Stephanie comes from four generations of women who were trafficked for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Her own mother was sent into the trade at age twelve and had her first child when she was sixteen. But Stephanie’s mother broke the pattern by refusing to exploit her own children, allowing Stephanie to grow up outside the sex trafficking industry and join the Church in high school. Stephanie is now a wife and mother and the founder of two non-profits, Child Rescue and Backyard Broadcast, and she is an activist fighting against human trafficking.
Tell me about your family’s background of sex trafficking.
This story goes back four generations. It starts with my great-great-grandmother Lorraine, who lived in Kentucky. When she was just eleven years old, her cousin’s husband, Joseph Radcliff, who was seventeen years older than she was, raped her and she got pregnant and gave birth to my great-grandma Ann. Joseph then took control of Lorraine and exploited her and forced her to have sex for money with adult men. When their child, Ann, was young, he began exploiting her as well. When my great-grandma Ann was twelve, she told her mom that they needed to leave and run away from Joseph. Lorraine was really reluctant to go, but Ann was able to convince her and they escaped and ended up in Chicago.
But in Chicago they ended up being exploited again, in the red light district. When Ann was fourteen years old she gave birth to my grandma Joyce. And because Ann had been raised in such a dysfunctional environment, with so many men coming and going in her life and abusing her, she continued the pattern with Joyce. So, like my great-grandma Ann, Joyce was sexually abused by different men while she was growing up, and when Joyce was a teenager she was forced by her mother to have sex for money. Joyce got pregnant and had my mom at the age of eighteen and they moved to California. Starting at age three, my mom was physically and sexually abused as well — by three different husbands of my grandma’s.
What was life like for your mom?
By the time my mom was twelve, her mom had left her third husband. My mom and her mother and my mom’s brother, who was three years younger than my mom, lived in and out of hotels by the beach in California. One night, my grandma came home pretty drunk and all beat up and bloody and bruised, which I don’t think was uncommon. My mom helped clean her up and took care of her. This particular time my grandma had been gone for a week and they had no food and my grandma came home empty handed. So she said to my mom, “You have to go out and work, because I have nothing. I can’t buy food for you and your brother, and that’s the way it is. You’ve seen me do it and you know what to do.” She was forcing my mom to make money for the family by having sex with adult men. And my mom just obeyed because that’s what children do. Not too long after that, her mother left for good and my mom lived on the streets and was left to care for her brother. A few years later, at age sixteen, she got pregnant.
You are the first woman in your family in 100 years who wasn’t forced into sex trafficking. How was the cycle broken? What was different about your mom and her children?
I look at my grandma and great-grandma and have a hard time understanding why they exploited their own children. I know them really well because we’re all so close in age, and they are lovely women; they were so nurturing and loving to me, just like my mom is. But that wasn’t how they treated their own children. So I think about it and wonder, why the difference? And I’m not sure, but I think my mom’s spirit just came that way; she came ready to protect children at all costs. It is literally part of her. My mom just put her foot down and said, “I’ll never do that to children”–and she didn’t. I asked her once why she was different–I mean the stories I’ve heard are just incredibly nuts. The abuse! Her little brother was terribly abused, left for dead when he was seven. My mom cleaned him up and tried to take care of him. She’s just an incredible woman; she’s a nurturer. That’s what it is, that’s what she’s told me. She said, “I just knew how to have a mother’s love because my little brother was like my child. I loved him and tried to protect him.” So, before she had kids she just already had that maternal instinct–it’s fascinating. And she’s raised really successful kids, too! One of my brothers is a dentist, the other one owns a mechanics business, and I have a charity and am an activist, my little sister is a newlywed and just had my mom’s 11th grandbaby earlier this year. Her stats are just incredible–all this from a little street kid!
What were the conditions of your childhood?
When I look back at my childhood there are fabulous, good memories, and my mom was the best part of it. But it was chaotic, for sure. We were poor growing up and my mom struggled with drugs. Like many children who grow up abused, she ended up in one abusive relationship after another when I was little and sometimes even in the hospital. As a little girl there were times that she was being beaten or choked and I would run to the neighbors calling for help. When I was eight, my mom’s brother, who she loved and adored, was murdered. That was probably one of the most traumatic events in my mom’s life. It was really devastating for her–like losing a child. After my uncle’s death, she struggled with drugs again and ended up putting herself in rehab. While in rehab she met a wonderful man who would later become my dad. Everything started to get better after that. He passed away last year from liver cancer, and just last month I was sealed to him and my mom. It was the sweetest thing.
How were you converted to the gospel?
