When your Child is the Hostage

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Fabienne fights for freedom from involuntary servitude and debt bondage.

 

The Bait

This story begins, as they so often do, with an offer from a “friend of a friend.” A nice and understanding woman; someone you could trust with a life-changing decision. Someone who had a reassuring answer to every nagging doubt and worry. Someone who exploits her victim’s desperate circumstances and their lack of knowledge of the U.S. immigration system.

I can help you leave Haiti and come to the United States. You can work legally here and make good money. I will help you find housing. I am sending you money for the trip.

And the most compelling inducement of all: Think of how much happier little Mirlande will be.

Mirlande was nearly 8 years old now, and her mother worried about her incessantly. Fabienne was trapped in an abusive marriage, and there was so little she could do for her daughter. She was unable to get away from the violence, unable to save the money she earned, and unable to provide the schooling and future Mirlande deserved.

And so, Fabienne agreed to the plans proposed by the generous “friend of a friend.” It was an offer too good to refuse.

 

The Switch

But when mother and daughter arrived at their “savior’s” house—Fabienne wearing the ankle monitor provided by border agents—the veneer of kindness and sympathy shattered like shards of brittle glass at their feet. 

There are hidden cameras here, so we’ll be watching you at all times. Stay inside when you aren’t working, or you will be caught by the police. If you try to escape, the police will catch you for me. That’s what I did with the person who was here before you, and they were deported. You’ll be sent back to Haiti, but your daughter will have to stay here.

Fabienne and Mirlande slept on a dingy mattress in a corner of the living room floor. Fabienne did the cleaning and cooking for the people in the house, but neither she nor Mirlande were allowed to eat any of the food she prepared. They were living on a subsistence diet. Worse, when Fabienne left in the morning for her other job—she provided in-home care for dementia patients—her captors forced her to leave Mirlande behind.

Mirlande was deathly afraid of the people in the house—particularly the trafficker’s teenage daughter, who would sometimes scream at her and push her to the ground when her mother wasn’t there to defend her. Mirlande had always been a shy girl, but now she grew increasingly withdrawn and fearful. And there was little Fabienne could do to protect her.

 

Nowhere to Turn 

In Haiti, life had been hard for the two of them. Yet in their new American “home,” the cage that imprisoned them was remorseless and inescapable. Fabienne’s entire pay went directly to the trafficker to pay off her debt, which increased every day. It was a shackle chaining her to this house, and she could not see how she would ever be done with it.

There was no one to talk to—she wasn’t allowed to see neighbors, and the elderly ladies she took care of could barely remember her name. Every time they stepped outside, the trafficker would remind Fabienne of just how vulnerable she was.

You see everyone looking at you and your ankle monitor? They know you don’t have papers. You’d better not think of going anywhere. You wouldn’t get very far, would you?

Fabienne’s first ray of hope came during her required ICE check-in.

“Why isn’t your daughter in school?” the agent demanded. “She needs to be in school.”

 

Overcoming Fear

Mirlande was duly enrolled in the local elementary school, and it didn’t take long before a counselor contacted Fabienne with concerns. Mirlande was so sad and rarely spoke to anyone. Was something the matter at home? It was a chance to ask for help, but Fabienne couldn’t get the words out. She was too scared of the trafficker’s power.

The adult son of one of Fabienne’s patients also noticed that Fabienne’s situation was not normal, and told her she should contact an immigration legal services agency. Fabienne pondered it over in her mind, but she just could not force herself to make the call. What if it went wrong? What if they took Mirlande away?

For eight months, Fabienne and Mirlande lived—survived—like this. As prisoners. Day by day, hour by hour, with nothing to call their own, not even their own bodies or their own will.

And then, one early morning—after she had dropped Mirlande off at school—Fabienne broke down in a torrent of tears outside the entrance gate. Once again, her little girl had begged her not to leave her alone, and, once again, Fabienne had refused. She had to get back to work. What would happen if she were late? What would those devils do to punish them?

A Haitian American couple, whose daughter was in Mirlande’s class, saw Fabienne’s distress. They approached her cautiously and asked if they could help. Once they gleaned the essentials of her story through her sobs, these Good Samaritans did not hesitate. They immediately offered their house as a safe refuge.

And that’s how Fabienne and her daughter finally got out.

National Human Trafficking Hotline

If you suspect someone is being trafficked, it’s best not to directly confront the trafficker or intervene in any way that might put the person further in danger. 

Please contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline instead to report and receive guidance. For further information, please visit the Polaris Project. 

 

Learning to be Free

Sometimes, I still feel such sadness, so much that it feels like I am drowning.

“She was struggling,” says Sarah Milad, managing attorney at Just Neighbors—our ILJ affiliate serving Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.—on her first meeting with Fabienne. “You could see the trauma she had been through in her eyes, her face, and the heavy weight she seemed to carry on her shoulders.”

Over their 25 years of service, Just Neighbors has handled many human trafficking cases, earning a well-deserved reputation for expertise, excellence, and compassion. Mirlande’s school counselor had found Sarah through a recommendation from another agency.

Once Fabienne arrived at their office, staff members thoroughly screened her, and then helped her piece together a very harrowing narrative. Sarah explained that Fabienne was eligible for legal relief through a T Visa—created in 2000 by Congress to protect survivors of human trafficking from deportation. Although her hands were trembling with anxiety, Fabienne bravely—with the assistance of Just Neighbors—made the call to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and reported what had happened to her and her daughter. They assigned her case to a joint task force—the state agency in collaboration with the Department of Justice—who then began their investigation.

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Sarah Milad, Just Neighbors Managing Attorney for Maryland and Washington, D.C.

“They are more accustomed to sex trafficking cases, so this was different for them,” says Sarah. “But they were educated on the issues surrounding involuntary servitude and debt bondage, and they were very kind to her.”

For her part, Fabienne was eager to cooperate with law enforcement. “I want to get justice for me and my daughter,” she told them, “so that this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Both Fabienne and Mirlande were able to obtain their T Visas in less than a year. “It was a clear-cut case,” says Sarah, with satisfaction. “But it wasn’t easy for Fabienne to share her history and to relive the trauma she’d been through. She’s more courageous than she thinks she is.”

Fabienne now has her work authorization and is on track to receive her green card in the near future—the “papers” her captor taunted her about all those months ago. Fabienne and her daughter can also access the many resources available to human trafficking survivors—including therapy.

For the better part of a year of her young life, Mirlande lived in terror of being anywhere in the vicinity of the trafficker. Even once they were safely away from them, she had nightmares about them finding her and dragging them back to that terrible place. As soon as she was able, Fabienne moved them to a town in another state. Mirlande is enrolled in a different school now and is adjusting to her fresh start.

“She was like a little animal in a cage,” says Fabienne slowly, “but now she is expressing herself. She is starting to be free.

“This was a situation that could not be entirely redeemed by seeing the trafficker in jail,” adds Sarah, “but only by seeing mother and daughter thriving.”  

 

*Names and other details have been changed to protect the privacy and security of the client. 

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