The family of a sex trafficking victim talks to PEOPLE about how they are adjusting after her rescue
Tom and Nacole were frantic — desperate — when their 15-year-old daughter disappeared in the spring of 2010. They were afraid to think of what could be happening to the teen, who had rarely been away from their suburban Washington home for more than a day.
The truth was beyond even their fears.
Their daughter, J.S., was a freshman honor student who played the violin and ran with her high school’s track team — but she was also an adventurous spirit. Unknown to her parents, she decided to run away to check out Seattle.
Within days, J.S. met a man twice her age, who seduced her with gifts and conversation and a place to stay. Once she trusted the 32-year-old, he quickly turned on her: He beat and raped her, and he posted explicit photos of her in an ad on Backpage.com, where she was forced to have sex for money.
“If you had told me that one day, my daughter would be dropped off at school for track practice and within a few short months she would be sold on a website,” Nacole tells PEOPLE, “I would’ve called you a liar.”
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Their daughter’s story — and the stories of girls like her, who are forced into the multimillion-dollar sex trafficking industry — and their ensuing legal battle with Backpage.com are the focus of the documentary I Am Jane Doe, which debuts in theaters on Friday. (The family agreed to speak with PEOPLE if their last name wasn’t used, and J.S. was not identified.)
“This is their journey and their story, which is hidden in plain sight,” says the film’s director, Mary Mazzio. “So few people know this is actually happening within our own borders.”
A few months after J.S. disappeared, police rescued her during a sting operation. While her family found comfort in knowing her pimp was convicted for his crimes — he was sentenced to 26 years in prison for promoting commercial sex abuse of a minor, third-degree child rape and second-degree assault — they say they were forever changed by the ordeal.
“We will never be the family we were prior to 2010,” Nacole says. “We’re making a new normal.”
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J.S. moved away from the Seattle area after she was freed. She is a single mom raising two children, a 3-year-old daughter and 6-month-old son, from whom she takes enormous relief. She recently got her driver’s license and she’s preparing to attend beauty school.
She says she’s lucky to have a strong support system, which includes her parents.
“I still struggle every day,” J.S. says. “They’ve always helped me and it means the world. I couldn’t have asked for a better set of parents to help me get through this fight.”