When I was sixteen, I met some Mormon kids. The Mormon families were so different from the way I was raised. I was raised in these homes and neighborhoods where there was lots of abuse. To meet all these LDS families where you walk in their home and there’s a piano, and above it is a picture of the Savior with little kids–it’s the most heart-warming thing. And there’s a mom and a dad, and they like each other, and they make jokes and tickle each other and kiss! I was like, whoa, is this for real? One day, one of my close friends invited me to take the missionary discussions because I had asked her lots of questions about her family and had attended some youth dances. I ended up taking the missionary discussions and going to church with her. But all along I figured there wasn’t one right church. I just prayed that I would find the church that was right for me. I started going to a lot of different churches and doing research about their beliefs. I didn’t know a lot about religion, but I knew a lot about Heavenly Father because I prayed a lot as a kid. I just knew He was loving.
I spent a lot of my time that summer doing research on many different religions. I set up meetings with pastors and priests to ask the hard questions. As the school year approached, I prayed and said to the Lord, “I’m an involved student and I need an answer before school starts, because when school starts I will be too busy to do all this research. So I really need an answer, so let me know.” And I received my answer! The night before school started I wasn’t even thinking about church stuff and I couldn’t fall asleep. I decided I’d try to read to help me fall asleep. So I went to lie down, and I saw the Book of Mormon, and I was like, “Oh! The Book of Mormon! That’s a boring book!” So I picked it up and started reading, thinking I’d go right to sleep. But as I was reading I just knew that it was true. And then, of course, I really couldn’t sleep because I was so excited! It was the best thing!
I went and told my mom what had happened and said that I really wanted to get baptized and it was so important to me. She’s my best friend and knows me through and through and was like, “No way, absolutely not! You’re so impressionable with that religion; you always have been. You can’t make a decision like this until you’re at least eighteen.” I was really sad and disheartened; I didn’t expect that response. I’m so close to her that I thought she would see this great desire of my heart and for sure give me approval. So I prayed about it and went back to her–and this wasn’t even meant to be a secret conniving plan or anything to get her baptized–and I just said to her, ”This is so important to me. If I can’t get baptized, would you be willing to take the missionary discussions? And then you can make an educated decision about whether or not I should join.” So she said that was valid and she and my dad would do that. So she and my dad (he’s my stepdad but I’ve always just called him “Dad” because he was a real dad to me) took the discussions, and before I knew it she came to me one day and said, “Stephanie, this is either the Lord’s true church or this is Satan’s church and now before we move forward I’ve got to know.” Luckily, they got their own personal witness and answer and they said I could get baptized. They had to get married first before they could get baptized, so their baptisms took a little bit longer.
How did the gospel change you?
I was a pretty serious little kid. I remember growing up wondering why life was so hard for so many people. Why are some families happy and why are some families not? I could see good hearts in these men who abused my mother. They were little kids once, too, who had also been abused. And then I learned about the gospel and it just answered so many of my questions. Having the gospel in my life and building my relationship with the Lord answered a lot of my questions. I realized that people can make really bad choices but it doesn’t mean that they are bad people. I learned that anybody can change. We were really good people in Heaven and Satan is really clever here on earth and he really messes a lot of things up from the get go. From the time some are babies they’re not playing with a full deck of cards: their lives have already been shaped from the moment they were born by the evils that preceded them. So that influences a lot of the choices that they make here on earth.
You have co-founded two charities, Child Rescue and Backyard Broadcast, and are an activist fighting against human trafficking. Tell me how this came to be?
It started with my husband, actually. Everyone thinks it started with me because that would make the most sense. But what happened is one day I walked upstairs to our bedroom–the kids were already in bed–and my husband, Jess, is watching a movie and he’s sobbing. He’s just bawling. I’m like, “What’s wrong?!” He had been watching a documentary about human trafficking, about children who are being sold into the sex trade. And it just broke his heart. And the next morning he came downstairs as I was making breakfast and he said, “We just have to do something about this. We can’t just live our lives anymore now that I know this exists.” That was before he knew all the details about my family.
How did your husband not know about your family’s history with human trafficking?
I didn’t even know! He knew that I had been raised in a lot of turmoil–for heaven’s sake, when he married me it was crazy! We thought we were going to raise my ten-year-old sister. But neither of us knew about the exploitation, about children in my family being forced into sex slavery. My husband has such a sweet spirit and has been a really safe place for my mom that she ended up telling him more and more about her abuse.
At that point we owned an oil and gas company and we had three kids under the age of four. Our life was spinning out of control. He wasn’t home a lot and I was so stressed out. And then he says, “We’ve got to start this charity and it can’t wait until we have more money or more time or when our kids are bigger. We’ve got to do this right now.”
