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    Note: This story includes accounts of sex trafficking and sexual violence. The National Human Trafficking Hotline is (888) 373-7888.

    Who was that teenage girl in the mirror? Who was that in the dingy motel light? Was that Angela Renfro, sweaty after a go-round with another “john”? The reflection wore the same smooth skin, the brown eyes, the little button nose, the curvy body. Could she see herself? Could she see the little girl she once was in the backyard making mud pies and picking clovers, dreaming of a two-story Barbie dollhouse with an elevator? No. She saw who her pimp saw, who the johns saw. She saw Kristy Love.

    Kristy Love — a nod to the ’70s TV show character Christie Love, a crimefighter with a big afro. Renfro got the nickname from her pimp, a middle-aged Bee Gees look-alike who she was convinced was her boyfriend. He would fuel her up on cocaine and she would run a stretch of Dixie Highway’s eastern route north of Cincinnati in her short shorts, fishnets and black patent-leather shoes. Renfro embodied Love. “A legend in my own mind,” she says. She wanted to be the best on “the stroll,” the area sex workers command. The johns (or “tricks,” the buyers of sex) used her for their dominating desires: burning her with cigarettes, choking her until she heard little bells. Renfro, now 51, didn’t know then that the girl in the mirror was a victim of sex trafficking: the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, soliciting or patronizing of a person for commercial sex acts. Renfro, who says she was sex-trafficked for two decades starting when she was nine years old, has now been free from “the life” for 21 years.

    Renfro remembers Love as she checks her makeup in the pull-down mirror of her 16-passenger van. Her eye shadow pops, the fuchsia like a redbud bloom in a Kentucky spring. It crowns her eyes, which are doe-like and dewy, as if tears are always near. They mimic the rain waiting behind the day’s gray clouds. Love is the reason Renfro, in 2011, started the Kristy Love Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women suffering from addiction and sex trafficking. Love is the reason Renfro rolls toward Churchill Downs on this May afternoon with three other survivors. It’s the day of the 2019 Kentucky Derby, a hot time for sex trafficking, and their plan is to lock arms at the track’s entrance in baby-blue T-shirts with “I AM” printed on the front and “SMART KIND IMPORTANT BLESSED” on the back. A demonstration of sorts. Renfro hopes to attract the likes of CNN. The van ride is bumpy and full of sharp turns.        

    The women talk solidarity, sisterhood, snacks. A shared excitement has them shouting “Woo!” and “Yes, hunny!” Renfro says that, as a 17-year-old, when she made the ride with her trafficker from Cincinnati to Louisville for Derby, she considered the other girls in the car competition. She says that, back then, drunk in the Marriott with her hair and nails done, she was excited about the possibility of sleeping with a superstar. “There, everybody had to give you $1,000 to lay with you,” she says.

    When the women see a preteen girl in a short shirt holding up a PARKING $20 sign on a street corner near Churchill, her belly exposed, they say, “Oh, Lord,” say, “Oh, no,” say, “She should not be wearing that. Not today.” Renfro knows how easy it is for the young and the vulnerable to be “groomed” — a trafficker’s way of luring prey with compliments, gifts, affection. She has made “Love Bags” to pass out to women on the streets; they’re packed with wet wipes, feminine hygiene products, condoms, snacks and juice boxes. (She was distributing water bottles until she realized people were using them to mix heroin.) She has already prepared additional beds at the Kristy Love house for victims. She’ll end up getting seven of them, the youngest 17 years old.

    Renfro and the other women briefly lock arms outside the Paddock Gate for some pictures and a Facebook Live post. The long curls of Renfro’s wig spill over her shoulders. She changes her hairstyle often — plaited braids, a short wig cropped close to her cheeks, bangs straight across. “Residue” of the life she once lived, she says, of reckoning with identity. “I was always someone different for different men.”

    Her leggings have the word “LOVE” printed in pastels all over them. Passersby heading toward the track drunkenly hoot and holler when the ladies proudly yell, “This is what a survivor looks like!” When some stop to talk and Renfro explains she is a survivor of sex trafficking, they have a shocked, then sorry, expression.

