By Sandra McNeill

They were four little words.

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“I don’t love you.”

But the words spoken by a foster parent were the last straw for a 13-year-old girl from Jackson, leading her into a life of prostitution and drugs.

Deborah doesn’t want to give her last name for fear that her human trafficker is still out there, after being released from prison.

She met him the same day she ran away, devastated by her foster mother’s cruel and heartless words.

“I met a guy that was nice to me. He paid attention to me, he listened to me. He bought me something to eat. And within a couple of hours, I left with him.”

He was just 19, but old enough to recognize and prey on the vulnerability of a girl with no one, one who planned to make a bed for the night under the carnival’s rides.

The teen would become her first sexual partner. But not her last.

“It was the first time I had alcohol. And the next thing I know, I was on the way to Detroit.”

The teen, though, later left Deborah alone overnight in a Detroit hotel. He returned the next day and drove her back to Jackson. He said that if she wanted to stay, he would be back in an hour to pick her up. She didn’t want him to leave her. She stayed.

And it continued, for reasons both complicated and simple. She had no one else.

Deborah said she always thought she chose the life she was stuck in for 25 years — but she later understood otherwise, learning hard truths about what happens when vulnerable young people are hunted like prey.

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“Even at 40 years old,” she said. “I didn’t know what human trafficking was.”

A therapist later told her she had “Stockholm Syndrome,” the term used for the warm feelings captives can develop for their hostage takers. “I considered him my whole world,” she said. “He took care of me. He took care of my basic needs, something that my own parents wouldn’t do.”

Early on, she had seen her attacker beat the feet of another young girl who tried to run away with a coat hanger, telling her, “You’ll never walk away from here.” Deborah at times was beaten herself, sometimes for not bringing in enough money. Once, she said she was beaten for running away and being found in Washington DC.

She said she began taking cocaine to dull her emotional pain. Because of that, she was in and out of prison from the age of 14, and had no idea where to turn to for help. “I was looked at through the court system as a menace to society.”

It wasn’t until she was 38 and her trafficker had gone to prison that Deborah was able to break away from the life of prostitution.

According to Birmingham psychologist Dr. Tracey Stulberg, it’s not just abused teens who are vulnerable to trafficking. The Internet, she said, has opened up a whole avenue online for predators to prey on young girls and boys, who are having a bad day, or being bullied, or fighting with their parents.

“It’s nice when you post something that gets all these likes,” Stulberg said. “Well, that’s the attention that traffickers want to give and want to know that a child or a teen wants to hear.”

Stulberg says that all parents need to have a conversation about human trafficking with their children, and tell them never to friend someone online that they don’t know.

They should also know never to post something that can be seen by the general public.

Stulberg keeps a close eye on her children’s online interactions.

“You can say I’m weird, or that I’m taking away their freedom. Too bad….They can say you’re a bad parent. You’re not. You’re a very cautious parent.”

The public is invited to hear more from Stulberg and police at ‘Human Trafficking Awareness: How vulnerable are your children and grandchildren.’ The event put on by the The National Council of Jewish Women Michigan will be held Thursday February 15th from 7 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. at 26400 Lahser Road, Ste 306 in Southfield.

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To register call 248-355-3300 extension 0.