I’d come unannounced, but Elizabeth, who is now twenty-two, seemed unfazed. We sat and talked in folding chairs on her front porch. She vaped and bounced her son, whom she’d wrapped in a thick blanket, on her lap. Law enforcement and social-service providers often say that one of the challenges in addressing trafficking is that victims have been coerced and manipulated to the point that they don’t see themselves as having been exploited. Elizabeth was in the process of confronting a lifetime of damage and dysfunction, and learning not to judge herself for what she’d done to survive. “I sat down in the middle of the worst days of my life, and I manifested this life for myself,” she said.

Elizabeth had dreamed of having her own place since she was a kid—it was one of the ambitions that multiple traffickers had exploited to pull her into prostitution, by promising her that she would be able to afford one. Her sister, who is a senior in high school, lives with her in the house; her mom lives in an R.V. on the property. On weekends, Elizabeth plans family activities, such as trips with her son to a nearby park. She’s still adjusting to her new life. “It didn’t come with the perfect family and the white fence,” she said. “It came with a gravel driveway. It has its bumps, and it has its flaws. But it’s, in its own way, beautifully perfect.”

When we met for lunch a few days later, at a Southern-food buffet in a strip mall, she wore a hooded sweatshirt, with her hair pulled back and no makeup. As we ate fried chicken and mac-and-cheese from Styrofoam containers, she told me that downplaying her appearance was part of a conscious choice to reject her past life. “I can’t be vain anymore,” she said. “I have literally humbled myself to stop doing what I did.” In therapy, she has talked through her trauma, and worked to build a new sense of self-worth. “When you’re not, you know, selling your soul anymore, who likes you?” she said. “That’s when you have to sit down and love yourself.”

This article is part of Trafficking Inc., a reporting collaboration involving the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other media partners in multiple countries. It was supported by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at cuny’s Newmark Graduate School of Journalism.