Bobbi Larson stood before the mirror in her small bedroom, white gown draped over her shoulders, carefully balancing a mortarboard cap atop her perfectly straightened hair.
“Oh gosh,” she said, a smile spreading wide across her face. “I’m gonna graduate.”
Her dad, Scott Larson, teared up when she walked into the living room. Commencement would begin in a little over an hour in the high school gymnasium that crisp May evening. He gushed with pride -- and relief -- that his little girl had made it.
It was a milestone normally taken for granted in Two Harbors. But with Bobbi’s addiction struggles, cycles in treatment programs and stints on the run, Scott and his wife, Deanna, weren’t assuming anything.
“I just never thought this day was going to come,” Scott said, shaking his head as he watched her rush around getting ready.
Once she clutched that diploma, Scott realized, he would have to let go. But even though she was 18, he knew he and Deanna would always be her parents in the truest sense of the word.
They would continue to worry about her. They would prod her to succeed. They would watch her make mistakes and try to guide her toward better decisions.
At the ceremony, Principal Brett Archer told the graduates that their futures were in their own hands.
“What path you take from here is all up to you,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to leave unhealthy habits and relationships behind.”
The high school choir sang “A Parting Blessing,” the seniors marched across the stage one by one, then the new graduates tossed their caps and glittering confetti into the air.
After the ceremony, Bobbi turned in her gown and said goodbye to her favorite teachers. Then she climbed into her mom’s black Chevy with a friend she had met at a treatment center who had cheered for Bobbi from the audience.
Bobbi’s foot heavy on the gas pedal, they zoomed past tall pines, away from the school, the moonlight shimmering on Lake Superior behind them.
She had aimed herself in a positive direction. She had been staying sober and decided against going to a senior party after commencement, avoiding any temptation of alcohol or drugs. The dollar sign tattoo on her chest had been covered by a colorful, curlicued butterfly with the word “strength” inscribed below it, a sign of transformation to herself and the rest of the world. In about a month, she would start cosmetology school in Duluth.
A promising life lay ahead, if she could just hang on to it.
In the car, the stereo blasted Bobbi’s favorite hip hop song, “Neva End,” by Future.
“We don’t wanna neva end … It’s like our life has just began.”
Summer of struggle
But the psychological effects of sex trafficking don’t end easily. The summer and fall after graduation would prove a rollercoaster of sobriety and relapses into drugs, hopefulness and despair, struggle and denial.
Child sex-trafficking victims can suffer a range of serious physical and psychological damage, including sexually transmitted diseases, malnutrition, low self-esteem, depression and drug addiction. Victims grow to realize the life that pimps sold them as glamorous was all a facade and they feel a stigma, said Alexis Kennedy, a forensic psychologist and criminal justice professor at the University of Nevada.
Counselors warned Bobbi it could take years to understand and move on from what she had been through. She didn’t want to believe that.
In early June, Bobbi announced she was moving into a Duluth rental house where her friend lived with an aunt who had small children. Scott helped load her things and moved her bed. When he drove up to the front door, he grew wary of the run-down neighborhood. The duplex was dilapidated, with mattresses propped against an outside wall and window blinds bent in all directions. But Bobbi insisted it would work; she would be closer to cosmetology school and she could handle living on her own.
Bobbi and her friend looked for work cleaning hotel rooms, filling out applications at waterfront inns for tourists along Canal Park as well as chains up the hill near the mall. But they got no nibbles.
They started hanging out with friends of friends, including a 25-year-old man who Bobbi started to date.
As the days turned into weeks, Bobbi and her friend stayed awake partying into the early morning and then sleeping in late.
“I don’t really care what people think of me,” Bobbi often proclaimed.
But she took pains to look good, carefully picking out clothing, brushing on eye shadow worthy of a magazine cover, and choosing rhinestone-embedded purses, flip-flops and cellphone covers.