    No TV stations show up, and, after a couple hours, a drizzle comes down. On the walk back to the van, Renfro smiles and talks to anyone about the cause. En route to the Kristy Love house to make more Love Bags to pass out that night, one of the women in the van says, “Next year we need a megaphone and 2,000 business cards.”

     

    In the weeks leading up to Derby 2019, news headlines read: “Kentucky Derby is a magnet for human trafficking, officials warn” and “Kentucky AG raising awareness about trafficking ahead of Derby.” Andy Beshear, who was Kentucky’s attorney general and is now governor, said, “Human-trafficking victims are often the most marginalized in society. They are runaways, refugees, immigrants and homeless.” When Beshear was AG, his office increased efforts to train long-haul truck drivers, hotel housekeepers, public school employees and, before Derby, TARC bus drivers on the signs of trafficking, such as disorientation, having two phones or not carrying identification.

    But it’s not just about the world-famous horse race on the first Saturday in May. “We really advocate paying attention to trafficking all year long,” says Marissa Castellanos, who runs the anti-human-trafficking program at Catholic Charities, which offers legal aid and case-management services. “It’s happening in communities every day.”

    The FBI calls sex trafficking the fastest-growing business in organized crime. LMPD-SVU Sgt. Tim Stokes, who investigates sex crimes, says, “At this point, it’s easier to move victims than narcotics. With drugs, you’re having to resupply, but if you get one victim…she can keep making money for you.”

    Louisville is a hub for sex trafficking, its location and crisscrossing interstates making it easy to move a victim across state lines, which complicates prosecutions. Jefferson County consistently has the highest number of trafficking cases in the state. In 2018, a quarter of the 198 reported cases of sex trafficking in Kentucky were in Louisville, based on a report from the state’s Department of Community Based Services. Most of the cases involved girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who said they performed prostitution-like acts in private residences under a trafficker’s control. (Cases like these are often severely underreported and, because of the underground nature of sex trafficking, difficult to accurately represent.)

    The University of Louisville Kent School of Social Work conducted a survey in 2016 that concluded 41 percent of Kentuckiana’s homeless population ages 12 to 25 reported being trafficked. LGBTQ individuals experiencing homelessness — many because they’ve been kicked out of their childhood homes because of their sexual orientation or gender identity — experience high rates of violence and abuse, including sex trafficking, but are an often overlooked population. (There are currently no local housing options for this group of trafficked individuals, or for men.) The current opioid epidemic — Kentucky consistently ranks top in the nation for overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — has people trafficking their kids for drugs.

    “Human trafficking is a supply-and-demand business,” says University of Louisville professor Theresa Hayden, who teaches a course on the subject and who once chaired the nonprofit People Against Trafficking Humans Coalition of Kentucky (PATH). “As long as people are demanding human beings, there’s always going to be someone out there supplying,” she says. In 2014, Hayden and a group of students published a study linking the number of advertisements on Backpage.com — an online marketplace that was known to be used by traffickers posting sexually illicit commercial ads — to big events like Derby, Labor Day and the 2014 NCAA Tournament, which brought in over 160 sexually explicit ads a day, compared with the average of 53. (Some experts dispute this correlation, noting that those who engage in consensual sex work also use sites for their business.)

    In April 2018, the federal government seized Backpage, the authorities believing that it enabled the trafficking of underage victims. Soon after, President Trump signed the Stop Enabling Sex-Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA). Amy Leenerts, founder of Free2Hope, a nonprofit in Louisville devoted to prevention programs and training the public about human sex trafficking, said then that she believed the removal of Backpage would make finding missing people more difficult and push potential sex-trafficking victims further into the shadows. “(The traffickers are) always a step ahead,” Leenerts says. Leenerts works with sex-trafficking survivor Summer Dickerson, the founder of Women of the Well, which offers the only housing in Louisville for sex-trafficked women besides the Kristy Love Foundation. “Until we start holding the buyers accountable, we’ll be talking about this forever,” Dickerson says.

