Desperate. Alone. Lost. Human trafficking survivor finds peace after years of hardship

by Chris Karenbauer

Writer’s note: This article covers sensitive topics on drug abuse and human trafficking. Reader discretion advised. Alizabeth Watkins is not affiliated with Cedarville University. This story was written as part of a project about trafficking in the journalism program’s Investigative Reporting class.

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Alizabeth Watkins showing her tattoo “Never Give Up”

Four years ago Alizabeth Watkins was at her lowest. She had a warrant for her arrest, was addicted to drugs, weighed less than 100 pounds and had MRSA – a bacterial skin infection caused by close contact with people – and abscesses from drug use.

“I was saying I was ready,” Watkins said. “My body was ready, but there’s still that addiction aspect where it’s calling me back.”

Watkins eventually approached a policeman and told him everything. The officer arrested her and sent her to jail. At her court hearing, Watkins told her story to a Franklin County judge. Instead of sending her back to the streets, the judge sent Watkins to rehab and to complete her probation in Chillicothe, Ohio.

After time in rehab, Watkins returned to the judge to show off her progress.

“I went back in front of that judge sober, with weight on me, looking good,” Watkins said. “And she got down off her podium. She came down, and she hugged me. She showed me something that nobody had shown me and that was love and support and that she was proud of me.”

Before her life spiraled downward, Watkins had a relatively normal childhood. She was captain of her school’s cheerleading team, and her mom was the coach. Yet she struggled with depression, and she had a rough relationship with her parents.

After school Watkins and her friends hung out and experimented marijuana and alcohol. Watkins developed an addiction, and she eventually turned to hard drugs. She discovered Xanax, which is used to treat anxiety and panic disorders if taken in the right dose. She then turned to opiates and other stronger drugs.

Watkins’ addiction left her desperate for money to buy more drugs.

“You get sick, and it’s unlike any feeling – people say it’s like the flu, but it’s like the flu on steroids,” Watkins said. “It’s extremely painful, and the drugs take over your mind to a place where you can’t get out.”

In her desperation for drugs, Watkins discovered how easily she could make money if she sold her body for sex. She used a website to advertise herself.

She became homeless, and paid people to stay somewhere or slept out on the streets. Watkins eventually began selling herself on Sullivan Street in Columbus, Ohio, the street where she was born and raised.

At some point, she met a man who became her pimp. He controlled Watkins’ life, coercing her to use her body to get the drugs she desperately needed. This man took Watkins everywhere, even to Michigan, until she escaped.

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A survivor of human trafficking

“People think that human trafficking is someone getting kidnapped off the side of the street, and people don’t realize that it could be a whole grooming process,” Watkins said.

Sex traffickers target vulnerable people – drug addicts or people living in poverty – and feed off their victims’ desperation to get what they want.

Watkins lived several years in the sex trafficking industry. She was arrested many times for solicitation and loitering. With each arrest, she asked for help, but she was denied and sent back to the life she was living.

When she finally got out of the human trafficking industry, she was offered something she never experienced before. That judge who helped Watkins showed her love. A love that Watkins carries in her advocacy to help others like her.

In the last four years Watkins, now 29, is clean. At a conference where she spoke, another Franklin County judge heard Watkins’ story. He helped her get a lawyer for free to get all her debts paid. She no longer owes any fines or debts, and Watkins has worked at a Pilot travel center and owns a car.

Part of Watkins’ journey includes living in a sober living house with other women in Chillicothe, Ohio. A sober living house is a place where drug-addicted people can seek help. Watkins serves as a sober living house mom for the girls who live with her, which means that she is available for the girls under her care if they need help. She makes sure that they are doing what they are supposed to keep sober.

“A lot of us girls never learned or was taught, so this is where they learn to do it,” she said.

Currently, Watkins lives near Chillicothe, Ohio in her own home, and she has also made amends with her entire family and has a steady relationship with them. During the summer of 2022, Watkins went on a summer vacation with her family, the first vacation she had with her father since she was a child. To show her love for her family, Watkins has the names of her niece and nephew tattooed onto her wrists.

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The story is not over

“My family is everything to me,” she said. “But I think the biggest part of my growth is that I put me first today. And there’s no better feeling. I can say, ‘No,’ today. I can stand up to somebody when I see them with drugs or getting high. I can be there to help them. I’m secure in my life, and I’m happy. I’m genuinely happy.”

Watkins has gone through so much in her life, things no person should ever have to deal with. As she recalls these life events, Watkins didn’t receive the help, love and support she needed. She strives to provide those things to others who need it.

“I don’t care if I’m speaking to a classroom full of a thousand people, if I help that one person, that’s what matters,” she said.

Watkins is an advocate for anyone who deals with drug addiction or human trafficking. On her chest above her heart, Watkins has a tattoo of a heartbeat with ‘Survivor’ written below it. On her right forearm, she has ‘Never give up’ written. These tattoos remind her that she is strong, she is valued, and she should never give up on her fight against drug abuse and human trafficking.

“Reach out, show them kindness,” Watkins said. “People don’t understand how far kindness goes. If you – as someone who has never dealt with human trafficking or being an addict by becoming aware of the situations of human trafficking – you’re more likely to see it happening.”

Photos provided by Alizabeth Watkins

Chris Karenbauer is a senior Journalism major and the Editor-in-Chief for Cedars. She enjoys reading and writing, hanging out with friends and listening to music.

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