Aaliyah’s story is sobering and tragic.
Her family, the foster care and child welfare systems, and the legal and criminal justice systems all failed this beautiful young woman. Despite everything Aaliyah has been through these past twelve years, she is not bitter. Instead, she’s focused on turning her life around.
Aaliyah’s suffering began at the age of 9. Her mom developed a drug problem and began dating a man who raped her.
“I didn’t tell anyone because he threatened to leave and take away our only income.”
Child Protective Services removed Aaliyah from her mother, whose cocaine use had spun out of control, leading to deplorable living conditions. Aaliyah rebelled in foster care under the authority of people she felt only wanted the government check. Running away from foster care, Aaliyah was left to fend for herself on the streets.
“The first time I actually took money for sex was when I was 16. He had been raping me for years… why not take the $200?”
Aaliyah left for Texas at 19 and found work as a stripper. A fellow dancer told her about a Houston club where she could earn more money. The man in charge turned out to be a pimp (all too common in the world of strip clubs). He brought her to New Orleans where she was required to earn $500 a night during the week and $1,000 for weekend nights.
“If I failed to earn his money, he would beat me with a belt or stripper pole.”
Aaliyah arranged her “dates” on Backpage, an online ad service for adult postings. Also working the site was an FBI agent who agreed to exchange money for sex with Aaliyah. The agent was part of a sting operation, and Aaliyah was immediately arrested.
“I was 17 when I found out I was HIV positive.”
Being HIV positive is a by-product of the life Aaliyah was forced to lead. On the night of her arrest, Aaliyah had a full box of condoms on her – but her belongings were never searched before she was arrested. Charged with “attempted exposure to the HIV virus,” she was forced to register as a sex offender for the next 15 years – or go to jail.
“I prayed a lot.”
As a young girl, Aaliyah’s grandmother taught her to pray every day, and she has continued to do so through the years. “There could be a man on top of me, and I would still pray. Because you never knew if he would snap, or choke me out, or try and rob me, or kill me.”
With the help of Covenant House, the sex offender charge against Aaliyah has been dropped. (Imagine trying to apply for a job or find a decent apartment with the words “sex offender” stamped in scarlet letters on your license?)
She is now getting her life back on track and receiving ongoing counseling. She has a new job and is considering going back to school. Aaliyah knows the “road back” will have many challenges, but she has hope… and faith.