    In Frankfort, Ricky Lynn, who has worked as a human-trafficking investigator in the AG’s office, conducts interviews with victims. “They’re running away from something — some sort of abuse — and end up not knowing what to do,” Lynn says. “When I was a police officer, I was taking missing-person reports every year and I thought it was the kids’ fault. Just thought they were problem kids. I didn’t ask why they were problem kids. With human trafficking, we’ve got to go back to their first trauma.”

     

    Like a cockroach. That’s how Renfro says society saw her. “In the daytime, you don’t see roaches,” she says. “They come out at night to pick up the crumbs.” The church ladies would come with their pamphlets promoting Jesus. Back then, Renfro didn’t want religion. “I wanted someone to look me in the eyes,” she says. “Feel my pain.”

    Renfro’s grandma, a Godly woman, would say, “It must be Jell-O because jam don’t shake like that,” referencing the young girl’s bravado as she walked out the door to turn tricks after a safe sleep in Grandma’s king-size bed. Grandma knew. Had to. But she never intervened. Renfro says that with her family it was “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Which is why nobody ever knew about the sexual abuse that Renfro says started when she was just three years old. She says she remembers the pillow over her face, the molestation, the subsequent lollipop to keep her quiet. The silence turned to shame. “I always thought in order to get someone to like me, love me, that I had to use my body,” Renfro says. (It is estimated that 70 to 90 percent of children who are sexually trafficked were sexually abused in a non-commercial manner prior to being trafficked, according to a National Institute of Justice publication.)

    Renfro’s eventual trafficker came around offering money and took her to the Olive Garden and, once he had groomed her enough to trust him, to a sheet-metal factory, where she says a line of men raped her. Later, Renfro would give her trafficker — whom she still calls her “pimp” — the $50 or $100 from a spin around the block or up to $500 if she and a trick got a room in the now-closed Hamilton Inn in Ohio. “I’d lean in the car and give him the money,” says Renfro, remembering her trafficker’s burgundy Dodge Dynasty. “He’d puff his cigarette and blow the smoke and me out the door.” To this day, she never speaks his name. “It’s like I’m still protecting him,” she says. “It’s real messed up.”

    Whenever the police came “swooping up on” Renfro, she knew the drill: Roll whatever goods — the crack pipe, the money — up tight together and, she says, “shove it up in my uterus.” Renfro says she was arrested 57 times. “And that doesn’t include my juvenile record,” she says. She has been charged with loitering, paraphernalia, possession, prostitution, theft and false identity. “It don’t make no sense,” she says, tears welling. “You’re looking right at me. You see this little Black girl every day on the corner. Why didn’t you all take me then? I had to actually commit a crime to get someone’s attention.” This was in the late ’80s and early ’90s, before human trafficking was federally recognized with the Trafficking Victims Protection Act in 2000. After getting arrested, Renfro says, “I’d go back to the familiar. There were no options then.”

     

    In Louisville, Renfro says, the West End’s portion of Dixie Highway is a popular spot for women in the life. LMPD crime data gathered from 2013 to 2018 show that west Louisville and south Louisville have seen the highest rates of prostitution charges. The numbers have slowly dropped over that time as sex-trafficking charges — which fall under the crime category “disturbing the peace” — have risen.

    Since 2017, LMPD’s six-person sex-crimes unit, which handles sexual-assault cases, has investigated trafficking cases (previously part of the narcotics unit). According to LMPD, the sex-crimes unit focuses on the decriminalization of prostitution. “At some points, addressing prostitution by hitting the corners and making arrests on prostitutes has been a plan of attack,” says Sgt. Stokes, who remembers “massage parlor” busts. “But am I attacking the problem or the individual?” Now he says he and his team send potential victims to the Kristy Love Foundation or the Center for Women and Families.