Scott and Deanna were more frustrated than they had ever been. Normally, their daughter would at least speak civilly with them. Now she often showed an ornery streak, reacting with defiance to their questions.
They had never seen her quite so short-tempered.
Bobbi was using meth again.
All the money tucked into congratulatory greeting cards at her graduation party -- about $1,000 – had gone up in smoke.
Bobbi was also charged with shoplifting at a Wal-Mart in Hermantown, her first adult infraction. Waiting in the hallway of the old courthouse in Duluth for her case to be called, she stretched chewing gum from her mouth. She agreed to plead guilty to a petty misdemeanor and pay a $185 fine in installments of $25 a month. “I just wanted it done with,” she explained afterward.
To Scott and Deanna’s relief, Bobbi soon decided to move back home to Two Harbors, tired of arguing with her friend.
She also told her parents she wanted to concentrate on cosmetology school. She would build a future out of all the hours she and her friends had spent in front of mirrors, styling their hair and brushing on makeup.
On her first day, she arrived at the school in Duluth wearing a spotted animal-print top, her long hair colored a deep chestnut.
In the first couple of weeks, instructors taught her how to properly shampoo hair, give a perm to a mannequin, and use her fingers to create a flapper-style wave.
“I never thought I’d say this, but I love it,” she announced at the end of June, just days after starting. “I’m not the type of person to love school.”
Confronting her demons
Every single day, Bobbi fights her compulsion to get high.
Everything that happened to her on the run -- living in filth, stealing food, having sex with strangers – weighs heavily on her mind. She tries not to think about it. She doesn’t like to talk about it. When she does, she speaks without emotion, reciting the cold reality of what she went through.
On a visit to the Twin Cities at the end of June, Bobbi had a conversation with a program manager from Breaking Free, the St. Paul nonprofit that helps victims escape and recover from sex trafficking.
Besides helping victims reconsider their pasts, Breaking Free houses some women and girls, helps them find chemical dependency and mental health treatment, and provides them with legal help and job training.
Drug use was her biggest struggle, Bobbi told the program manager, Joy Friedman, who is also a sex-trafficking survivor.
Bobbi explained that she used drugs to escape from herself so she wouldn’t have to face the reality of her past.
“That’s nine times out of 10 what all of us do, we get high to run away from ourselves,” Friedman empathized. “It’s safe to say it’s not fixing the problem that you’re trying to get solved, correct?”
The drugs provided an escape route for about 12 hours, Bobbi said. Then she would come out of her high angry.
The two talked about trying to face their demons. Changing her life will take work, Friedman told Bobbi.
“I definitely, I want a different life, you know?” Bobbi said.
“Nobody can do this but you,” Friedman said. “It’s hard, but look what you were just in. That’s hard ... this is just work.”
Counselors and therapists know the trauma of sex-trafficking haunts victims for years.
The road to healing often requires physically getting out of the environment that they have been living in, severing unhealthy friendships and finding new, positive ones.
“It’s a slow road oftentimes,” said Nikki Beasley, Breaking Free’s director of programs.
Victims think their bodies are damaged. They carry guilt and shame. Counselors help female victims learn to think about themselves differently, Beasley said.
“The brainwashing and the degradation that happens, I don’t know that anyone could ever really understand it … being daily told that you’re not worth it, that nobody will love you,” she said. “A lot of the work we’re doing is re-wiring that and giving them different messages that they, in time, believe.”
Bobbi spent countless hours with therapists, trying to get to the bottom of how her life turned out the way it did, and how she could turn it around.
Her feelings of abandonment by her birth parents came up repeatedly. “I believe I started because I wanted love from a man,” she said. “Yeah, I have a dad in my life but it’s not my biological father.” Her birth mother and father had set her up on a bad course, she said, and that made her angry. But she recognized that she had choices to make, too.
Facing her problems -- her decisions, her past and her future -- was exhausting.
