Justine’s Story

“As my descendants come across my name, I don’t want them to come across the horrors I went through. I want them to see this article, and read that I’m a survivor.”

Justine Baker is a Native American artist, advocate, and survivor of sex trafficking and abuse.

As a teenager, Justine ran away from home multiple times and was labelled as a “bad teenager.” This, Justine says, led to her being targeted for exploitation. Perpetrators often target individuals without close family connections for grooming.

Justine experienced grooming and abuse by a man in her community. He targeted her, gained the trust of her parents, isolated her, and filmed the abuse. To ensure her silence, he threatened to ruin her stepfather’s career. He tried to make Justine believe that what he had done was mutual.

“It wasn’t; I was a minor.”

When Justine initially tried to speak up, she was met with unsupportive reactions from her stepfather and her boyfriend.

“Being called a liar, and especially having issues as a teenager and running away, people assume that anything that comes out of your mouth isn’t true… It further convinced me that, if I spoke up, I wasn’t going to be taken seriously. He knew that.”

The first time a survivor discloses is critical, and a negative reaction often can deter them from getting the help they need. For Justine, the negative reactions from the people closest to her ensured that she kept quiet for years to come. Others were aware of this and often used it to perpetrate further abuse, including the trafficking Justine experienced by her former spouse.

“If I had been taken to the hospital, that person would have gone to jail and I would have gotten the therapy and help I needed. And it would have been unlikely I would have continued to be exploited and assaulted throughout my life. If it’s not addressed the first time appropriately, it tends to happen again. From the research I did, each victim who did not receive appropriate help and support went on to be abused multiple times in their life. Silence is like a green light for predators.”

While being trafficked, Justine’s assaulters made illicit videos and other materials. These videos and photos from her abuse still haunt her.

“It makes it really hard to find work and to be taken seriously. It affected my family. People Google my name and see that stuff. It’s retraumatizing when you’re on the Internet. Each view, every comment, all the revenue from it—I feel like it’s happening again and again to me. I have to go through each site and flag them to let them know it was trafficking. There are over 2 million. It feels like it will never end. But, that is what these sites want: like the predators, they hope I’ll shut up and quit.”

Justine has also been retraumatized by seeing those who assaulted her continue to achieve success in their personal and professional lives. The perpetrator who originally assaulted her even ran for mayor of Justine’s town, which she discovered from a campaign postcard in her mailbox.

“I’ve never quit looking for him. I still remember the stacks of video tapes in his basement, wondering how many were similar to me?...The people who have raped me and harmed me throughout life, I can now see them on Facebook. Some of them are multimillionaires in high positions. They have families, all the smiles and happy pictures. That’s something that I definitely don’t have.”

For Justine and for many survivors, the abuse went on to impact her later relationships and her ability to trust others.

“I ended up having a history of really negative, unhealthy relationships and didn’t recognize what healthy was. That comes from being abused as a child, having an unhealthy childhood, and not knowing what love was. What was comfortable to me were things that were familiar and would be red flags to others.”

Justine is passionate about connections with her community, ancestry, and activism. She is outspoken about the unique issues that Alaskan Natives face. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 56.1% of Native American and Alaskan Native women have experienced sexual violence in their lifetime. This is a rate of greater than one in two for Native American or Alaskan Native women, compared to a rate of one in six for the general population of American women. Alaskan Native women and girls, in particular, also go missing at a disproportionate rate compared to other demographics.

 

Justine attributes this issue to law enforcement bias against Indigenous communities, as well as a lack of substantial resources in rural areas. She also says that the numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women don’t tell the full story due to the pervasiveness of underreporting.

“Around the world, visibility at public transportation facilities vs. just ‘awareness’ fliers can bring people home before they are never found and further harmed. It’s a solution not being used yet.”

Through local courses, events, and organizations with online classes, Justine takes an active role in educating herself about other relevant subjects such as PTSD and warning signs of abuse.

“The more you educate yourself, the more you can help others. We can't change how people respond to our growth and success. We can only change ourselves. Growth is a requirement for life; without it we do not thrive. Healing and growth require practice and repetition. Then, we begin to master the skills that let us live vs. just exist."

As an activist, however, Justine recognizes that self-care and healing are important parts of being able to help others.

“You can’t carry others to safety if you’re injured. You have to close up your wound first.”

Through her art and connection with nature, Justine has found substantial healing.

“Connecting with nature and my family history in medicine and healing arts, being one with creator, being one with breath, being one with everyone around, being one with the person I’m working with, being one with a guitar–the sound and the vibration–being one with that voice that you master throughout life, being one with the brush and the paint. That’s really where I feel blessed. The arts allow me to shine, feel alive, to thrive, and to be whole.”

She recently completed her first novel, Mother, which is available on Amazon under her pen name, T.C. Baker.

Justine also began to heal by talking about her experiences through the National Sexual Assault Hotline’s online chat.

“Over the last two years, between reporting and classes, there have been so many times at 3 a.m. when I’ve had a memory or a flashback…and it was always helpful to be able to vent to the online chat so that nobody could overhear me, but I just needed to get it out so that I could move forward. It also kept me on course for slaying the monsters I’d kept hidden under my bed.”

Because of her negative experiences as a teen, Justine is passionate about making sure teenagers feel supported and that people understand warning signs to look for.

“For those who are in an unhealthy home environment, it’s not going to be forever. There are ways to find safe places and people to talk to who will help you figure out what to do. But make sure they’re on your side—beware of predators ‘offering help.’”

She advocates for bystanders to speak up and say something if they suspect something is wrong. She notes that many neighbors and family members had suspicions that something inappropriate was happening to Justine as a teenager but, ultimately, did not act to stop it.

As an adult, Justine has had to make peace with the adults, including her family members, who failed her as a child.

“A lot of people talk about forgiveness; that’s a very loose word. I’m the one that has to live with this.”

Her family still is not completely supportive, and Justine is adamant about the importance of establishing boundaries to help cope with trauma.

“If family is opinionated and wants to shun me and avoid talking to me because of what happened, then I don’t talk to them. I don’t need that. I set those boundaries. I am not a kid—and I wasn’t a bad kid—so I will not be treated like one. Even if I’m a 47 year old, I will not be told how to respond to my trauma, how to approach my trauma, and not to seek justice. I have to live with those decisions, not them. I’m not what others say about me or try to convince me I am. I’m who I choose to be.”

“Nobody has the right to tell me not to pursue justice. Even if I am too late for statutes of limitations, I choose to pursue justice. No one else decides that for me. Nobody. Secrets only protect the guilty.” 

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, it’s not your fault. You are not alone. Help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.HOPE and online.rainn.org, y en español: rainn.org/es

If you’re contemplating running away from home or are worried that a child or teen in your life might be, you can call the National Runaway Safeline at 800.786.2929 or text 66008 to chat with someone who will listen and help you make a safe plan. The helpline is free, anonymous, and available 24/7. 

If you suspect someone is being trafficked or exploited, please call the U.S. Department of Justice Trafficking in Persons and Worker Exploitation Complaint Line at 888.428.7581. Offers foreign language translation services in most languages as well as TTY. After business hours, the complaint line has a message service in English, Spanish, Russian, and Mandarin.

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