    LMPD’s recent focus is on reducing demand. When big events come to town — like Derby or the annual Farm Machinery Show — the sex-crimes unit prepares for stings. They post advertisements on popular pay-for-sex sites, with a fully clothed undercover female officer posing as a minor. (In Kentucky, force, fraud or coercion doesn’t need to be proven if the victim is under 18.) Teenage boys to men in their 70s have responded to ads. “White males, Black males, Asian males, Latino males — from all walks of life,” Stokes says. “Known drug dealers, dads, truck drivers, business professionals. There’s no picture of what a human trafficker or john looks like.” During the 2019 Derby, four men were arrested for soliciting sex from advertisements and charged with the felony of promoting human trafficking and using electronic communications to procure a minor for sex. Most of these charges were amended down. In 2018, officers arrested seven men — including a children’s orthopedic surgeon — and cited two of the 265 individuals who contacted a “Cutest Filly at the Derby” ad. None of the arrests resulted in convictions for human trafficking; the surgeon, for example, pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of prostitution solicitation.

    During the 2018 Derby, police occupied a hotel room near Hurstbourne Parkway and I-64 for operations. On the nightstand: some cigarillos, a beer can, a box of condoms. The undercover female officer answered the door after a 38-year-old mechanic knocked, ready for the “$30 anal sex” he propositioned with someone he believed to be a 16-year-old. Officer Tony Gipson also answered the door, as well as officer Nick Dilley, prepped with his bulletproof vest, extra handcuffs and leg restraints. Some johns fold, others fight. Some urinate once their feet clear the doorway and the chaos ensues. “Some hyperventilate, pass out,” says Stokes, who’s had to learn a lot of lingo for conversations in the “communications room,” where men online will use acronyms like 100HH ($100 for half an hour). “The dialogue in there, little of that will be (rated) G. Most of it’s R, and some of it will even go to X,” Stokes says. Officer Lindsay Lynch, who interviews the men and fills out citations, has heard the gamut of excuses: I got the wrong room! I’ll never do this again! I have friends who are police officers! This is going to kill my mother! I’m a good Christian man!

    LMPD says it has carried out four stings in Jefferson County in the past two years: the Derby and the Farm Machinery Show in 2018, and the Derby and the state fair in 2019. “In isolation, the stings have minimal effect,” says Rus Funk, a social worker and sexuality educator who works to end gender-based violence and promote healthy masculinity. “Buyers know that 95 percent of the time they’re not going to have any consequences.”

    Prosecutor Kristi Gray, with the office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney, has only convicted in two of the 10 or so complete investigations she has worked on with LMPD. “I’ve met with several victims who have not pursued a criminal investigation,” Gray says. She says this trend mirrors domestic-violence cases, because of the trauma and psychological threat. “The issues that a jury sees as affecting the victim’s credibility” — drug habits, failures to appear in court, protecting their traffickers — “is exactly what makes them vulnerable to traffickers,” Gray says. Allyson Cox Taylor, who used to be head of the AG’s Office of Child Abuse and Human Trafficking Prevention and Prosecution, trained prosecutors about trafficking cases, which are relatively new to the courts. “Trafficking isn’t on the bar exam,” Cox Taylor says. It wasn’t until 2013 that Kentucky passed the Human Trafficking Victims’ Rights Act, which includes the “safe harbor” component to protect child victims from prosecution and financially penalizes those convicted of the offense. The first human-trafficking conviction in Jefferson County happened in 2014, but Gray says Kentucky is still in a “gray area” as to the legal aspects of a jury trial for the crime.

    Lynn, the investigator, has to think like a trafficker. When he worked for the AG (the federal grant that funded the position wasn’t reinstated), he had the books by Pimpin’ Ken called The Art of Human Chess and Pimpology (with chapter titles like “Law 5: Prey on the Weak” and “Law 20: Get in a Ho’s Head”) in his office. He has studied the patterns: traffickers using GPS chips to track their victims versus branding them with tattoos, kids getting groomed on social-media apps.

