Virginia Commonwealth University

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Recovering from a Stolen Childhood

May 9, 2013

By Katherine Johnson
Capital News Service

Elisabeth Corey

Elisabeth Corey

RICHMOND – “Some of that is a little bit unclear,” Elisabeth Corey said as she started to recount the events of her childhood. “A lot of times when there’s intense chronic trauma, it can be difficult to remember all of the details. Memories become very fuzzy.”

Corey has repressed memories of abuse she suffered at the hands of family members while growing up in Northern Virginia. She’s a survivor of family-controlled sex trafficking and endured sexual abuse from male family members.

“We were pretending to be this nice, cohesive family, and then on the side, my father would sell me,” Corey said.

Because she has repressed memories, she’s not sure at what age she was first sold. But Corey believes it happened between ages 8 and 10.

Corey said her father arranged the trafficking in different ways, including dropping her off to be “baby-sat” by friends and selling her to groups as “entertainment.”

She remembers sitting on a staircase and hearing her father on the phone arranging the trafficking. Her father also sold her to a brothel for a short time, so he could pay off his debts – which she believes is the main reason she was trafficked.

“It’s kind of like drugs. When you have an addiction to sex with children, it’s extremely expensive,” she said.

‘Taken to Work’ by her Father

Corey, a single mother of two who is graduating this month from Virginia Commonwealth University with a master’s degree in social work, described her harrowing ordeal during a recent interview in the living room of her Richmond home.

Dressed casually in jeans and a University of Virginia sweatshirt, she calmly recalled her childhood as her dog took its place by her side on the couch.

As a child, she said, she didn’t understand what was happening. “When I first started to get these memories back, I was like, ‘Wow, I am like the unluckiest girl that ever lived.’ And then I started to remember … the phone calls he had when he was arranging it.”

She remembers being “taken to work” with her father, but this really meant getting dropped off to be trafficked. “He wouldn’t really tell me anything. It’s interesting; when you’re in this cult-like setting, they tell you as little as possible. Information is power in almost every situation, not just this one … He never explained anything,” Corey said.

Although the trafficking lasted on and off for two years, Corey doesn’t remember any major consequences for her father, except that she was visited by social workers once. “This is where things get fuzzy. I’m still in the process of retrieving memories. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish really. I may be retrieving memories for the rest of my life,” Corey said.

A neighbor took Corey to a doctor, who diagnosed her with a urinary tract infection. “If you had a normal person and a child had a UTI, what are you going to do? Take them to the doctor. Well, my family had very specific ways of avoiding doctors finding these things out,” Corey said.

Later as an adult, Corey had an investigator find her medical records from childhood and discovered they were full of UTIs. She vaguely remembers going to the doctor for them but merely being given medicine and being sent home. Corey said she didn’t have a thorough medical examination until the neighbor got involved.

“Nobody examined me ever when my mother was there. Well, this neighbor took me in; they examined me, and the doctor called the police. I do know that this happened, but … I don’t know where it went. I do know I was visited by a couple of social workers. My parents kind of threatened me with my life about the visit, even somewhat rehearsed with me: ‘Here’s what you say to them.’ ”

Corey recalls speaking with two social workers in her bedroom when her parents weren’t home, but the visit amounted to nothing.

“People weren’t as vigilant as I believe they would be today. If a child says everything’s fine but a doctor says this child has been raped, social workers are not just going to close the case because a child says everything’s fine,” she said, “My parents had these amazing abilities of getting themselves out of trouble and kind of skirting the law.”

Her Mother ‘Enabled Most of It’

Corey’s parents divorced when she was 10 or 11, and then most of the trafficking stopped. She still had to visit her father every other weekend, and she said he continued to sexually abuse her.

She remembers telling her mom that she didn’t want to visit. Corey’s mom was aware of the trafficking and abuse but was “indoctrinated into this lifestyle,” because she was abused as a child.

“She enabled most of it,” Corey said of her mother. “And at times, there was even some peripheral participation – nothing significant, but she was fully aware of all of it.”

The enabling of sexual abuse extended across generations. As a child, Corey said she was told by her grandmother that, “it was a woman’s job on this earth to meet a man’s needs.”

“It’s just the whole family atmosphere. The whole family environment was promoting that type of world,” Corey said.

She said her mother went on to remarry a predator who continued to sexually abuse Corey. “Women who are involved in these kinds of situations where it’s chronic and it’s cult-like – they don’t marry anybody healthy. Unless they recover, they’re going to continue the pattern, and unfortunately she did. She’s still married to that guy,” she said.

