She was 11-years-old the first time her mother sold her.
Before she had even graduated from elementary school, Savannah Parvu had witnessed drug deals at local bars and knew her mother’s method of payment—prostitution.
“There came a time when she started prostituting me for the drugs because they wanted me instead of her,” Parvu said.
For $10 worth of crack cocaine, her innocence was stolen.
Parvu, now 30, is one of thousands of known survivors of human trafficking.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, Florida ranks third nationally in human trafficking prevalence. With a total of 410 reported human trafficking cases to the National Human Trafficking Hotline in 2016, 299 were classified as sex trafficking.
Pimped out in Orlando, Parvu served as payment for the drugs that would satiate her mother’s growing drug addiction.
“I had to do this to make my mom want me,” Parvu said. “If I refused to do it, it would just be worse for me because I would get beaten or I would be gone longer than if I would just cooperate.”
Parvu suffered silently over the course of two years, dealing with two pregnancies and two abortions.
She said her mother threatened to take her to a “bad place,” referring to foster care, if she spoke out about their lifestyle. Her father, who had suffered a stroke when Parvu was 9-years-old, was severely disabled and unable to intervene.
Despite the pain, Parvu kept quiet. Instead of speaking out, she asked for detention after school so she wouldn’t have to go home.
Although she asked the same teacher more than 10 times for detention, Parvu said her instructor never questioned if anything was wrong.
“Nobody ever asked why I didn’t want to go home, but they let me stay,” she said.
At 13-years-old, Parvu was moved into foster care after her parents attempted suicide. After watching her parents slit their wrists, Parvu began cutting herself, falling into an addiction that would last 10 years.
“The first time I just wanted to know how it felt when I watched my parents try to commit suicide, but then I felt like this physical pain helped with the emotional pain, so it kind of made me feel numb,” Parvu said. “Like when someone is upset and they punch something, it helps take away the emotional pain.”
After seven months of bouncing from group home to group home, Parvu said she was transferred to a residential treatment center close to her childhood home in Orlando.
At the treatment center, Parvu said she was pushed back into the lifestyle she had left behind by the people she was supposed to trust.
“The people that worked there were all friends with each other, as well as with my mom’s drug dealers,” Parvu said. “I would be taken by them to my mom’s drug dealers where I would be sold more.”
It wasn’t until ninth grade that Parvu saw a silver lining—in the form of a guidance counselor, who gave her the stability she desperately craved.
Beth Getchell, who worked as a counselor for eight of her 30-year teaching career, met Parvu at Umatilla High School and made it her mission to break through the teen’s angry exterior.
“She would use a defense where she would just kind of check out,” Getchell said. “It’s kind of a detachment thing she does where if I would dig too deep or things would get stressful or she was worried about something, then she would just kind of detach herself from the situation and withdraw.”
Getchell talked with her during school and picked her up in the mornings from her brother’s house, whom she lived with at the time, when Parvu’s tardiness became an issue. Those morning rides resulted in a friendship that would last more than a decade.
Despite their close relationship, it wasn’t until Parvu graduated high school that Getchell learned the extent of Parvu’s suffering and situation. She knew Parvu was depressed and cut herself, but she never imagined the teen had been trafficked as a child.
“She displayed some behavior that might lead you to believe she had definitely been abused in some pretty major ways, but she never openly talked about it for a really long time,” Getchell said.
It was after this disclosure, Parvu said that she sought the counseling she needed.
“It wasn’t always something she was very receptive to, but I know especially in the last five to eight years she has been really working on that,” Getchell said. “I think that is one of the reasons she is able to share now and to help other people with what she has gone through.”
After years of counseling, Parvu learned to accept her past and did so without ever pressing charges against her mother.
“Unfortunately because of what I went through and what I witnessed, I’ve always been too afraid to go through with it,” Parvu said.
That hesitation, common among trafficking victims, is one of the prime barriers preventing law enforcement from putting traffickers behind bars.
Additionally, Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent Jeff Vash said trafficking cases are difficult to prosecute because of a lack of resources, a difficulty in tracking the cases due to constant movement by the traffickers and their victims and the reluctance of victims to speak out against their traffickers for fear of punishment.
Parvu said her mother is near death due to liver failure from years of substance abuse.
Meanwhile, Parvu is using her past to help others.
In the last three years, she has spoken over 100 times about her experience in hopes of helping similar survivors, along with law enforcement, DCF service workers, and non-profit human trafficking advocacy groups such as the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking and the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force.
Most recently, Parvu spoke at a panel discussion to raise awareness for the prevalence of human trafficking in Gainesville.
Richard Tovar, president and co-founder of the Alachua County Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said sex trafficking is a prominent issue in the city that mainly affects the youth.
“It happens here, we just don’t want to see it. We push it away so we don’t actually see what is going on because it is ugly,” Tovar said. “If we don’t look at it and do something about it, it’s going to continue.”
The most recent reported sex trafficking case in the Gainesville and Ocala area was prosecuted on November 2016, with 40-year-old Corey Lawayne Mosley receiving a 20-year sentence for trafficking a woman from September 2010 to March 2012, according to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office.
Frank Williams, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case, said there have been several other traffickers put behind bars in Gainesville.
“In the last three years we prosecuted and convicted 12 human traffickers,” Williams said during the panel discussion. “It’s real. It’s happening, and it is right in our community.”
Although it took her some time to realize it, Parvu said she is no longer a victim; she is a survivor.
“Your past doesn’t have to define you, and you can use that to help other people,” Parvu said. “You become stronger because of it.”