MEMPHIS, Tenn. — A Memphis teenager disappeared, and when the alert was issued, she was labeled as a habitual runaway, but her mother knew it was worse.
The teen spent nearly three months being sex trafficked, and her mother’s actions are focused on education, reaching those everyday people who victims might meet along the way.
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Summer Ave is one of the streets where the teen said she was sold for sex, even using some of the motel rooms that dot both sides of the street.
In the wake of her recovery, is a mother who's turning these events into a sense of purpose. Her days begin in prayer.
"Thanks for trusting me with your child that you have blessed me with," whispers Tunjia Akemon.
It's a prayer she wrote down to remember, and to show thanks for getting her daughter back, a victim of sex trafficking.
(How tough was it for you as a mom to hear some of those stories?)
"Tough. Tough, and then I sit there, and I'm listening to her, and I'm trying to be strong, but I just want to ball up and cry or put my hands over my ears, and I'm like, 'Oh my God why?' It made me so angry," said Akemon.
That anger, not forgotten, but shifted. First and foremost, getting her daughter physically and mentally healthy. She has been in an in-patient facility for nearly 10 months.
"I can't make her forget. I wish I could make her forget. That's why I feel like just every day trying more, having good conversations, counseling things like that because it's something that no one should ever have to go through," said the mother.
"Their trafficking didn't happen overnight. Their vulnerability didn't happen overnight," added Rachel Haaga, Executive Director of Restore Corps, a group whose goal is to eradicate human and sex trafficking.
She sees the aftermath of sex trafficking every day with victims as young as 13 years old, searching to get their lives back. It's a struggle that's emotional and personal.
"The rehabilitation from one client to the next is not only exceptionally diverse and complex, but it needs to be individualistic at times as well," Haaga said.
Families also need counseling. Tunjia Akemon told us she thinks about what her daughter went through on the streets, and she blames herself.
"When she was missing those three months, I couldn't eat. I couldn't sleep. I cried a lot, and I blame myself," said Akemon.
She also blamed police for how her daughter was labeled. In the City Watch report, her daughter was identified as a "habitual runaway.” She was actually lured away by a sexual predator.
She wasn't kidnapped and Tunjia said these predators know the difference.
"My daughter overheard a conversation about it's better for them to run away instead of kidnapping them because the police will look for a kidnapped person more than they would look for a runaway, and you know that's crazy," she said.
Her daughter also told her some of the places her mom searched for her were the same places she had been taken; those convenience stores, side streets and shady motels. She has talked with state lawmakers about new sex trafficking legislation aimed at the places where the victims are taken.
"I just want to get into hotels and restaurants some kind of mandatory training to be able to identify the signs of it," Akemon said.
But until then, she has a warning for predators: "They're going to get what they deserve, and mothers like me, we're going to find them."
And a prayer going forward: "God I need you to walk me through this journey."
Ms. Akemon has been working with State representative G.A. Hardaway on proposing new legislation surrounding sex trafficking.
We're told the legislation will be aimed at adding specific sex trafficking training to certain state jobs that are exposed to possible victims. We will keep you posted as this legislation moves forward.
Cox Media Group