    During one interview, Lynn plays the same trafficking slideshow he uses to train police forces statewide. It features a mug shot of Justin Ritter, who in 2014 became the first person in Jefferson County to be sent to prison on human-trafficking charges. In 2011, Ritter was arrested in a strip club parking lot in the South End when he offered an undercover cop sex with a 17-year-old girl for $75. Ritter grew up in the South End. He says he started dating a stripper when he was 13 and that he consequently got kicked out of his parents’ house. He says an eventual meth addiction led to heroin, which “turned me into a monster.” That’s when he started finding johns for women, he says. “I’d get money, clothes, drugs, a place to stay in exchange,” Ritter says during an interview at the Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in La Grange. “I found women who were already prostituting or stripping and reaped the benefits off of her. I’d be just as fucked up as she is. Why would I feel bad about that? You should feel bad if you’re turning people into that.”

    In April 2018, Lynn’s attention is mostly devoted to Silky Clark, aka Silky Smoot or Silky the Pimp, who was arrested in September 2017 for selling a 17-year-old on sex websites and social media. On his laptop, Lynn searched Clark’s 13 different Facebook pages for clues. It took him a week to go through Clark’s confiscated phone. In October 2019, Clark was federally sentenced to 21 years in prison on charges of trafficking a minor and production of child pornography. Clark’s mother told the court she was a trafficking victim when she was 15, and that Clark’s dad was the trafficker. According to a WHAS-11 TV report, she said, “Clark simply modeled the behavior he saw.”

    “I live in a dark world,” says Lynn, who relaxes by closing the door to his office and listening to the podcast Sold in America, which is about sex trafficking.

    Episode two of that podcast features Renfro, who recounts a time in jail when a visitor leading a Bible study wanted to help. “Nobody had ever asked me how they could help,” Renfro says in the episode. She was in her late 20s then and says it was her last time getting arrested. “I was tired,” she says. “I sat down and calculated how many mens I slept with. I came up with 30,000. I tried to change the numbers and I couldn’t change the numbers. They is what they is.”

     

    On a warm December afternoon in 2018, a soft breeze trickles through the open windows at the Kristy Love Foundation’s five-bedroom home. The house is one in a cluster of three in west Louisville’s California neighborhood, where Renfro estimates she has housed more than 700 women since 2011. Renfro knew it was important to name her organization Kristy Love because young girls on the street can identify with it. “It makes me feel powerful,” she says. “No matter how hard you fall, you can always pick back up, and I’m here standing.” Sometimes Renfro still introduces herself as Kristy Love. “I took something bad and turned it into a good thing,” she says. The first thing she asks women who come to KLF is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” because she was never asked that question.

    A sunshine-yellow flower painting that says “You are beauty full” hangs near the entrance. Inside, Renfro and some women — a couple of whom are newbies — gather in the dining room, where a chalkboard wall reads: “She been through HELL and came out an angel. You didn’t break her, darling. You don’t own that kind of power.”

    Victoria (some names have been changed), a middle-aged woman from the South End, says, “I can’t do a job right now. I need to sit still, listen to Miss Angie.” Victoria says she is 30 days clean after 20 years of doing meth. She says she’d been using after she found her son dead on the couch from a heroin overdose. She’d think about him when she was coming down from a high, then use again so she wouldn’t have to.

    “You have to change your brain,” Renfro says. “I thought I knew everything. I knew how to make money standing up, laying down. What I knew was how to be choked, dragged, pissed on. But I didn’t know how to live.”

    “It’s like a Cinderella story, for real,” says Tammy, a 30-something woman also from the South End. She has been here twice before and has just returned from a stint at a sobriety home. This time, she came back pregnant.

    When Renfro left the life, she says, “I had a little bit of family support, but mostly it was prayer and meditation.” She started to feel all the feelings “street creed” had taught her to ignore. She numbed those feelings with drugs, “which was like breakfast to me,” she says. She held her shame the way the soil holds a bulb in the ground: She let it root and spread, let it blossom new life. She calls this mental space her “secret garden.” “Every survivor has one,” she says.

