Susan Goldfarb, the center’s executive director, said about 100 minors are referred to her office annually. Many are runaways who have already been sexually abused. After a state human trafficking law was enacted last year, more people have become aware of the problem, Goldfarb said. It stipulates that minors involved in prostitution be treated as victims rather than criminals, a practice Suffolk County has been following for six years.
Graves was first featured in a 2010 Globe story about her experience as a victim of sex trafficking, and the criminal case that ensued in US District Court in Boston. At the time, she asked to remain anonymous because of worries about retribution. She was one of about a half-dozen young women who testified during the trial, but she was the first to speak to investigators. During her testimony, Graves recounted how Jones stomped on her mouth with his foot and Tavares slashed her cheek. It was one of only a few such cases that have made it to US District Court, largely because it is difficult to find victims willing to speak out.
Before the trial, Graves moved to Tennessee with the assistance of the FBI and the US attorney’s office. She has little family support and attributes her survival largely to the assistance of a small cadre of women — including a mentor, an FBI agent, a police officer, and a prosecutor.
“If I didn’t have those strong women, I’d be nowhere,” she said.
In Tennessee, she initially struggled to live and study on a tight budget in a place where she had no friends or family. After speaking to the Globe, her first media interview, she was featured in a local television news report on sex trafficking. Powell heard about her case and asked her to join a campaign against prostitution. She later invited Graves to work with her in Washington.
“It struck me how isolated she was and how hungry she was to talk to somebody she could be open with,’’ Powell said.
Graves’s progress has been monitored by that network of advocates, many of whom still keep in touch with her. Some are not enthusiastic about her growing public profile.
Audrey Porter, associate director of the My Life My Choice Project, a Boston nonprofit that works with exploited youth, said Graves is putting herself in danger by being so vocal. Porter said she met Graves when Graves was a tearful 17-year-old, locked in a juvenile facility in Worcester and deeply traumatized by abuse.
“I don’t think she should be doing all these public interviews,’’ said Porter, who also is a survivor of prostitution. “What if she gets murdered?”
Assistant US Attorney Leah Foley, who prosecuted the federal case, said Graves is wise to stay out of Boston.
“If she came back here and ran into one of these guys and their friends and relatives, I think she would be in danger,” Foley said.
Graves said she understands the danger, but plans to keep speaking out. In addition to detailing her own history to raise awareness, she is campaigning against Backpage.com, an advertising website based in Phoenix with a large “adult” services section linked to sex trafficking.
“All the girls I have worked with since I have arrived at FAIR Girls have been sold on Backpage,’’ she said.
Critics have called for Backpage to close problem sections of its site. But the company maintains it cooperates with police and other investigators. Besides, it says, shutting down Backpage would only shift the child prostitution business to other parts of the Internet.
Meantime, Graves is close to finishing work toward a bachelor’s degree in political science and wants to eventually get a master’s in public administration and then law.
Almost six years removed from her harrowing former life, she is appreciative of her newfound stability, including a home on a quiet residential street, a regular paycheck, and benefits such as health insurance and vacation time.
She is especially grateful for the reaction she sparks in others, and believes her words and example are making a difference.
“They say, ‘You don’t look like a victim,’ ’’ Graves said. “Sometimes, what you’ve overcome makes you stronger.”