WASHINGTON, D.C. — Asia Graves has reclaimed her life, found her voice, and taken back her name, three years after fleeing Boston to avoid being hurt again.
Graves, a victim of savage exploitation by a child prostitution ring, left her hometown in 2009 following her crucial testimony in a federal case against the pimps who abused her and other girls. She hoped anonymity and several hundred miles of separation would keep retribution at bay.
The 24-year-old woman still has scars — most visibly the one on her cheek left by a pimp with a potato peeler, marking her as his property. And she still steers clear of Boston, with its dark memories and, for her, special risks.
But she is no longer in hiding. Instead, Graves is speaking out, a crusader against the commercial exploitation of children.
“I got over the fear of becoming of a victim of trafficking,’’ she said during a recent interview. “If one girl sees my story and it impacts one girl’s life, I am doing something productive.’’
She has a remarkable story to tell. At 16, Graves was recruited by a Boston pimp and spent 2½ years in and out of the “life’’ before freeing herself from its toxic hold. She then stepped up where many have not and testified during a six-day trial in 2009 that resulted in the conviction of two men at the center of a major child-trafficking operation. They were both sentenced to 25 years in prison. Four others pleaded guilty to prostitution-related charges and have already been released from jail.
It was a huge local breakthrough, though it made barely a dent in the epidemic of exploitation. Nationwide, tens of thousands of minors are bought and sold for sex every year, most of them by men who exert power through psychological manipulation, beatings, and rape.
Before testifying, Graves moved to Tennessee, fearing for her safety. She returned to Boston only to speak at trial. Her exile ended earlier this year, when she moved to Washington, to take a job at FAIR Girls, a nonprofit group fighting sexual exploitation. As part of her work, she recounts the tale of her harrowing past and inspiring turnaround to government leaders, law enforcement officials, and media outlets. Most importantly, she tries to connect with girls who are susceptible to prostitution, or have already been dragged into the sex industry underworld.
On a recent afternoon in Washington, Graves, dressed smartly in a tailored skirt and jacket, walked through a high school metal detector to teach a workshop. She is a slender powerhouse, with long dark hair and unflinching brown eyes. Such sessions are part of her everyday routine.
Andrea Powell, founder and executive director of FAIR Girls — the acronym stands for Free, Aware, Inspired, Restored — said Graves has a powerful impact on the young people she meets in Washington high schools, shelters, and detention centers.
“Asia is an amazing voice [who] is helping other girls speak up,’’ Powell said. “She has proved she can’t be owned.’’
But Graves and Powell acknowledge high visibility carries risks. The group itself operates out of an unmarked building to protect the staff’s safety. FAIR Girls does not require Graves to speak publicly; she was hired to run workshops and mentor vulnerable and exploited young people, Powell said. Speaking out is her choice.
“I want her to feel like a strong professional, and not just a puppet,’’ Powell said.
For her part, Graves said, she remains in contact with police, just in case. She knows the pimps she dealt with have a network of colleagues and family in and out of prisons. The two ringleaders who went to trial, Eddie Jones and Darryl Tavares, have appealed their convictions and are awaiting a ruling by the US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit.
But in some ways, Graves believes, being out in public is her best protection.
“If you hide in the shadows, people are going to find the need to mess with you,’’ she said.
Since 2004, when Graves became ensnared in sex trafficking, the problem has become more complicated in Massachusetts and elsewhere. The growth of social media and the proliferation of wireless devices connected to the Internet have made it easier for predators to discreetly set up meetings with child victims, and harder for law enforcement officials to track them down.
In Suffolk County alone, more than 480 minors, mostly girls, have been identified as either at high risk or as victims of commercial sexual exploitation over the last six years, according to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Suffolk County, a nonprofit that partners with the district attorney’s office to aid victims. Children as young as 11 years old are lured into the business by pimps who often make “promises of love and protection’’ to those vulnerable to such devious come-ons, the center said.
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.’’