In the same week, the anti-trafficking community both lost a survivor and gained an advocate who once got arrested for soliciting a prostitute.
The contrast between both stories illustrates why we must never end the fight against sex trafficking. There is both darkness and light in this battle, but the light will always win.
Jennifer Kempton, a victim-turned-founder of the nonprofit Survivor’s Ink, died Thursday morning. A 911 call directed Columbus police and medics to a house where she was found alone on a hallway floor, unconscious and unresponsive from an apparent drug overdose, according to The Columbus Dispatch:
“Sexually abused at age 12, Kempton told The Dispatch in late 2014 that she was doing what she could to move past a series of abusive relationships and cocaine and drug use. She had prostituted herself on Columbus streets to pay for drugs for her and a former boyfriend. She had been kidnapped and taken to an Akron-area hotel, where she was raped and forced to have sex with a stream of men for more than a week. Later returned crying to Columbus, she was forced by her former boyfriend to get a tattoo that said: ‘Property of Salem.’
In trying later to right herself, Kempton had that tattoo covered with a heart-shaped lock holding a key, representing God unlocking her chains. A flower covered a gang sign on her neck, and a name on her back was covered by the words, ‘I believe again.'”
That tattoo removal became the inspiration for her nonprofit, Survivor’s Ink, a local organization that uses tattoo art to replace slavery brands.
Jennifer’s death is heartbreaking, because I personally knew her. Almost a year ago to this day, we were planning our first anti-trafficking event together. Dozens of people attended Stories against Slavery, a unique event at The Narrows that featured local artists and advocates. Our event even received praise from Gov. John Kasich in a letter written to the event organizer:
“The stories of survivors like Jennifer Kempton and others who bravely share their experiences are heartbreaking indeed. But these stories, along with the powerful advocacy on display this evening, also offer hope and a message that the anti-trafficking movement is gaining strength in Zanesville and other communities across our state.
Because of partnerships like these, in communities throughout Ohio, our state and local law enforcement, social services and advocates are together increasing awareness of human trafficking and working to help those who have been cruelly exploited. It is my pleasure to recognize the efforts of the survivors, artists and coalition partners who are with you this evening to help the most vulnerable among us who cannot speak for themselves.”
Jennifer’s surprising death is a sobering reminder that the fight against sex trafficking is complex. It’s not enough just to rescue victims from the streets and hope they remain sober. Each day, we must help restore them back into society.
The day before Jennifer died, another shocking event took place. A young man who got arrested for soliciting a prostitute graduated from She Has A Name’s anti-trafficking training.
I personally met this man while teaching at the Reduce Demand John School program for people who have been arrested for soliciting prostitutes. Led by former Franklin County Municipal Court Judge Scott VanDerKarr, this all-day class is taught by licensed counselors, survivors of sex trafficking and other people from the community. It targets men who are mostly first-time offenders in Central Ohio with no record of violence.
The goal of this class and similar programs is to “decrease the demand for prostitution, and hence, reduce the amount of human trafficking and sexual exploitation that occurs,” according to the Ohio Department of Public Safety’s John Schools Report. As of 2013, 50 cities in the United States were operating some form of a john school — including four in Ohio.
She Has A Name is trying to help these men understand the impact of their actions and address the root causes that drove them to solicit. This program aligns directly with our vision — “to see all those impacted by human trafficking restored into society and thriving in their community.” That includes men, even those who solicit prostitutes.
And it’s paying off. Last week, that young man I met graduated from his first anti-trafficking training and wrote this note:
“Over the past few years I’ve been battling loneliness and depression. These struggles led me to make the worst decision of my life. A few months ago, I found myself at rock bottom and made the decision to solicit. Thankfully, I was arrested and stopped short of making a horrible mistake. I knew going into the program that I wanted to get involved in the fight against human trafficking, but after participating in the program I knew I had to.
The program opened my eyes to the world of human trafficking and in my heart I knew I wanted to help in anyway possible. Through my experience I found a relationship with God and gained a better understanding of the awful world of human trafficking that prior to this experience, I knew nothing about. I wish more than anything I could take back my mistake but in a strange way it’s made me a better person. I now know I can move forward and help out and be a part of what will someday put an end to this horrible battle.”
This young man’s surprising turnaround is an encouraging reminder that the battle against modern slavery can be won. He is living proof that God can change the heart of even those who once fueled the demand for paid sex.
And that’s why we must never end this fight.