    Renfro moved to the city in 2006 with her husband (whom she doesn’t want named) — the not-her-type man, the smart man with a good job. She met him at a Narcotics Anonymous function in Cincinnati. “He was around for almost all of my healing process,” Renfro says. “He’s real patient with me.” Her husband was there while Renfro — on a third-grade reading level, who “didn’t know what it was like to walk through a high school,” she says — attended Jefferson Community and Technical College. He was there when she quit school with an idea to use her transitional-housing experience at Volunteers of America and the $1,800 left over from a school loan to start her foundation. He helped secure the first house, which was hard for Renfro to get under her name because of her record. Now, her husband organizes the bills, swings by with toilet paper and helps with the community dinners

    During KLF’s infancy, Renfro hit the “ho stroll,” on the lookout for possible victims. “There’s an energy between a survivor and someone in the life,” she says. When she hands out food and supplies to women in abandoned (or “trap”) houses, she says, “You feel how no one has ever asked them how they’re doing.” Soon, she had four women under her roof. In October 2018, Renfro opened another house (which someone donated to the organization) in Jeffersonville, Indiana, and she recently secured an 18,000-square-foot former church space on the edge of Smoketown, where she wants to move the women staying at KLF. She will use the one remaining house in west Louisville as a drop-in resource center.

    Renfro says her foundation receives $2,000 from the city’s Office for Safe & Healthy Neighborhoods — threatened by the mayor’s budget cuts — but does not get other state or federal funding as of now. She estimates that last year KLF received about $50,000 in donations, including money raised at two big annual fundraisers, one during Derby season and one in the fall. She has recently secured a grant writer for help with future finances. (Once the women in the house become stable, they do pay a nominal fee as rent.)

    In-house nurses who volunteer at KLF regularly collect urine samples. After detox offsite, “the girls,” as Renfro calls them, keep a busy weekly schedule with morning meditation, in-house meetings, and visits to N.A., the Healing Place, art therapy and church. They’ll get jobs, some working at restaurants, hotels or bargain supply stores. They eat cinnamon rolls together for breakfast, cook up chicken and bagged broccoli for dinner, cuddle on the couch at night and watch scary movies. They’ll try on donated clothes in the basement, aka Kristy’s Kloset. They do laundry and keep up with the chores board.

    At one morning meditation, 10 women circle up in the living room. They pull from a basket of books in the middle of the circle — From Faith to Faith; Moments of Peace for the Morning — and take turns reading passages. One woman says her father sold her to a man from his biker gang, and she was trafficked after that. A former “madam” in an escort service, who is now considered the “house mom,” recites a poem she has written. One line goes: “If it were you, you’d want some help, too.” Another woman — who has been at KLF since 2016 and is in the program’s leadership academy — says now her mom “can lay her head down at night without wondering if I’m going to be found dead in a ditch somewhere.” At the end of the meeting, they pray together ­— God a huge presence in this house. Though, Renfro says, “You could pray to Buddha for all I care. We won’t turn you away.”

    Women at the Kristy Love house are required to attend trauma therapy with an in-house therapist. In Old Louisville, Dr. Susan Rhema, a therapist and the director of Louisville’s Survivors of Torture Recovery Center, works with trafficking victims as young as 13. Sometimes a whole session will consist of a patient lying in the fetal position while Rhema softly plays music. “It’s all they can muster,” she says. One patient said the smell of a grilled cheese triggered her because, as a child, one of her traffickers would make her a grilled cheese after she had sex with clients. With some patients — most with symptoms of chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, severe anxiety and depression, or dissociative identity disorder (“checking out” during triggering moments) — they get to the root of the trauma. “A lot of people don’t have patience with this population,” Rhema says. “They don’t have friends or support. They’ll get kicked out of apartments.” All of which makes them more susceptible to re-entering the life.

    “Miss Angie is like a humanitarian, for real,” Tammy says at the dinner table. “Like John Lennon and his wife, the Black version.”