So we did it. It took a large chunk out of our family life. At one point we had used our house money for an event and we thought we wouldn’t get the money back. It was a bummer that all our savings were gone, but it was okay. We just knew it was right. We said, “If that’s what it takes, then so be it. The Lord has called us to do this.” There have been times when I’ve been crying and I’ve been like, “We can’t do this! We just can’t raise this ticket, we need to catch our breath!” But the Lord has always strengthened us, and it has been incredible. The things that have happened have been miraculous! We don’t work for our charity, we’re strictly volunteers. We’ve been really blessed–we just received a million and a half dollars, among other donations of money, time, and talents. The reach has really surprised me. It’s incredible that sex trafficking happened in my own family for four generations. Along with our history came this internal drive to combat it, to end it. It’s a passion that just doesn’t stop, to protect these kids. I feel like that comes from the Lord.
What do your charities, Child Rescue and Backyard Broadcast, do?
Child Rescue is our parent charity. Its function is to raise awareness about human trafficking through large campaigns that will create enough public outrage to affect political will. We also provide financial support to victim services that help victims recover from abuse. The Backyard Broadcast is a breakoff charity and is a completely youth-run organization. The kids are in high school or college and the organization has chapters. These kids raise awareness and they raise money for law enforcement and after-care facilities. They teach one another–that’s the best part. Teenagers listen to teenagers, so it works out really well.
You have done many prominent interviews lately, such as the Katie Couric Show, and Glamour magazine. Why do you tell your family’s story?
I share my family’s story because sexual abuse and exploitation continue today. Last year was hard for me because I did so many interviews and publications. The reason I tell the story is because there are all these kids out there who are still becoming victims to this abuse. Here in Utah–and I’ve only lived here just over a year–I’ve been amazed at how many cases of trafficking there are and how often it is instigated by the parents. A lot of these people are members of the Church. This happens everywhere. Satan can get to the hearts of anyone. It’s been important for me to steer people away from the term “prostitute.” The word “prostitute” gets used a lot and there’s real danger in that, because people hear that word and they think it has something to do with free choice–but these kids aren’t choosing this. Children are being sexually abused for money. That’s why these kids aren’t being protected and they’re not even on the radar.
A lot of cops don’t even know this happens here in Utah. When they find these kinds of kids they think the kids are choosing that lifestyle. So often the cops show up and think, “Oh, you’re doing this on purpose. You know the law, you’re breaking the law, so we’re putting you in a hall, and now you have a record.“ It makes sense to the cops. They think these children broke the law on purpose, but of course that’s not the case at all. These girls start to feel this stigma of shame, and so by the time they’re no longer being physically forced, they just think, “Well, this is who I am,” and they’re incredibly destroyed. It’s really sad, and our society just keeps telling these girls that this is their chosen identity. My own mother didn’t tell me about her sexual abuse until she was in her 50s. If the world had been more educated about children that are being abused, and sexually abused for money, and if it had been explained in those terms, then I’m sure she would have said something a long time ago instead of carrying this burden of shame. All because the world calls them prostitutes or whores. She felt dirty and bad, and she was just a little girl.
Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I have to share the coolest story! My dad passed away last year and so my mom moved to Utah and moved in with us. She has been working with our charity and speaks publicly about the struggles that she had as a child. Just last month my mom came downstairs one Sunday morning and announced that she had to go to the temple to receive her endowment. And I was like, “Okay, well I’ve got to be at church now and so do you, so get in the car and we can talk about it.” And she said, “No, Stephanie. I’ve got to get to the temple, like tomorrow.” I told her that going to the temple for the first time takes a lot of preparation. This was very unlike her. She said, “I just feel it. All this time I’ve been feeling like I‘m not ready, I’ve got to learn more. And all of a sudden I just feel like, ‘I’ve got to get the temple!’ So, what do I need to do?”
I told her she needed to see the bishop. So we drove to church and she went and saw the bishop, and he thought it was a great idea. She came home after meeting with him and said, “Stephanie, he said I could go on Wednesday and that’s the anniversary of your dad’s death!” She was so excited that she could go to the temple on that day and thought it was meant to be. Then I realized that it had been a year since my dad’s death, which meant that our family could do his temple work and they could be sealed! All of a sudden it all made sense, the urgency. I’m pretty skeptical by nature, but it was a really neat moment–like, “Wow, this is for real; they really want their work done!” At their sealing, we had probably fifteen people and 75% of them were people who lived in Southern California when we joined the Church. And they all came with two days’ notice! It was the most incredible feeling. It was beautiful.
At A Glance
Stephanie M. Larsen
Location: Layton, UT
Marital status: Married to Jess Larsen for 11 years
Children: Four kids: two girls, ages 9 and 5; two boys, ages 7 and 3
Occupation: Cofounder/Board member of the Backyard Broadcast (Antitrafficking Youth Organization) and Child Rescue (Nonprofit organization combating the exploitation and sex trafficking of children in the United States and Canada)
Schools Attended: Brigham Young University
Favorite Hymn: “Lord, I Would Follow Thee” and the new Primary song, “Holding Hands Around the World”
On The Web: www.childrescue.org and www.backyardbroadcast.org
Interview by Linda Jane Yamamoto. Photos used with permission.
At A Glance