“I feel like I’m ruined,” she said.
It was much easier to just escape.
Some parental tough love
Using her parents’ car over the Fourth of July weekend to drive to Duluth, she just kept going and ended up at a club in downtown Minneapolis.
But this time when things started to feel dangerous, she dialed Sgt. Grant Snyder’s cellphone. He sent a squad car, but also warned that police wouldn’t have the resources to keep coming to her rescue.
The episode was the last straw for Scott and Deanna. Bobbi needed to kick her drug habit, they told her. She needed treatment.
First, Scott confirmed with his insurance company that Bobbi would be covered for a monthlong stay in a Hazelden youth facility in the Twin Cities, widely regarded as one of the premiere treatment programs in the country.
Then they steeled themselves to deliver a tough message of parental love.
They told Bobbi this was her last, best chance to get her life together. Their future support would depend on her staying sober, they said. They couldn’t continue to live with her spiraling out of control.
Sentencing the pimps
While Bobbi stayed sequestered inside Hazelden for most of August, the last of four defendants charged with trafficking her pleaded guilty.
Bobbi learned she would not have to testify against her sex traffickers in court.
Broderick Robinson had pleaded first, then Meranda Warborg, Robert Love and, finally, Jeffrey Latawiec.
At Latawiec’s sentencing inside a Hennepin County courtroom in August, Scott Larson sat down at the prosecution table, tears sometimes flowing from his eyes. Slowly, he told the judge how sex trafficking had hurt Bobbi and his family.
“The agony that we’ve felt as parents over the last 13 months has been tremendous,” he told Judge Daniel Mabley.
“Frequently, we are awakened in the middle of the night with our daughter having flashbacks,” he said. Bobbi describes dreaming of forced sex or of someone holding a gun to her head.
Bobbi used to enjoy life, Scott told the judge, but that had changed. She had been delivered a life sentence of trauma.
“She’s seldom happy today,” he said. “It’s very difficult for her to communicate without … drastic mood changes and anger.” Scott argued that Latawiec deserved a lengthy sentence.
Latawiec publicly apologized to Scott and the Larson family, saying he has two daughters of his own and he made “stupid decisions.”
He said he planned to change his life and hoped Bobbi would be able to recover.
“I feel bad for her,” he said. “I hope that she can get past stuff that happened to her.”
In the end, Mabley sentenced Latawiec to six years in prison. Latawiec had accepted responsibility for his crime and demonstrated remorse, Mabley noted, adding that the guilty plea saved Bobbi the “considerable trauma and embarrassment” of testifying.
Robinson received a sentence of 7½ years in prison. Warborg was sentenced to five years of probation, including a year in the Hennepin County workhouse. If she completes probation, her felony will convert to a misdemeanor. Love was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months in prison, suspended for 10 years of probation, including 180 days in the workhouse.
Careful steps forward
After Hazelden, Bobbi returned to Two Harbors to live with her parents.
They were doing their best to keep her on the right path as she attended outpatient treatment and talked with the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA) in Duluth. The Larsons remained hopeful, but cautious.
“I’m not going to take this more than one day at a time,” Scott said. “Anytime you don’t see her and she’s out of your hands, you worry.”
Bobbi would begin healing at home, among family who love her enough to worry, to stay up nights, to confront her, to stick with her through the very worst. Constant as the boulders lining Lake Superior, pelted by wind and waves.
On a brisk September evening, the Larsons gathered, as they often do, for Sunday dinner. Deanna cooked ribs, salmon and baby red potatoes.
As the sun set, Bobbi played with her nephews in the yard and threw rocks for the family’s bounding springer spaniel, Belle.
She wore no makeup and her hair was tied up and tousled. She smiled brightly.
“I know I’m not going to ever be perfect,” Bobbi said, but she was “taking the steps so I don’t get back in that life.”
For that moment, she was sober, happy and relaxed.
It was fragile, but it was a start.
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