Dee Schronce ran away from her Ohio home to escape sexual abuse, but an unimaginable fate awaited her in New Orleans.
At 17, Schronce was drugged and sold into sexual slavery.
“Being forced to work in a brothel is, if you can imagine, being sexually assaulted over and over and over again and there’s nothing you can do about it. Your mind has to go to a place of survival and has to sort of tune it out,” Schronce said.
Three months in captivity
For three months Schronce lived in darkness.
She was kept in a dark, dank trailer with other women. Two other trailers sat on the property that was surrounded by a fence and overseen by a guard.
The women were brought out after dark and taken into an adjoining bar. Here, clients waited.
“It was full of fear, and it was just like being a prisoner only tortured in a different way, not just physical but psychological,” Schronce said. “It was very degrading.”
The women with whom Schronce “served time” weren’t drugged. They were intimidated, humiliated and threatened. They were held captive and used.
Schronce struggled through the daily routine but secretly planned her escape. Her first attempt failed, and she suffered the consequences.
She was beaten and made to dance, covered in blood and torn clothing. But three weeks later, she tried again.
With help from a client, Schronce climbed over the fence and rode away in her accomplice’s truck.
“That’s what allowed me to get out. I never lost hope. Once you’ve lost hope then you’ve pretty much sealed your fate,” said Schronce.
She never returned to the site of her captivity.
Breaking the silence
For more than 20 years, Schronce kept quiet about her ordeal.
She created a new life in Gaston County. She married and had children.
But Schronce’s faith led her to part her lips and speak up for the women and children suffering silently in the human trafficking trade.
Schronce authored a book, “Mary and Me: From Ruin to Royalty,” and started speaking to groups across North Carolina.
She became a board member for AVID, Assault & Victimization Intervention & Deterrence in Gaston County.
Opening old wounds isn’t easy.
“It’s just a place you don’t want to walk back into,” she said. “There’s still a scar.”
Schronce hopes her openness about her ordeal will help others break the silence.
“I want to break that chain of shame that goes along with being a victim. A victim shouldn’t have to feel that shame,” Schronce said. “From the time that I was a child to even now, I identified it as shame that I never should have owned in the first place.”
There have been no reported cases of human trafficking in Gaston County, but that doesn’t mean the issue should be swept under the rug, according to Nancy Newman, director of AVID.
“It is a terrible crime that has been taking place on a large scale for a long time,” said Newman. “Only now is it receiving national recognition because of the beautiful little 5-year-old that was destroyed for trafficking purposes.”
Shaniya Davis, 5, of Fayetteville was found dead Monday on a rural Highway in Lee County. The child’s mother, Antoinette Davis, has been charged with human trafficking and child abuse involving prostitution.
Mario McNeill is being charged with first-degree murder and first-degree rape of a child in the case, Fayetteville Police Chief Tom Bergamine told reporters at a news conference.
Davis’ death should bring local attention to a national issue, Newman said.
“This is no longer a Third World country problem, this is happening in America,” Newman said. “In foreign countries, parents have been selling their virgin females into organized crime for years.”
Human trafficking can be for labor or sex purposes.
“It’s the leading source of income now for organized crime,” said Newman.
Signs of abuse
Human trafficking victims are often isolated, Newman said, and are typically moved from place to place. Relocating a victim keeps the person confused, detached and unfamiliar with his or her surroundings.
Victims are often runaways. They are targeted because they are vulnerable.
“It’s the people that fall through the cracks. Not only are they victimized once but they’re victimized over and over again,” said Schronce.
Places used to harbor trafficking victims can be identified by some physical characteristics.
Some indicators include:
Barbed wire surrounding a home
Bodyguards around a home, factory or business
Bars on windows of home or factory
Vehicles coming and going at odd hours
Men coming and leaving at odd hours
People being escorted to and from a building
Lots of people being loaded into a vehicle
“Approaching these victims can be very touchy. You can cost them their lives,” said Newman. “The best thing you can do is contact law enforcement immediately because there are a lot of risks for the victim and for you.”