From pain, a purpose

Dorsey Jones survived the horrors of child sex
trafficking to become a source of hope for troubled youth

Dorsey Jones was once a fixture on her father’s shoulder. That was her baby seat, most places Henry Jones went. And she was his world, his only child. Perched up there, Dorsey — born in Portsmouth, Virginia, on Thanksgiving Day 1970 — would often try to comb his hair. At least that’s what his family told her. She hasn’t a single memory of her dad.

While crabbing one day off Virginia Beach, the current crept up and surprised the Vietnam vet, a strong swimmer who nonetheless drowned.

The current of Dorsey’s life also shifted that day.

Her father’s death left Dorsey in the care of her mother, an occasional housekeeper and babysitter who was prone, as Dorsey tells it, to spontaneous and irrational decisions. This included suddenly uprooting the family via Greyhound bus from Norfolk to South Georgia when Dorsey, the oldest of four siblings, was about 6.

In every sense, Bainbridge was a shock for Dorsey. Ripped from the support system of her father’s extended family, she was deposited at her maternal grandmother’s two-bedroom apartment while her mother took off with a former crush. Dorsey and her siblings shared the space with an aunt and two cousins; most of them slept on the concrete floor. Her grandmother often issued beatings with fists, books, shoes — anything — for the smallest infraction. When visitors came, Dorsey tried to slip them S.O.S. notes addressed to her vanished mom.

Clara eventually came back and moved her children from one unstable living arrangement to the next, often disappearing for long stints. There was a house without electricity where they burned end-tables for heat in winter. The kitchen walls of one apartment crawled with cockroaches. Dorsey wore raggedy ballet slippers with a safety pin at the heel that kept them on her feet. Christmases were just another day.

The one constant in Dorsey’s life was hunger.

One time she scooped up the family goldfish and put the flopping pet on a heated skillet in an attempt to feed herself and her siblings until an uncle dropped by and stopped her. Another time, Dorsey found a tiny piece of chicken skin on a neighbor’s grill. She savored the smoky flavor for a few minutes, resisting the urge to swallow. Other times, she stole Butterfingers and cans of vegetable soup from the corner store.

It was against this dire backdrop that everything changed on Dorsey’s 11th birthday. That was when a man in his 40s who lived across the street fondled Dorsey’s genitals. Afterward, he handed her a crumpled $20. She knew what he’d done was wrong, but that much money in her hand was exhilarating. It seemed like $100 or $1,000. So she walked to the Dixie Dandy convenience store, bought two cans of peas and a package of stew meat, and cooked up a feast for her siblings.

2

Street life

The pool of predators was small, at first.

The neighbor developed a system in which Dorsey would sneak through the woods each Friday to secretly enter his bedroom from the back. Soon he invited his brother into the transactions. Not long after that, their aged father also began paying for sex. Sometimes it was $10 or $15. Occasionally more.

By age 12, Dorsey’s body was beginning to develop, and other men in the neighborhood took notice. Word spread. A man down the street routinely had Dorsey over while his wife toiled at the crate factory. She caught the attention of other johns by walking the streets.

Her mother gave birth to two more hungry children. The electricity was constantly on the verge of being cut off. No amount of quick cash seemed adequate to feed so many mouths. Dorsey felt pressured to work more. By age 13, she estimates she’d had sex with more than 200 men; at 14 she contracted gonorrhea.

It happened in the backseats of cars. In the woods. In the homes of married men, all ages. Sometimes they asked for things she wouldn’t do and pushed her out, on the street. Sometimes they paid her in Popsicles. Some were established in the community — owners of stores and tire dealerships, collars white and blue.

Before school, Dorsey would scrub herself in the bathtub, but the scent of men clung. When life at home became too heavy Dorsey would slip off to the park after dark and sleep on the merry-go-round. In school a boy had tripped her on the sidewalk, and she’d chipped a front tooth she couldn’t afford to fix. It left her so embarrassed she quit smiling altogether, giving the impression she was always angry. Depression cloaked her. She missed the father she didn’t know, the childhood she’d barely had.

She never drank, smoked or took drugs. Except once.

