Lynn Sweetland & The Hope Project

Lynn Sweetland, a human trafficking survivor and member of our HRGlocal Advisory Board, was featured in a news article on  In the article, Lynn shares more about her experience being trafficked across state lines.  The article also shares more about trafficking in the state of Michigan and The Hope Project, an excellent program in Western Michigan that supports trafficking victims as they rebuild their lives.

Sex-trafficking survivor: ‘They told me it would happen over and over’

by Malachi Barrett

MUSKEGON, MI — Lynn Sweetland was 27, going through a volatile divorce and lost custody of her children when she decided to give up on life.

She was vulnerable, which made her a target for predators who forced her into prostitution. For three months she was dragged to various counties in South Carolina and used against her will.

Sweetland is one of more than 30 survivors of sex trafficking on the path to recovery thanks to The Hope Project, a faith-based organization in Muskegon dedicated to helping survivors of human trafficking while raising awareness. The organization is working hard to raise funds to open a residential rehabilitation home for survivors in Michigan, partially through telling of survivors’ personal stories.

Now, Sweetland works as an office administrator of The Hope Project.

She had to get through hell first.

“I met these two guys who promised me they would take me to Georgia where my mother had just bought me a new house,” Sweetland said. “I (soon) realized they weren’t who they said they were. I heard them talking and they had this other girl with them. I made the mistake of telling them I heard everything. I realized what was happening but it was too late.”

First she was forced to write bogus checks, but soon they told her she had to choose between committing armed robberies or performing sex acts in truck stops with the other woman.

“I was told not to come back until I earned $500,” Sweetland said. “I refused to do it, so they arranged for me to be gang raped at gunpoint. They told me right as the gun was in my face that it would happen over and over and over again. So I became compliant.”

For adults, prostitution becomes sex trafficking when it includes the elements of force, fraud or coercion. If any of those three things are present, the victim should not charged with a crime. Minors cannot be charged with prostitution.

Muskegon Police Officer J.L. Dibble said it’s often difficult for people being coerced to recognize it on their own. She chairs the Lakeshore Human Trafficking Taskforce and is also on The Hope Project’s Board of Directors.

Man charged with human trafficking for allegedly forcing woman into prostitution

“What you can have is a victim who will state ‘I’m doing this on my own, I want to do this,'” she said. “They have been coerced by being beaten or having things withheld from them, and perform sex work to stop the punishment. So they feel like they did this on their own. You have to get your victim past that.”

To keep her compliant, Sweetland was given Rohypnol, an incapacitating drug commonly used to render a person vulnerable to sexual assault. She was beaten when she tried to escape.

Her abusers gave her two large tattoos across her breasts so she would be easily identifiable.

Sweetland tried to give clues to her customers that she was being coerced into prostitution, that it wasn’t her choice, but was ignored for three months. Finally, one truck driver listened and arranged for her to be driven to Missouri.

Twenty-six years later, she is helping others find the path to healing. Sweetland started with The Hope Project in 2014 as an intern while pursuing a human services degree. Now she works full-time with the organization and travels across the country to speak about her experiences.

“Being a survivor means I just went through an ordeal, thriving means I have gone through the ordeal and I am surviving past that,” she said. “Transcending is when it is no longer part of my life, it’s a backdrop of who I am but it doesn’t rule me. That is where I am now.”

The Hope Project helps survivors tap into resources to help progress in their journey to healing. Sweetland was connected with a ministry that will finance laser removal of her tattoos.

The organization has grown to serve 36 survivors in five years. All cases are handled by Director of Programming Sara Johnson, who joined The Hope Project when she learned there was an anti-trafficking group in her hometown.

The Hope Project sponsors individual counseling, equine therapy and group therapy, and makes referrals to other service organizations in the community.

Johnson said her biggest challenge is dealing with the fact some victims aren’t ready for counseling. She gave an example of one woman who was doing well in sessions, but was recently kicked out of the place she was staying and returned to the drug scene.

“You want to be able to help, but sometimes you can’t because she’s not ready to change yet,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll go out for coffee and meet (with a girl) to talk and see how we can help. It might just be that extra support of knowing there is someone who cares helps; they don’t always have someone to call. We’re here. We’re someone you can fall back on.”

