually a survivor of human trafficking, so she keeps all of our programming, and our services are very trauma sensitive and trauma informed, and she absolutely works tirelessly to provide for the needs of those survivors and make sure that her staff does too.
NR: That’s incredible. So, what is your capacity, how many moms and children or babies can you take in at any given time.
HP: It really depends. Unfortunately, because of COVID, we’ve had to shut some of our safe houses, which is devastating to us. But we have kind of come full circle and are working with other partnering agencies that now work with us to provide those housing opportunities that we can’t give them. We still do temporary housing, but they do more the long-term housing. So, we still have contact and do case management with our survivors when they’re in those programs, but they offer that housing to them, so we really work together as partners now.
NR: Folks, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for being so willing to share your story. I’m so inspired by the work both of you do.
End: Dear friends and key stakeholders, thank you for joining us on today’s podcast. Our aim and heart for these podcasts is to raise awareness about human trafficking and to highlight the atrocity that this crime is to humanity. A reminder that human trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar industry, which is sadly the fastest growing worldwide and second biggest crime after drugs. It is far more organized than many care to believe.
We invite you to join hands in fighting against human trafficking, follow us on our social media pages: @freetofly.org.za on Instagram and on Facebook, /FreeToFlyZa. Do check out our website, www.freetofly.org.za, to sign up to be a volunteer or donate towards the building and running of our safe house for children who have come out of human trafficking.
For those of you who do not know, Free To Fly is an organization that is currently starting up the first safe house in South Africa for children who have been rescued from human trafficking. Our heart is to run a holistic, trauma-informed, survivor informed programme that will facilitate this journey of healing. Please follow our journey on our website.
Till next time, take care and be sure to share and listen out for the next podcast. Thanks, friends!
Free to Fly can’t be held liable about the content of our podcast guests.