    When Tammy leaves two weeks later, Renfro says, “She just ain’t ready yet.” Some women stay at KLF for six months, a year, three. Most of the 20-or-so women who are currently staying in the three Kristy Love houses found out about KLF through word of mouth or were sent by a court or social-service agency. One showed up to serve out a home-incarceration stint and never left after the bracelet was removed. But Renfo is used to women staying for only a few days, their ability to trust broken, their need for a fix too strong. She estimates that the relapse rate is 85 percent. Healing is hard work. Healing means digging through the secret garden and pulling out the weeds.

    Renfro smooths her thumb over the turquoise heart around her neck. Tammy gave it to her. “This is how I know she’ll be back,” Renfro says.

     

    It’s November 2018, and Renfro is moving slower than usual while recovering from pneumonia after a hospital stay. The medication she has been taking gives her nightmares; old faces resurface. She’s at the planetarium on U of L’s campus, attending a sex-trafficking event hosted by the university’s Kent School of Social Work and some other organizations. She’ll speak on a panel, something she has done across the country. It has already been a big day, with a KLF board meeting determining Renfro would no longer have to focus on fundraising or finances, just house operations.

    Dr. Jennifer Middleton opens the evening. She’s a professor at the Kent School, a wrangler of federal grants to fund trafficking research and a co-chair of the Louisville Human Trafficking Task Force. Earlier today, she led that group’s monthly meeting, with about 40 people from different social-service organizations discussing “john schools” (diversion programs for the buyers of sex) and Louisville native Alix Lutnick, who wrote Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains. (The book examines what can lead to trafficking: poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia, inequitable access to resources, previous trauma. “We have to hold these complicated issues in all their messiness,” Lutnick says.)

    A short film ends with a woman escaping to freedom — a hazy, lapping shoreline — in only a slip. Renfro stiffens remembering the slip. Her slip looked just like it in 1990, when she was pregnant with her sixth child. She says she was arrested in that slip and ended up having her son in prison. “One arm shackled to the bed,” she says. “I got to hold him for three minutes.” He was born legally blind because of an untreated sexually transmitted infection.

    Renfro had a miscarriage when she was 12. She remembers playing “hide-and-go-get” in the fields one day when she felt a hard cramp in her stomach. She ran inside — past her mom drinking with friends, past the speakers so loud you could hear them down the street. “I stayed in the bedroom for a week after that,” Renfro says. Her mom took her to the doctor a week later; she knew something was wrong but didn’t ask. “My mother was in so much denial about who I was,” Renfro says. “I always felt like it was my fault.” As six babies were born over the years, they’d stay with Renfro’s mom. “We think three are john babies,” Renfro says. The pregnancies didn’t hurt business. “Sometimes they pay more when you’re pregnant because they know they can’t knock you up,” she says.

    Medical visits were always traumatizing. Renfro says her crack use caused her daughter, Destiny, to be born four months early, and that a doctor told her something like: You’re a streetwalker and you need to stop having kids you can’t take care of. “They didn’t even ask me…” she says now, teary-eyed. “Here you are, looking at a child who’s having children….”

    At the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine, more than 600 students have been trained to look for signs of trafficking using standardized patient-based simulations. “Afterward, we go in and say, ‘Did you notice some things were off? That she had bruises on her arms? A tattoo like a barcode? That she’s very distrustful of you and wanted to get her medicine and get out?’” says Dr. Olivia Mittel, who developed the curriculum. Another sign: someone with the patient who will not leave the bedside or is answering every question for them. The U of L nursing program is implementing similar training.

    Renfro left the hospital before she had Destiny, wearing two robes, one in the front, one in the back. She says she had her three-pound baby on the living room floor on top of some garbage bags. “After that I hopped back in my ‘suit,’” she says. “I didn’t know how to be a mother.”

    Renfro remembers when her younger sister visited her in jail with word that the kids were “going into the system.” “I’d be hollering in the courtroom saying the judges ain’t fair,” Renfro says. “It took almost nine years to get them back because I was so chronic.” When Renfro got out of the life, she was able to regain custody. She says she’s “shocked” that none ended up in trafficking.

