[Editor’s notes: The real names of the people in this story have been changed to protect their anonymity. This is the first installment of a series on human trafficking in San Diego.]
One day late in January, 16-year-old Lesley Buckley took off on her bike to go to a friend’s house — and never arrived.
It triggered a massive search by mom Erin Buckley, the police and private investigators that took several weeks to find her, followed by months of rehabilitation to heal her mental wounds from the experience.
Unwittingly, Lesley had been lured into the sex trafficking trade by her 15-year-old girlfriend and a 40-plus-year-old male “friend” who turned out to be a pimp.
Now reunited and rebuilding their relationship — and lives— the two women talked about their shared experience both would rather forget.
Erin recalls being frantic at first.
“We called all her friends. Her phone was off. We searched and retraced her probable bike route. … By the next morning, we grew increasingly alarmed when we couldn’t track her down and called the police.”
“I was trying to help out a friend who I had met awhile before when we were in summer camp,” said Lesley. “I knew she had problems and had run away at times. I had taken her to the youth ministry I was involved in at my church to help her.”
Erin realized it would be up to her and her husband to find their daughter if they were ever to see her again. “They [police] assigned the case to the school resources officer and he began interviewing her friends at school to see if anyone might have information,” said Erin. “There were leads but they couldn’t give us information due to school confidentiality issues. … We soon realized that they considered she might be a runaway and she was a low-priority case. It became clear early on that we had to take matters into our own hands.”
A week went by with nothing, no clues. Then Erin learned Lesley may have been in contact with a friend, Susan, who had last been seen in a center that treated victims of sex trafficking.
“She [Susan] was also an adopted foster child like my daughter, and had become a habitual runaway,” said Erin.
Asked if she were troubled, looking for an escape or testing her boundaries when she disappeared, Lesley answered, “All of those. She [Susan] asked me to come to Los Angeles with her to party. It sounded fun. Her boyfriend had a car. … I didn’t think about the dangerous part of it. I wanted to go off the grid. I wanted to get away. I didn’t think I’d be gone for long.”
Of her Los Angeles experience, Lesley said, “It’s hard for me to talk about and hard to remember it all. A lot of it I don’t want to talk about. That first night, we went to party at a big house with people that seemed very weird and older. The people I was with were nice to me. I realized she [Susan] was involved in this world of sex and bad people that were involved with drugs, but I said no and they left me to myself to just hang out. … She [Susan] would go places and I didn’t know where she went. I realized after a time that she was being prostituted. I felt like they were being nice to pull me in when I think about it now. We were smoking a lot of weed and partying.”
“My husband Dave and I took an active, central role in the search, because we couldn’t rely on law enforcement,” said Erin of the hunt for Lesley. She added, “We had to find the right resources and run our own ‘case’ in reality. … We had to work as well. We were allowed to work from home and devoted ourselves full-time to the search, while handling our jobs and a family with four other children.”
Persistence paid off in the end for the Buckleys.
“She [Lesley] was gone more than five weeks before we found her,” said Erin. “Saved In America [child rescue group] had rescued the girls off the streets of Compton in coordination with LA County Sheriffs.”
Erin noted the struggle to “reclaim” her daughter had actually just begun once she’d been found after running away.
“We naively thought that getting her back was the finish line and the end of challenges,” Erin said. “However, we quickly realized that day that these girls needed to quickly transition to a new location away from their homes to avoid being discovered or leaving again, and for residential treatment specializing in girls that are traumatized by trafficking.
“This was a person we no longer knew,” Erin said of her daughter. “She had come back from being gone a very different, traumatized girl. … Now, she referred to the staff and her fellow residents as ‘family’ and I think she was feeling resentment that we had abandoned her. … Her therapist was convinced she was ready to come home, but on her trial visit, she was in touch with a problematic young man in her life from the past and planning to escape with him when she came home for good at Christmas. … We realized she was not rehabilitated at all. She was just as much a flight risk now as she was previously and a very confused, dysfunctional child.”
Lesley was taken to a residential treatment facility in southern Utah for months of rehabilitation therapy.
Describing her treatment there, which started within a week of coming home after she was rescued, Lesley said, “At first I hated where I went. I never was alone the whole time I was there. There was always a counselor with me. I had no privacy. I had to earn rights and rewards. I saw what happened if you didn’t behave. If you got pissed off or acted crazy, then all the staff would hold you down. … There were some seriously messed up kids in there. … I made some incredibly close friends after a while. I wanted to escape and live with them. I didn’t want to go back home and wanted to start out new somewhere else. My friends and I kept talking about what we’d do when we got out of there at 18.”
Lesley talked about what it felt like being controlled by others during rehab. “They took my phone,” she said. “I couldn’t call my parents and was embarrassed even if I could contact them. I thought I could get away and do my own thing. Maybe get a job. We used different names and I thought, ‘I’m stuck and maybe I’ll just start a new life.’ I didn’t like my life. Maybe this was the start of a new life for me.”
After Lesley’s rescue, Erin said a police officer told her that “her parents really loved her because he’d never seen parents work so relentlessly in trying to find their child. I just thought we were doing what any parent would do if their child was in peril.”
Discussing reconnection with her parents, Lesley noted the connection is not yet complete — maybe never will be.
“I feel like I’ve never gotten my mom and dad’s relationship back to where it was before,” she said. “I don’t want to see my family, my grandma, my uncles, anyone hardly at all. Now that I’m 19 almost 20, I live without them on my own and am happy just working and doing my own thing.”
Looking back on it, what advice would Erin and Lesley give to others finding themselves trapped in a similar situation?
“Make sure you know what your child is doing on social media and who they are spending time with,” said Erin. “Know their world as much as you can. … As a parent, you are responsible for your child’s safety and they don’t have a right to complete privacy. She was vulnerable to an old friend who had been a runaway and got sucked into a world that our daughter did not know. In trying to help her, Lesley got sucked into it, too.”
Regarding lessons learned, Lesley concluded, “It’s best not to trust adults you don’t know. You shouldn’t be around adult men that want to be with kids. If it doesn’t feel right, get away from it. You have to be very careful in talking to strangers that hide in social media. There are some disturbed people out there that go after vulnerable girls and boys. You need to listen to your parents. They are your friends. They are there to protect you.”
—Reach Dave Schwab at firstname.lastname@example.org.