It was a sunny day before noon. Dorsey was a high school freshman, and she was overcome with despair. As she walked down College Street in Bainbridge, she gulped down a dozen aspirins. She immediately felt woozy and fell down. A neighborhood mom came to her rescue. She gave Dorsey juice and asked a thousand concerned questions. Soon Dorsey was invited to dinners at the woman’s house and family events. Other stable families caught wind of the situation and began inviting Dorsey in, providing her with temporary safe havens, unaware of her secret life on the streets.

After six soul-crushing years, Dorsey finally quit the streets for good at age 17, when a local family took her in on a long-term basis, offering food, shelter, clothing, stability. She was tired of being depressed and feeling bad about herself. When former johns spotted her and made propositions, she flatly told them no.

She graduated high school and took legit jobs at Captain D’s, a local inn, and with a construction company, cleaning bricks. But she began to feel that she was capable of more, and a new hunger took hold.

I’ve been through hell, she thought, but scrubbing these bricks cannot be heaven.

The push she needed soon came, the current shifting north.

The matriarch of the family harboring Dorsey sat her down, looked her in the eye, and said, You need to leave here, so you don’t end up with a houseful of babies, like your mom. The woman suggested Job Corps, a free education and vocational training program in Atlanta.

Without saying goodbye to her mom or siblings, Dorsey gathered up her nascent nest egg and left Bainbridge the same way she’d come — by Greyhound — bound for a new life in the big city.

3

World of opportunity

“My name’s Dorsey Jones,” said the unexpected visitor, as summer wound down in 1992, “and I want to be a student here.”

She was speaking to Chris Andrews, a Morris Brown College admissions representative, in his office. What he didn’t know is that Dorsey had been tracking his boss, noting what time he went to lunch. She’d walked several miles from Job Corps six straight days trying to gain admissions to the school. Andrews’ boss had glanced at Dorsey’s high school GPA, a low D average, and all but laughed in her face.

But now the boss was out to lunch, and Andrews was different. He could sense doggedness and determination in Dorsey, a fire flickering. “I was always told I was nothing, that I wasn’t going to be nothing in life,” Dorsey told him. “The odds are against me.” Andrews agreed to phone her high school guidance counselor.

When Andrews hung up, he told Dorsey she’d be admitted on probation. She fell to her knees, thanking God.

It was the first in a series of remarkable favors — the work of Dorsey’s angels, she says — that propelled her through college. A housing director let her sleep in an unoccupied dorm room secretly for free. A cafeteria worker spotted her smelling the food and walking away. Without a meal plan, Dorsey was allowed to eat breakfast and dinner.

With the help of a math tutor, Dorsey excelled in classes, tapping the potential that was always there but imprisoned by need. Inspired by a professor and her past struggles, she chose criminal justice as a major.

On a whim, Dorsey nominated herself for vice president of Student Support Services. To campaign, she had to give a speech, so she combined phrases from a local TV commercial and hip-hop lyrics. Before an auditorium crowd, she bellowed: My name is Dorsey Laquan Jones, and I’m from Bainbridge, Georgia. You can get with this, or you can get with that. For determination, get with this. For dedication, get with this. For dependability, get with this. You can get with this, or you can get with that, but I’m telling you, this is where it’s at!

She won in a landslide. Clearly, she had a knack for motivating crowds from podiums.

That fall Dorsey crossed paths at school with a handsome male student. Carlos Cook was a dapper therapeutic recreation major from Columbus. They exchanged pleasantries. Afterward, whenever they passed on campus, he asked for her phone number. Each time, Dorsey declined, wanting nothing to do with another man. Finally, after a year, they were both in a gym class; he politely asked again for her number, and she acquiesced. They spoke on the phone until 3 a.m. that night and have been together since.

A few months later, Dorsey returned to Bainbridge for a visit and took Carlos with her. She missed the people who’d helped her, and she wanted everyone to see how her life was stabilizing, how a good man could want her.

As they were driving back to Atlanta through a thunderstorm on Ga. 27, Dorsey told Carlos, I have something to tell you. If you decide to leave me, that’s OK, because everybody that was important in my life left me, and I can handle it.

For the first time, Dorsey told her story. While she was speaking, Carlos pulled the car onto the shoulder of the road and embraced her.

It’s OK, Carlos said. You did what you had to do to survive.