Corey said she was close to a couple of people in her childhood, but they never did anything about the abuse. “If I had had one healthy relationship, things might have looked different. Somebody, if they were truly a healthy person, would have pulled me out of it. To me, that is a healthy relationship – somebody who would fight for me and stand up for me as a child.”

Today, Corey suffers from symptoms associated with post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociation because of her childhood experiences. She describes going through stressful experiences as an adult and having no emotions about them.

And she still struggles with detachment, “not really knowing how to be close with somebody, not knowing how to trust and certainly not knowing how to be vulnerable. Those have been things that have been starting to come in the last couple years for me.”

Corey said she realized that she did have emotions once she started recovery, but she didn’t know how to express them. She explains it as living in two different worlds. “There’s the world ‘over here’ that was the bad stuff, and then there’s the daily world, and I just live in it, go through the daily processes,” Corey said.

Abuse Stopped When She Moved Out

Corey remembers fighting back against her stepfather when she was 15; the fight was so bad that her mother had to intervene. Most of the sexual abuse stopped after that and completely stopped when she was 17, she said.

Corey said she escaped when she “grew up and moved out.”

“I went to college and never looked back. Most people are like, ‘I have to move back in with my parents after college.’ I’m like, ‘Hell no. I’m getting a job, I’m getting out of here,’ ” she said.

Once she was in college, Corey describes a “power shift” with her family and abuser. She said she often wondered what an abuser thought when the child finally became an adult. “What happens when the child grows up? Does it cross their mind that the child will become an adult and the power shift could be substantial?”

Her family would try to buy her things and pay for her college education as a way to show that she was still dependent on them. But Corey said she “always felt this intense drive to be financially independent” and beyond their control.

“For me, being financially independent and removed from them in all respects was critical,” she said.

Corey said she no longer has “any relationships or interaction whatsoever” with her father, stepfather or mother. She decided to remove them from her life after her first memories of the abuse and trafficking came back. That was about six years ago, around the same time her children were born.

Corey said she tried to have a relationship with her mother. That was impossible when her mother refused to believe that she had been sexually abused by her father and stepfather.

“I finally just woke up to the fact that there’s no support there,” Corey said. She occasionally communicates with her younger sisters through email. But she said they are still financially dependent on her parents and refuse to believe Corey’s story.

Processing Trauma When ‘Emotions Come Back’

Since Corey’s recovery coincided with the birth of her two children, “it has been the hardest six years of my life,” she said.

Corey, who now has a last name different from her childhood, tries to process her emotions when the children aren’t around. But “as a single mother, it’s just not always possible,” she said.

“I find myself sometimes when I’m getting a memory back to be just an unbearable person to live with. What happens is the emotions come back with it – all the emotions a child never expressed or felt; they come back with the memory.”

Corey has now learned to respond to life in a calmer way and not let small things bother her. She knows that the emotions associated with her memories are “old emotions and I can separate it.”

For most of the past six years, Corey has seen a therapist every week; she recently trimmed the visits to every other week. She has also participated in support groups for sex abuse survivors, met other survivors of trafficking, joined a survivor network and started a blog about her experience.

Corey has entered a new chapter of her recovery, where she is regaining her voice. “Speaking about it, for me, has been a huge part of my healing. And now being able to speak about it publicly is a whole other level of my healing,” she said.

She’s proud to be raising her children in an environment where the cycle has been broken, but “I’m supposed to take it further than that,” she said.

With her background in public speaking, training and project management, and with her newly minted master’s degree from VCU, Corey would like to focus on speaking to middle-school-age girls and educating them about sex and pimps. “A lot of people here don’t realize how prevalent it is.”

She’s also interested in programs to prevent domestic trafficking and identify potential victims. As Corey continues with her recovery, she believes it’s important to raise awareness about trafficking and abuse – issues that haunt her from her childhood.

“This didn’t just happen to me because I’m supposed to sit by the sidelines,” she said. “That’s not why this happened to me.”

Elisabeth Corey (far right) with fellow trafficking survivors at the Freedom Network Conference. (Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Corey.)

Elisabeth Corey (far right) with fellow trafficking survivors at the Freedom Network Conference. (Photo courtesy of Elisabeth Corey.)

On the Web

Elisabeth Corey’s blog is at http://stolenchildhood.wordpress.com. It is titled “Trafficked: My personal story of my challenges and successes as a family-controlled child sex trafficking and abuse survivor.”