Note: The Forecaster does not typically identify by name victims of sex crimes. In this instance, the survivor has decided to come forth to tell her story.

Kasie Kirkham wasn’t aware that at age 16 she was being groomed for the sex trade.

She’d been exploited by men, and she would prostitute herself occasionally to get money for things she wanted, but when another young woman drew her into a life of prostitution she didn’t realize what was happening. “Never once did I ever think that the girl was using me,” Kirkham said. “It was more like ‘hey come join me, this is fun.’ I think it was glorified, glamorized, no different than stripping. I thought I was in control.”

Now 34, Kirkham recently is using her experience as a survivor of human trafficking to educate law enforcement as part of the Bath-Brunswick Salvation Army’s new CROWNS program.

CROWNS is available to provide resources to those who have been trafficked or being trafficked. The program’s hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday at the Salvation Army Bath-Brunswick Corps, 25 Congress Ave., Bath.

In addition to educating police, CROWNS – which stands for Cherished, Respected, Original, Worthy, Needed, Strong – offers resources to survivors.

“We have a pantry here in the office of clothing, toiletries, bags, that’s a great way for people to support our program and the people we serve,” CROWNS program coordinator Sarah Plante said. “We can accept new clothing, socks, underwear, bras of various sizes, shorts, t-shirts, sweatpants, sweatshirts, jeans, shoes – we will take any of that. It has to be new though. People can donate financially as well.”

According to Brunswick Police Commander Paul Hensen, human trafficking has long been misunderstood and poorly handled by Maine police. Before programs like CROWNS, Hensen said, training was “every once in awhile. We’d have mandated training. Human trafficking, you read this, take the test, go on.”

CROWNS and Brunswick Police also work with Westbrook-based Just Love World Wide, another nonprofit that offers resources to survivors and those actively being trafficked and provides training to law enforcement.

These education programs are vital, Kirkham said, but more still needs to be done, such as creating both long- and short-term housing for survivors trying to escape and working with children on prevention.

For people who want to get involved, Kirkham suggests that even simple gestures like offering food or other daily resources to someone in need can make a big difference.

“If you are concerned for someone, just ask them, ‘What do they need? I love you, what can I help you with?’ Things like CROWNS are big because I felt that to have love, I always needed to give, and it blew my mind that someone was out there who wanted to just help me without anything in return.”

Police now look at runaway cases and prostitution differently, Hensen said, because of stories like Kirkham’s and others shared through programs like CROWNS. That’s a good start, Kirkham said, but CROWNS also wants to educate the general public, especially to the dangers of grooming, which can be had to detect.

“I think that’s why my story is so eye opening, because it was so subtle,” Kirkham said.

Kirkham’s story

Kirkham came from a “rough family” in Rockland, she said. Exposed to drugs and sexualization at an early age, she began using drugs at age 11 and would meet men online and get them to buy her things she wanted, such as clothes. By 16, she was legally emancipated from her parents. She begin to rack up arrests for prostitution, she said.

“People who come from homes with lack of control, it can become very glamorous,” she said. “I just continued to do that through the years, exploited myself for the most part, not knowing any different.”

She went to Florida and another young woman gave her a roof over her head, she said. Eventually, Kirkham felt she needed to pay her share of the housing costs and her roommate suggested that she have sex with their landlord to get reduced rent. The roommate taught her how to walk the streets and find johns. From there, Kirkham got deeper and deeper into a sex trade, believing it was on her terms when it wasn’t.

“I eventually got hooked on crack cocaine and hooked up with a very abusive man who would track me down, beat me, and I’d run hard again,” Kirkham said. “I had gotten into a whole bunch of trouble – possession, prostitution. I was so young at 16 and I could sign myself out of jail as my own guardian.”

Kirkham turned her life around four years ago, after meeting a friend in jail who got her into a safe home where she developed her religious faith and used it to keep herself clean.

She hadn’t realized she was a survivor of sex trafficking until a young woman at a conference a few years ago told her.

“As soon as she told me I was a survivor, the doors opened. I went to a safe house for trafficking. I started mentoring. Telling my story,” she said.

Kirkham, who now works to mentor other survivors, said most of the cases she deals with start out under the guise of love or take advantage of a drug addiction.

Hensen said stories like Kirkham’s change the way the Brunswick Police Department operates. And he has an additional motivation, he said, because his sister had been groomed and trafficked.

“There was a guy who was giving her all kinds of attention, acting like he cared about her, wanted a relationship. He ended up taking her away for the weekend, going to New York,” Hensen said.

There, the man forced her to have sex for money, Hensen said.

‘This begins with the girl sitting at your table.’

Kirkham said CROWNS can help people understand the subtlety of grooming so that parents and the public will recognize it and be able to stop it.

“This begins with the girl sitting at your table. That is your niece, your daughter,” Kirkham said.

Each year the state reports 300-400 human trafficking cases, according to the Maine Trafficking and Sex Exploitation Network. The National Hotline for Human Trafficking  had 36 cases in Maine in 2019, as well as 83 outreach calls, though these numbers include labor trafficking as well.

Kirkham, Hensen and Sagadahoc County Sheriff Joel Merry said there are more sex trafficking cases than those reported and the Midcoast is not immune. Data available, however, does not specify cases in given locations.

“We need to be aware of and we need to do a better job of being suspicious of events or situations in which there are potential signs of a young lady getting involved in this,” Merry said.

Police often don’t look further into what appears to be simple prostitution or drug case, Merry and Hensen said. Hensen said in the past he and his department were no exception.

Most of the police officers she encountered, Kirkham said, never delved into why she, a 16-year-old girl, was prostituting herself and instead just wrote her off as a criminal.

“In Florida, the first time I was busted there were some questions,” she said, “but the rest of the time it was like ‘she’s just a prostitute.'”

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