The following October, after Carlos graduated and took a job with the U.S. Postal Service, they welcomed their first child, a daughter, Malia. That same month, Dorsey was back in class. Again, her angels stepped in. Five women in the financial aid department took turns caring for the baby in a carrier under their desks. Dorsey married Carlos in 1996 and graduated with just shy of a 3.0 GPA.

For a while, Dorsey earned her spurs working as a security guard. Then a friend recommended straight-laced, no-nonsense Dorsey as a candidate for Fulton County Juvenile Court probation officer, policing the behavior of wayward youth and helping them get right.

That career lasted 13 years until an encounter with a young girl changed the course of Dorsey’s life, making her nightmarish past public in way she could have never predicted.

4

The book

Dorsey is a fitful sleeper, her head so full of storms.

One night in bed, Carlos had an idea he thought could help: Write a book. Tell your story. Get it all out.

Absolutely not! she protested. That’s embarrassing.

Yet into a little document on her iPhone she began pecking away. Each time she couldn’t sleep, she grabbed the phone and took it to a quiet corner, where Carlos would sometimes find her at 5 a.m., purging, chronologically, withholding nothing except real names. It felt as if she’d gone back in time, but it also felt good.

In church one night, Dorsey confided to the lady next to her that she might have a full memoir manuscript, written entirely on her phone. Email it to me, said the lady, an attorney.

The attorney called three days later: I couldn’t stop reading. Come to my office in Fayetteville, and we’re going to edit this, line by line.For about three months, in their spare time, that’s what they did.

Around that time, in juvenile court, Dorsey met a defiant teenage girl who’d been identified as being sexually exploited. It was like young Dorsey was looking up at older, wiser Dorsey. Her heart sank as she recognized the anger, the hollowness, the essence of abandonment, a specific kind of hurting. Dorsey felt she was living a lie with her nice house and big car — a different mask, but the same secret.

The judge ordered the girl to participate in YouthSpark, a nonprofit organization that works with sexually exploited, trafficked, or otherwise at-risk youth. Dorsey followed the girl there and asked to volunteer.

Jennifer Swain, YouthSpark’s deputy director, knew Dorsey as a top-flight probation officer with a passion for kids, and she was happy to have her aboard.

One day, Dorsey approached Swain and divulged her secret.

I was a 12-year-old prostitute, she whispered

Taken aback, Swain asked Dorsey to repeat herself, and Dorsey obliged.

Don’t ever call yourself that again, Swain said. There’s no such thing as a child prostitute — you lack the mental capacity at that age to make those decisions. You have to recognize that you were a victim.

Dorsey uses dynamic imagery to describe what happened in that moment: Shackles fell. Doors flung open. A near-to-bursting balloon deflated. She felt set free. Her past was no longer a cage but a tool.

5

New-found purpose

Georgia ranks among the country’s top 10 states in terms of human trafficking. Look at a heat map of where reported cases occur within state lines, and metro Atlanta is a disproportionately huge red welt. With its web of interstates, global airport, billion-dollar convention and tourism industry and a thriving strip club scene, Atlanta is the Southeast’s dubious capital of a seedier sort of trafficking.

Experts estimate that 9,100 transactions occur per month in the metro area. About 250 girls and 50 boys in the area are currently being victimized.

“I know for a fact the number of children who are being victimized by this is exponentially more than the cases we’re able to prosecute,” said Chuck Boring, Cobb County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney and member of the state’s human trafficking task force.

Four stories of brick and glass, the Judge Romae T. Powell Juvenile Justice Center looms over the I-75/I-85 Connector. In the fight against exploited kids in metro Atlanta, this is the front line. Dorsey works in a corner office, in what they sarcastically call “the penthouse.”

At the juvenile justice center, take the elevator to the second floor, walk a long, carpeted hallway with shoe-scuffed walls and placards that read “Mental Health Unit” and “Probation Services,” open the door to YouthSpark, and the change of scenery is dramatic.

Beneath a chandelier, YouthSpark is all bright walls, white cabinetry, huge flat-screen televisions, cozy mid-century modern couches and lounge chairs, and a pantry stocked with toiletries and free food — piles of Fritos and Nature Valley granola bars and much more.

“This is every child’s dream when you are poor and you have nothing,” said Dorsey.