Securing their safety is the biggest goal, Johnson said, followed by healing and restoration, much like the transcendence Sweetland referenced. One thing Johnson learned quickly is that counseling doesn’t restore just one person; it restores the whole family and impacts generations.

“It’s extremely rewarding when I get text messages that say, ‘I don’t know if I would be alive it it weren’t for the Hope Project,'” she said.

The majority of survivors Johnson works with are from Muskegon County or were trafficked in the county, like a woman who spoke with MLive Muskegon Chronicle on a condition of anonymity.

As a toddler, a family member sold her body for drug money. Two years later she told her mother, who was divorced from her father and worked to keep her daughter safe from that side of the family.

The survivor received counseling, but was told memories of abuse would return later in her life.

“All of the memories disappeared, and when I started getting into drugs and alcohol (as a teen) it brought them all back,” she said. “I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and I started living in the hell of memories.”

The woman said she felt insane because the trauma could appear at any time. A certain smell, sound or environment could trigger her memories. Now a 25-year-old student at Muskegon Community College, the woman recently finished her last counseling session at The Hope Project.

“They gave me a family when I felt alone,” she said. “I have had tremendous healing during the last four years. It’s amazing what can happen when people are behind you, they believe you and believe in you.”

More recently, a Muskegon Heights man was charged with human trafficking-forced labor, the first such case in Muskegon County history.

Tracey Allen Lockett, 43, was arraigned Friday, June 17, on that charge. He’s accused of forcing a 25-year-old woman to prostitute herself by beating her and threatening the lives of her family members.

Julia Koch, director of development and advocacy, said Johnson is working with the survivor of Lockett’s abuse.

Documenting the problem

This year alone, the National Human Trafficking Resource Center received 244 calls reporting 75 cases of human trafficking and 57 cases of sex trafficking in Michigan. Since 2007, the center reported 630 cases involving a total of 1,288 victims exhibiting high or moderate indicators of human trafficking in the state.

It is impossible to tell how prevalent human trafficking is in Muskegon County, Sweetland said, because most statistics are not based in empirical data. The Hope Project officials can only rely on what they experience.

Tracking the extent of the problem is an issue for law enforcement as well.

Even after the Federal Government passed the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act in 2000, there was no classification for law enforcement to indicate when a case involved human trafficking until it was reauthorized in 2013. States had no way to track how many cases were being charged.

Michigan did not have the classification in its databases until January 2014. Dibble said law enforcement agencies are still being trained to identify the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution.

In an email sent to law enforcement agencies across the state in July, Michigan State Police claimed only three incidences of human trafficking were reported statewide in 2014 by local law enforcement.

A paradigm shift is needed in the way survivors are treated by law enforcement, Sweetland said, or victims of sex trafficking will never come forward.

State legislators have begun to take action. New legislation took effect in January last year, adopting a victim-centered approach to enforcement after The Michigan Human Trafficking Commission made recommendations to the state legislature.

In April, several new bills were introduced in the House of Representatives focused on protecting victims forced into wrongdoing and setting harsher punishments for perpetrators of sex trafficking.

Last week, members of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force taught Muskegon officers how to recognize trafficking, how to interact with survivors and what the law covers. Dibble said law enforcement has to be properly educated on how to pick out the signs of sex trafficking.

“When I sit down to interview (the victim) and I start to see the signs, I won’t tell them what sex trafficking is until the end. Then I will explain it to them,” she said. “A lot of times you have to get past the shame and embarrassment. You have to pretty much show them that if a person loves you they will not do these things to you and you don’t have reasons to love them back.”

Dibble said sex workers are not often caught on the streets of Muskegon.

“When it happens, it happens behind closed doors,” she said. “We have to wait until a victim comes to us.”

One thing is certain: If a survivor comes to Dibble for help but doesn’t want a police investigation or a report made, she immediately calls The Hope Project.

Neither Sweetland’s or the anonymous woman’s abusers were charged for their crimes, but were eventually caught for other offenses.

Both are coming to a sense of peace and moving forward, but they will never forget what happened.

To donate or learn about a multitude of volunteer opportunities available, visit The Hope Project at The Hope Project is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so donations are tax-deductible.

If you suspect someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call 1-888-373-7888 to be connected with a representative of The National Human Trafficking Resource Center. The center has a national, toll-free hotline, available to answer calls from anywhere in the United States, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in more than 200 languages.

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