    Renfro says her son, her youngest, her “blue skies and sunshine,” is a big reason she left the life. “I didn’t want my son to be like all them other mens putting his hands on women,” she says. When she got to Louisville, she sent him to the Kentucky School for the Blind, and he later went on to Morehead State University. The rest of her kids look almost like reflections of each other, reflections of Renfro: same big brown eyes and little button nose. Some still live in Ohio. The oldest, who has her own cleaning service, says, “I’ve seen my mama cry, but I’ve never seen her give up.” Another has a small clothing company and five kids. One daughter lives in Louisville with her two children. She and Renfro ride around on “praise breaks” singing gospel music and attend meetings for Black women entrepreneurs. On Facebook, this daughter says: “This is the woman who I visited in prison and we had to cover the handcuffs up with teddy bears to take a picture. This is a woman who suffered from the addiction to heroin…who lost her kids to the system…but this is also the woman who has dedicated her life to saving others…who is a listening ear to a silent heart saving young women from human trafficking and the streets.”

    “She’s doing what God intended her to do,” Renfro’s mother says.

    At Renfro’s 50th birthday celebration in September 2018, four of the kids circled their mother, who was seated front and center in a grand room, wearing a long, formal black dress. They sang Boyz II Men’s “A Song for Mama,” roses in their hands.

    The afternoon after the U of L event, Renfro makes a quick trip to a bargain supply store for canned goods and a coffee machine. Her phone rings 10 times in 20 minutes. One call from a church, another from a survivor. Back at the Kristy Love house, she gets another call. When she answers the phone, she’s sitting at her desk in the makeshift office between the living and dining rooms — papers and bags of donations everywhere — filling out a form for a young woman who just got out of jail on drug charges, labeling everywhere she will go. The call is from one of Renfro’s daughters, who’s in trouble with the police again. Possession charges. “Your friends are crumbs,” Renfro tells her. “You know I’m about to go to the FBI academy. Tell all your friends: ‘You’re going dooowwwwnnnnn.’” (Renfro attended a few of the academy classes a friend’s husband nominated her for.)

    Renfro hangs up, sighs. “I feel like I’m living in a movie,” she says. “Sometimes it’s hard to stop the cycles of the life.”

     

    When Cyntoia Brown is granted clemency by the state of Tennessee in January 2019 after serving 15 years of a life sentence for killing a man who bought her for sex when she was 16, a little party erupts at the Kristy Love Foundation. The women do the “Ziggity Boop,” which is the survivors’ dance. “It was bittersweet,” Renfro says. “It was like, if someone could’ve had a voice for me 20 years ago. That’s the most painful part. It took other people’s voices to get her free.”

    Whenever human trafficking becomes national news, Renfro is glad the world’s finally waking up to the reality of her world, all its dark secrets and scars. During the winter, her own scars left by the johns’ cigarettes burn all over her body because of the cold. There will always be unexplainable ties that keep her hooked to the past, like the wallet she bought not long ago that has hundred-dollar bills printed all over it. There will always be constant reminders. There will always be that long shadow.

    Renfro visits her hometown of Cincinnati and sees that the motel where she used to meet johns has been knocked down. Her childhood home — the one where her own kids, through the window, saw her hopping in and out of cars — is gone, too. Now, almost triumphantly, she poses with the street signs that marked “her” corner. She remembers Lisa, one of her trafficker’s other victims. She has heard that Lisa is dead. “She kept tricking ’til she broke,” she says. Renfro’s grandma is dead, too. She died five years into Renfro’s freedom. “I believe her praying got me out,” she says. Renfro doesn’t know if her trafficker is still around.

    Who is that woman in the rear-view mirror, driving away from her old stomping ground? She knows who she is.

     

    The human trafficking hotline number is 1-888-373-7888.

    This originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Louisville Magazine under the headline “The Long Shadow.” To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Photos by Mickie Winters, mickiewinters.com

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