COLUMBUS, Ohio — The way Jennifer Bates remembers it, she sat hunched in that police cruiser, her body wracked by tremors because she already craved another hit of dope, her dirty clothes hanging in tatters from her 96-pound, 5-foot-8 frame, the last lucid corner of her mind telling her that she would die if she went to jail. And that she would die if she didn’t.
There she was, a few blocks off Sullivant Avenue in the heart of the Hilltop neighborhood, arrested again. She had run these streets off and on for years, a victim of an abusive home that she fled before her 13th birthday.
As the drugs took hold over more than a decade in what she calls “the worst kind of jungle,” the grip of addiction seemed easy compared to the violence she endured at the hands of sex traffickers — men who locked her in basements and back rooms, branded her as their own, beat her, and forced her to sell her body to strangers and rapists so that they could reap the profits.
Yet there in the backseat of that cruiser that night in August of 2019, Bates begged for help. And she could summon only one name to speak, knew of only one person who she believed might save her: Columbus Police Officer Eric Clouse.
“I kept crying out for him,” she recalled last week. “I didn’t want to go to jail, so I begged the other cops, ‘Please, please, please find Clouse.’”
And this nearly 17-year veteran of the division — having spent most of it on the Hilltop — appeared next to the cruiser.
He couldn’t help her now, Clouse told Bates. So go to jail, he told her. Save yourself. And tomorrow, he promised, he would send advocates there to see her.
And though their recollections of their many random encounters along Sullivant — the most desperate stretch of the city, as chronicled by The Dispatch last year — sometimes diverge, each remembers the last time they saw each other out there on the streets the very same way: “I tapped the top of the cruiser as I shut the door and told her, ‘I’ll see you in better days.’”
“We can make it out”
Bates rolled up to a central Ohio Panera Bread last week in an SUV that always starts on the very first try and having just come from one of two jobs she now holds. On Aug. 31, she will celebrate one year of sobriety. An accomplishment, yes, but make no mistake that both her physical and emotional wounds remain fresh.
Yet she agreed to tell her story now because she wants to give the other women of her former life some hope.
“If I had a million dollars, I’d go out there on Sullivant and get everyone one of them,” the 27-year-old said. “I want the girls to know that not everyone in the world is bad and that we can make it out. We can. We all (expletive) can.”
Through the persistence of Central Ohio Youth For Christ (a charity mission organization whose services Bates used after she became a mom at 15), Bates and Clouse reunited a few weeks ago and now are working together as advocates for other victims.
And in what Bates see as a catharsis of sorts, the two will rappel together down the 330-foot-tall Chase Bank building at Broad and Third streets Downtown on Friday as part of the fifth annual “Over the Edge” event. It raises money for Gracehaven, a Youth for Christ ministry arm that runs programming and a residential treatment center in central Ohio to aide victims of sex trafficking who are minors.
With more than 100 people scaling down the side of the building between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Friday — Clouse and Bates will rappel at 2:30 p.m. — organizers hope to raise more than $280,000 this year.
Teri Alexander, who handles publicity for Central Ohio Youth for Christ first heard Bates’ story earlier this year after Bates reconnected with one of her former mentors from a program for teen mothers. Right away, Alexander felt compelled to track down Clouse.
Eventually, she got him on the phone. She asked him if he remembered Bates.
“My answer to the call was something like ‘I haven’t seen her for a while. Is she dead?’” Clouse recalled. “Because unfortunately, these stories often don’t end any other way.”
Clouse is a part of Columbus police’s Community Response Team, which works the most crime-ridden areas of town to investigate the worst kinds of street-level crime. If he’s in your neighborhood, it’s because dangerous people are in control and things are bad.
He has a reputation on the streets for being relentless and unafraid when it comes to taking down traffickers — both of the drug and human kind.
Clouse said he doesn’t know why Bates came to trust him. But she did.
“She never fit in,” he said of her and the streets. “I didn’t think she would survive out here.”
So he did what he does whenever he can with the women forced into sexual servitude. He checked on her.
“You talk to the girls and treat them like humans. Seems simple to me,” he said with a shrug from the couch in his living room. “They won’t always leave the lifestyle, but if you give them 10 minutes in your car and a hamburger, that’s 10 minutes they aren’t getting beat. I am the guy who scares the guy who scares them.
“And maybe you can convince them that this isn’t real life out here, that they’re worth more.”
“I had to want it”
Bates credits God, Clouse and various advocates for her sobriety. But maybe even more importantly, she credits herself, too.
“I had to want it,” she said. “I did.”
She has regained custody of her son and daughter and they’re all in counseling to work through the pain of the years — both when they were together on the streets and when apart. She hopes to start classes as a psychology major soon at Columbus State Community College. She is working on repairing her relationship with her mom, has a steady boyfriend, and jobs as both a nanny and as a warehouse manager. And she has a savings account at a local bank.
The joy that last simple milestone brings her, she says with a smile, is immeasurable. Everyone she has ever known stole her money as surely as they stole her dignity, her confidence and her sense of self-worth.
But only a few times during hours of interviews did she cry. Once, when she spoke of her younger brother’s death by suicide not long before she found sobriety.
And she cried again when she talked about her children.
She described how she slept next to them in a Hilltop park for months because she couldn’t bear to be away from them. She figured at the time that being together was best. Eventually, she realized her addiction was too consuming, that keeping them was selfish. She surrendered them to relatives.
And then she cried harder when she spoke of how, out there on the Hilltop — on her rare sober and clear-thinking days — she would sometimes slip up to the elementary school her son and daughter attended and peak through the fence hoping for a glimpse of them at recess.
One day, her daughter spotted her and started to cry. Bates doesn’t remember ever approaching the fence again. But she lives in a neighborhood now where her children can play outside without fear of anything. And that’s a joy she never thought she would know.
Just a few weeks ago, her 10-year-old daughter crept into her mom’s bed in the middle of the night, snuggled up and whispered, “This is the best our life’s ever been.”
Bates finally let her tears fall freely as she recounted the moment. She really never thought she’d see such a day. And she credits Clouse for helping her in her darkest hours.
“He said he’d see me in better days,” she said. “Coming down that building … and crossing a finish line with Clouse means something. He told me I would make it, and he believed it. I promised him I would make it, and I did.”
For information on donating to “Over the Edge,” visit www.gracehavenovertheedge.com. If you or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-3737-888. If you suspect someone is in immediate danger, call 911.
To read The Dispatch’s “Suffering on Sullivant” series, visit Dispatch.com/Sullivant.
©2020 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio)
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