How a Calif. Girl Pulled into Sex Slavery by a Smooth-Talking Trafficker Found Her Purpose in a Group Home

January is Human Trafficking Prevention Month. This week’s issue of PEOPLE shares stories of survivors like Oree Freeman, a young mother determined to keep others from experiencing the pain she did

Oree Freeman was born in prison. She was adopted by a single mother when she was 2 days old.

"I was born with a booking number," Freeman, 26, tells PEOPLE in this week's issue. "I was born into an unfair hand."

Her adopted mother taught preschool and managed an apartment complex.

She didn't talk to Freeman about the gangs or drugs or women who stand on street corners in the neighborhood. "She didn't even want to sign the permission slip to sex education in the fifth grade," Freeman remembers.

When she was 9, Freeman was molested by a family friend. Then she was raped by a gang in South Central Los Angeles.

When she was 10, she learned she was adopted.

"That hurt me more than anything," she says. "It was the lie."

When she was 11, the family friend who had assaulted her started coming around — so she ran away from home.

"I just left," she says. "I ran away because I didn't feel safe…. I didn't feel protected."

Twenty year-old Oree Freeman spent years as a victim of child sex trafficking in Orange County
Oree Freeman. Christine Cotter

She went to a girlfriend's house. The two of snuck out to meet the friend's boyfriend. "She went off to smoke marijuana, and she told me she would be right back for me," she says.

The friend never came back. Freeman waited on the couch, a man sat down next to her and she started telling him her life story.

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"He didn't have to recruit me. He didn't have to come hunt for me. It was like I fell right on his doorstep," she says. "The number one important thing I always tell parents is: Talk to your children, because you never want them talking to a stranger and to somebody else that doesn't have the right intention."

Freeman went home with him. He gave her a bath.

"I thought that that was all I was worth. And I thought that it was normal at 11 and a half years old, that nothing was wrong out of that because every other man wanted to touch me. Every other man wanted to violate me in that type of way," she says. "He told me I would never have to work and I'm their princess."

That night, he took her to watch another woman work the streets.

"I said I didn't want to do it," she says, "and he hit me across my face and he dragged me out the car, like a fifth grader who would drag their backpack because they were angry and mad. And he dragged me up Long Beach Boulevard and my knees scraping the floor and I just said, 'I want to go home.' And he said, 'Who's going to take you? Nobody wants you.'"

"And I believed every lie that was coming on his mouth," she says. "Every lie. One, I was far away from home. Two, I didn't feel safe from there. Three, I knew my family probably wouldn't accept me back."

So, she stayed.

"My normal, every single day, was being raped seven to 15 times a night. And if you calculate that, that could probably come up to 4,000 times in one year. And that continued for four and a half years."

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At 12 years old, she was branded on her neck. "You become somebody's piece of property," she says. "Every time you lay down with someone who was purchasing sex, a piece of you dies."

About two weeks after she ran away from home, she was picked up for violating probation and missing a court date for an assault charge. She spent four months in juvenile hall. Her adopted mother never came to pick her up. She learned that her adopted mother told officials she no longer wanted Freeman in her home.

"When you hear that somebody don't want you no more, that hurts. That hurts," she says. "Nobody came to my rescue."

She was placed in a group home, but walking home from school, she met a second trafficker, and got in the car with him.

"I know what it's like to get hit upside my head with an iron and get beat with a pole. I know what it's like to be starved. I know what it's like to sit in my own urine. I know those things. And every survivor has a different story and can probably tell you some over the top horrible thing that has happened to them out there in the life. You get in a car, and not know if the person buying sex is going to strangle you to death."

When she was 15, she violated probation and was taken to a group home in Orange County where she met a case manager, Jim Carson, who helped her change her life.

Carson told her that all the bad things that happened to her — none of them were her fault.

"Our relationship has been filled with just nothing but love — unconditional. When I didn't know how to love myself, Jim loved me," she says. "He became my safe person. I trusted him."

"I remember sitting at the table with Jim at 15 years old in the group home and I said, 'I'm going to change the world.' And he said, 'Okay, first you need to change yourself.'"

Oree Freeman 7th Annual Saving Innocence Gala
Oree Freeman. MediaPunch/Shutterstock

In May, Freeman plans to earn her associate degree and transfer to a four-year college. She hopes to move to Texas her 3-year-old daughter. She wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. to meditate. She has a clothing line coming out called Be Bold Apparel, selling items emblazoned with confidence-building phrases Carson told her, which helped her heal.

Freeman tells her story in an effort to help other women. She serves on the board of Survivor 2 Leader, the nonprofit Carson founded that empowers sex trafficking survivors. She hopes to one day have a talk show, and help other survivors share their stories.

She reconnected with her birth mother and learned that she was also sex trafficked. She is determined that will never happen to her daughter.

"I'm choosing a healthy life," she says. "My daughter's surrounded by love."

If you or someone you know is being trafficked, these organizations can help:

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