Renee LaGrant is a late bloomer.
The native Salt Laker has been around — in the worst possible sense of the word — but has been able to overcome obstacles, including sex trafficking and addiction, and now works to make a difference for women caught in the same traps.
“I’m doing great. I’m doing awesome,” she said with a big smile last week at Journey of Hope — Utah, an organization dedicated to women transitioning out of prison, fleeing domestic violence, overcoming addiction or escaping sex trafficking.
LaGrant, now 60, knows what they are up against. By age 16, she was working Salt Lake City’s former red light district along 200 South west of 400 West. It’s long gone, but it once was the scene of bars, drugs and violence, the underbelly of Utah’s capital in a time now past.
But only recently has she overcome addiction and been able to come to grips with her time as a victim of sex trafficking. Her work as a counselor for victims of trafficking also is relatively new.
LaGrant was “sexualized” at an early age, she recalled, and as one of the few African-Americans in her neighborhood near State Street, she was often derided and called the N-word — something that has always made her fight back. She was kicked out of the old South High School after she took on a student who hurled the epithet at her.
Things were a challenge at home, too. By 16, struggling to find her way, she began looking for diversions. It began innocently enough. LaGrant got her older sister’s ID and with a friend ventured into a bar where they met a man who promised them fancy clothes, jewelry and an exciting life. Soon she was servicing men from all walks of life who frequented west 200 South looking to buy sex.
“I’d go down there, dressed up all sexy, and flag down white men as they drove by,” she said. “They’d take us to a motel and when they finished, they give us cash.”
She had to pay her pimp $300 a day, minimum.
Drugs went with the job, she explained. She didn’t like the downers, like Quaaludes or heroin, but did get into crack cocaine and Thunderbird, a fortified wine.
“I stayed high because you can’t do that kind of work with a clear head,” LaGrant said. “And they don’t want you sober. They want that extra control.”
Trafficking of young people for sex is something that goes mostly unseen and unspoken, according to Salt Lake City police. Estimates vary widely, but according to the FBI, each year, hundreds of thousands of girls and young women are at risk of being trafficked for sex.
Like LaGrant, the victims often are disaffected youths who are befriended by a relative or man who shows them love at first but then coerces them, by one means or another, into having sex with strangers. Soon they find themselves in physical or psychological bondage, often accompanied by drugs, where they may have sex with a dozen men a day.
Shannon Miller Cox, as a former program director for the Utah Department of Corrections, has firsthand experience with women who have suffered the phenomenon. There, she met women who had faced adversity but wanted a new chance at life. When she retired from the state four years ago, she founded Journey of Hope — Utah.
The organization helps women choose a path for success by teaching them to understand the trauma they have endured and how to return to normal life. It also focuses on education and vocational training.
Miller Cox recalled meeting LaGrant by happenstance at a fall 2016 training session the former corrections officer held. LaGrant, it turned out, had just come out of rehab after decades of addiction. Miller Cox urged her to come aboard her new organization.
LaGrant explained that it wasn’t until she got sober that she was able to process her emotions surrounding the years that she was trafficked for sex.
She had gotten pregnant in the late 1970s and by 21 was a mother who continued to work in the sex trade.
“My mother told me she was going to get custody of my son because I was leaving him here, there and everywhere,” she recalled. “The next day, my mom sent me to live with my auntie in Detroit.”
LaGrant worked at her aunt’s day care center. Although she stopped prostitution, she continued to use drugs. She married and had another child — a daughter — but continued to find living conventionally difficult.
“I have two kids,” she said, “and I’m trying to be a productive member of society.”
Her marriage lasted 13 years. When she returned to Salt Lake City to care for her ailing mother, she also found her way to the Salt Lake Rescue Mission Women’s Center for addiction recovery. Once sober, she sought to help other women who faced similar challenes.
Under the tutelage of Miller Cox, LaGrant began working with young women at Journey of Hope and started to get new perspectives of the impacts they suffered from trafficking — the same kind of trauma she had suffered. Among the symptoms is a lack of hope and self-esteem, opening the door for drug use as self-medication.
LaGrant knows that victims of trafficking are looked down upon. She hopes one day that will change.
“These women have been harmed, “ she said. “They should not be judged.”
JOURNEY OF HOPE
For more information on Journey of Hope, visit www.JourneyOfHopeUtah.org.