Her volunteering gig transitioned into a full-time job as a case manager with YouthSpark in March. The nonprofit was founded in 2000 and once offered the Southeast’s first safe house for exploited girls. Back then victims were being arrested and charged as prostitutes; today they’re viewed as victims and diverted to YouthSpark for intervention services. Boys and LGBTQ youth are welcome now, too. The program helps about 40 victims per year. Average age is 16.

Swain, now Dorsey’s boss, had high praise.

“Since she’s been on our team, we’ve had girls disclose trafficking and exploitation faster than we’ve ever had in this program — and we directly attribute that to Dorsey looking at them, and sharing and giving of herself, and her story,” Swain said. “I mean, she’s a mom. She’s a wife. She’s a survivor. She’s so many other things beyond being a victim. Her perseverance is contagious.”

Wearing a frayed denim skirt, pink Chucks and a maroon faux hawk, Dorsey joins the girls in the meeting room for group therapy. There they feast on fried chicken, pizza, lasagna, greens and rolls while they engage in art therapy or watch educational presentations on the 62-inch TV. Sometimes they just talk and cry.

The girls are black, white, Asian, Puerto Rican, from the suburbs and the city. They look up to her and call her “Miss Dorsey.” They say she’s “lit.”

During our first meeting, I wanted to ensure that asking Dorsey a bunch of questions about everything wouldn’t drudge up emotional distress. So I asked if it would be OK to ask — and Dorsey ignited. Her voice dipped, as it does when she’s inspired, into the low guttural passion of a blues singer:

“Let me tell you this, I don’t want you to think that I’m sitting here crying. I have cried enough. It’s not about me anymore. It’s about the children and women and boys that are going through this. It’s just time to annihilate it — to eradicate what’s going on. If you need to ask me something, now’s the time to ask. You can’t make me feel no kind of way, I promise you.”

But some promises break.

6

Unhealed wounds

Occasional fits of thunderstorms splashed Dorsey’s house in Hampton, tucked in the Stoney Creek subdivision among a rolling tapestry of cul-de-sacs. It’s quintessential suburban Atlanta — quiet, safe, mowed.

Dorsey, 46, led the way into her brick-fronted two-story home with a basketball hoop in the driveway. It’s the first house she’s personally bought, and she’s proud of her Alpine-white 7-Series BMW in the garage, the first car she’d ever purchased, nine years ago.

Inside, Dorsey’s boisterous teacup poodle mix, Bentley, yipped. She took a seat on a cushy couch beside Carlos and introduced her four kids: Malia, now 21, and Ayanna, 18, both students at Clark Atlanta University; video game aficionado, Malik, 16; and feisty, social Alston, 9.

One of them fetched a copy of Dorsey’s book, “Stretched Beyond Measure,” which was self-published in 2013. Upon its release, Dorsey was flooded with requests for speaking engagements. She quaked with nerves — and often still does — the first time she spoke. It was in front of 40 people at an Amway masquerade ball. Her story flowed out, though, and she felt empowered.

Since then, she’s agreed to tell her story at hundreds of events from Washington, D.C., to Texas, at colleges, churches, women’s conferences, corporate gatherings. She rarely turns down a nonprofit and often doesn’t charge. She’s been interviewed on television and radio across Georgia and was featured in a CNN segment on sex trafficking. Discussing long-sequestered secrets with strangers has become second nature.

The book, Dorsey said, was a particular hit in Bainbridge, mainly because people who knew of her were nosy. But her siblings who remain there and her mother, who couldn’t be reached for this story, refused to read it, she said.

Dorsey continues to attend counseling sessions to keep the “hiccups” away, the voices in her head telling her she’s nothing, that she’s weak. The things the men used to say. She once crossed paths with a former john at a McDonald’s near Disney World. He eyed Carlos, her children, her nice clothes, and said he was proud of her.

In her living room, I asked about the depths of Dorsey’s childhood depression, the residue of so much pain. It was one question too many. Stoic Dorsey began to cry. She’d never wept during an interview, she said. The afternoon sun burst through blinds behind her as she gave what can only be called a sermon.

“There are children, not only in Atlanta, but throughout this world that are being taken advantage of every day, and people sit around and judge them, without knowing what it takes to get up every day, just to breathe,” she said. “Nobody wakes up and says, ‘I’m going to sell my body today.’ I did what I had to do to survive. Do I regret what I did? No. Do I feel bad? I used to. But I know this is going to help somebody, and that’s all I care about.”

