Gina Cavallo, who was raised in Passaic County, remembers her childhood environment as being violent and abusive.

“I had no self-esteem, I felt totally worthless. I mean it was always reinforced to me how worthless I was, how stupid I was,” she said

She felt fearful and shamed and left home when she was 18, determined to return one day as a winner, determined to be loved and prove family members were wrong about her.

After settling in Florida, Cavallo started meeting people she thought were her friends but now realizes “these were fraudulent people they were not who they said they were.”

A horrible turn of events

When she accepted an invitation to visit one of them, “I was raped, I was locked up. He gave me a new name and pornography, food, sleep, drugs were all used to punish me and reward me.”

The New Jersey Association of Counties holds a special Summit on Human Trafficking at the end of this week, and the keynote speaker is Cavallo, who finally escaped forced prostitution after two nightmarish years and turned her life around completely.

young girl sitting down alone in the dark.
Giuda90 GettyImages

Why didn’t she just run?

She said human trafficking victims are held against their will “through beatings, through drugs, and the threats are real, I’m going to hurt you, I’m going to kill you, I’m going to hurt your family, I’m going to hurt your brother, your sister, your dog.”

She said during one escape attempt she was grabbed from behind with a knife to her back and on another occasion she was arrested for prostitution and thought she’d be safe, but was then raped by a prison guard and when she told a supervisor what happened he told her to leave and never come back, and she was returned to her trafficker.

According to Kate Lee, the executive director of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, the problem is much bigger than most people realize because Jersey is so densely populated, right between New York and Philadelphia.

The word HELP written on sand being washed away by wave
celiaosk GettyImages


The victims are forced and coerced to work as sex slaves and laborers, sometimes almost brainwashed to believe they can trust no one but their trafficker.

She said girls and women who are prostituted are frequently moved from location to location by traffickers because they believe “moving their victims around will keep them very disoriented, and allow them to be kept exhausted, kept hungry, and not know where they are."

“This is a low-risk, high-return financial crime that people will inflict upon other human beings for the purpose of making money,” she said.

Help is available

Lee said the national human trafficking hotline is 888-373-7888, and you can text to 233-733, which spells BE FREE.

Cavallo, who is a survivor leader and Board of Trustees member of the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking, said she eventually confronted the issues from her past and was able to embrace her true self.

“I realized that by sharing my lived experience, that I could be a guide, a light for others on their journey to freedom.”

She travels across the nation, talking to kids in schools, law enforcement officials and legislators, sharing her story and spreading the word that help is available for victims.

She said the crime of human trafficking, sexual and forced labor, comes in many forms, with male and female victims and traffickers of all ages and nationalities, and it is all around us.

And many survivors blame themselves not the perpetrators.

“We believe what happened to us was our fault,” she said.

Cavallo said instead of shaming the victims, “we need to name and shame the buyers, we need to name and shame the sellers, that is a way to stop this."

For more information, you can visit the New Jersey Coalition Against Human Trafficking website.

David Matthau is a reporter for New Jersey 101.5. You can reach him at

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