Next to Dorsey on the couch, in the sun, Carlos reached over and held her arm.

7

The mission

It was the summer’s biggest event, and Dorsey’s “glam squad” was swarming.

That’s the team that accompanies her to engagements like Atlanta’s Rotary International Convention, a gathering last month at the Georgia World Congress Center focused, in part, on human trafficking. There, Dorsey was flanked by attendants for her hair, wardrobe and makeup, plus a project manager, photographer and her manager, Lee Summers-Garner, who arranged the team that provides their services pro bono.

Beyond Dorsey’s table and a banner with her face on it, men and women of all ages and many races lined up to pay $20 for her book, maybe grab a photo and a hug.

In her green ruffled shirt, palazzo pants, Kenneth Cole heels and gold hoop earrings, Dorsey looked positively glamorous. But her quiet demeanor suggested she wasn’t lapping up the attention so much as tolerating it for the cause.

Suddenly, it was show time. Dorsey shot into a cavernous ballroom.

During a thundering video introduction projected on three giant screens, Dorsey was in full serious mode as she decried the “epidemic” of modern-day sexual slavery. The audience politely clapped.

Then Dorsey took a seat on a four-person panel. Her co-presenters held senior positions with The Carter Center, the Polaris Project and the U.S. State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. Dorsey’s title was simpler: survivor.

After the others had spoken from their seats on the dais, a cold focus came across Dorsey’s face. She stood up and marched to a podium beside the fern-girded stage, and she launched into an emphatic, unscripted telling of her story.

Rotarians visibly winced. They shook their heads. At one point, they cheered. For the finale, Dorsey grew loud:

“I am going to be the voice for the voiceless. I’m going to be the hope for the hopeless. And I’m going to stand up for every child … who cannot stand up for themselves.” Dorsey snatched the Rotary gavel used for official meetings and waved it high. “So today I come, and I hit the gavel” — CRACK! across the wood podium — “and I ask you to fight for the children here, across this globe. Thank you!”

A generous applause, within seconds, became the roar of a standing ovation.

Outside the ballroom, as admirers queued for autographed books, Dorsey wore a devious smile and said the bit with the gavel hadn’t been planned — she’d gotten a little carried away in the moment — and the contrast between her and the lost kid in Bainbridge couldn’t have been more stark.

Gone was the girl who once thought of herself as Humpty Dumpty, a girl so far broken she couldn’t be fixed. The girl who once walked into a mental health clinic, but didn’t know how to ask for the help she needed. The girl who was desperate for a place like YouthSpark but couldn’t find it.

In her place was a woman with a purpose and a family who supports her mission, a woman who views her life not as a traumatic experience but an unfolding journey that is absolutely amazing.

Behind the story

Dorsey gathers with her family, daughter Malia Cook (from left), son Alston Cook, Dorsey, husband Carlos Cook, daughter Ayanna Cook, and son Malik Cook in the their Hampton home.


ABOUT THE STORY

Immersing oneself in the sordid world of child sex trafficking isn’t for everybody, but Josh Green has been wanting to tell this story since his days covering the crime beat for a daily newspaper. To tell this story he interviewed Dorsey Jones at her home, office and at her former college. He spoke to her colleagues, family and fourth-grade teacher, who studied Dorsey’s home environment as part of a master’s thesis. And he spoke to experts on Atlanta’s sex trafficking problem. Josh said the assignment was among his most challenging — with some of the hardest interviews — of his career. We’re glad he did it, though. It’s an important story and it needs to be told.

Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
personaljourneys@ajc.com


ABOUT THE REPORTER
Josh Green is a freelance journalist and fiction author who lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughters. His work has won top accolades in his native Indiana and in Georgia, where his 2016 Atlanta magazine story on gentrification won Atlanta Press Club and Green Eyeshade awards. A contributing writer at Atlanta magazine and editor of Curbed Atlanta, Green is working with his literary agent to submit his first novel to publishers. His book of short stories, “Dirtyville Rhapsodies,” was published in 2013.

ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER
Bita Honarvar is an Atlanta-based photographer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Guardian US, Chicago Tribune and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she was a staff photojournalist and photo editor for 16 years. Her work has taken her around the United States and abroad, including stints in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran.