This is why T, as she is commonly known, advocates so strongly for the reformation of child welfare services. After she was freed from sexual exploitation, she spared no time in fighting against it so all the other girls could be freed and those who may be at risk will never have to experience it for themselves. A truly courageous woman, T has made significant impacts on the issue of child welfare and sits on several advisory councils for the protection of children against sexual trafficking.
T's passion and dedication to ending sexual trafficking come directly from her own experiences when she was young. Her personal experiences have enabled her to understand what trafficked women and children are going through, and she has offered her wisdom to create welfare programs that cater to the needs of those victims.
Early, Miserable Life
Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew's beginnings were harsh and difficult. She was born in December 1989, the daughter of two drug addicts who sometimes would not even change her diapers for days. The family lived in a drug-house used by numerous addicts, with walls covered in blood and roaches roaming all around.
Not long after she was born, T's parents sent her to a foster home due to the lack of resources and time needed to care for her. By the time she was ten years old, T had been transferred across fourteen different foster homes.
T's time in the foster homes greatly shaped her views of the world. In fact, when she was finally freed from sex trafficking many years later, she recalled that the way she was treated at the foster homes contributed to how easily she succumbed to the sex traffickers. In an interview she gave many years later, T said:
"These caregivers will make statements like, You’re not my child, I don’t care what’s going on with you, as long as you’re not dead, I’ll continue to get my paycheck... This nothing-but-a-paycheck theory objectifies the youth, and the youth begin to normalize the perception that their presence is to be used for financial gain. When youth are approached by traffickers, pimps, exploiters, they don’t see much difference between their purpose of bringing finances into their foster home and bringing money to traffickers, pimps, exploiters’ stable."
A Victim of Prostitution
When she was ten years old, T met a man who offered her a permanent place to stay, where she would be loved and cared-for. Being a naive child who knew nothing more than someone else's livelihood, she readily accepted the man's offer and went with him. Little did she know how greatly the decision would change her life.
For the next seven years, T spent her time roaming the streets, wearing mini-shorts and pink sneakers to easily be noticed by men. The man who offered to love and take care of T turned her into a prostitute, keeping the money she earned for himself and “guilt-tripping” her with the offer of a place to stay to keep her subservient.
T would often be beaten if she came home with less than one-thousand dollars in her pocket. Her food and clothes were portioned by the man, and he watched her every move to make sure she could not tell anyone else of her situation. T's life was horrible - she lived in constant fear of being beaten, so she always tried to earn as much money as she could…and only, in the end, for someone else to enjoy it.
In an interview many years later, T recalled her teenage years:
"For so long my freedom was non-existent. My every move was watched, my every conversation was observed, my clothing & food portions and options were at the mercy of another. Living in fear and terror, I had no ability to make or understand decisions & my physical self seemed to belong to everyone but me."
Turning Her Life Around
Fortunately, this all changed when T was seventeen years old. One day, a child welfare worker learned of T's plight and, with the help of the court, rescued her from the man who had made her life miserable for seven years. The worker then gave T a new home to live in, this time truly loving and taking care of her.
For T, this transition was like night and day. Never before had she experienced this kind of love and care, in which someone genuinely wanted her presence. Before, people only wanted T for the money she could bring them, but this time, someone was really there for her and to ensure her welfare. This radically changed T's perspective of life, as she began to experience the kind of life she used to only watch others live.
In an interview many years later, she expressed her joy in being free from sexual trafficking in this statement:
"In my Life now, most would believe I am free, by comparison to my life before. Yes it’s true, I’ve now found the freedom to make my own decisions as & when I choose, able to speak to anyone I feel the want to, eat until I burst if I choose, learning more so my capabilities, finding people who truly care for my best interests rather than negotiating the price they could get for me."
It was not just love and care that T received in her new home - she also gained the strength to stand up and talk about her experiences so that other young girls who have been trapped in what she was rescued from would no longer suffer. The inspiration T found from the worker who rescued her gave her the courage to let the American public know that sexual trafficking is not exclusive to third-world countries.
From then on, T began working with several children’s and women’s welfare foundations to rescue victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as to raise public awareness. In 2011, she worked with “Rebecca Project,” a human rights organization focused on protecting women and children and promoting the fight against human trafficking. Because of her perseverance, that year marked the very first time the U.S. President's budget proposed funding to combat sexual trafficking in the United States.
The Bravest Truth-Teller
It was not long before T's efforts drew public attention. In 2011, she was named by Glamour Magazine as one of their "Women of the Year," which pushed her career into the spotlight. T then took advantage of her newfound popularity to further stress the importance of combating sexual trafficking in the United States. The bold retelling of her teenage experiences resulted in T being dubbed the "Bravest Truth-Teller."
T is currently studying Mass Communication and Political Science at Trinity University in Washington. Looking back at her experiences and (great fortune to escape them), she still has some struggles after her many years spent in sexual exploitation. However, as she moves forward, she believes she will truly grasp the idea of what it means to be free and help others to achieve it.
As she says in an interview:
"Freedom is something I’m still learning to fully obtain. People don’t understand how hard it is to escape the mental chains around the mind that were placed upon me. Years later for me, I am still endeavoring to truly understand that I am not a slave, and neither man nor money validates my worth. I am still distinguishing who I am from what was done to me. I am & will be something greater than what was expected."
Today, T continues her fight to free trafficked women and children in the United States, as well as her advocacy for better child welfare services. Given enough time, T believes that her goal of ending child sex trafficking entirely will come to pass. As she said in an interview:
"Personally, I feel there is so much more that can be done; these are just a few places to begin in the longer process of our federal government’s partnership with nationwide child welfare systems in their effort to end the vulnerability of this population."
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Still Alive Initiative
- Human Rights Projects for Girls
- National Foster Care
- Youth and Alumni Policy Council
- Youth Advisory Board
- Youth Development and Advocacy Program
- Rebecca Project
- Women's Network of Entrepreneurs
Awards and Achievements
- 2009: Received the “Outstanding Young Leader Award” from the Foster Club
- 2011: Named “Woman of the Year” by Glamour Magazine
- 2012: Awarded the Flag of the United States by Senator Chuck Grassley
- 2012: Awarded the “Do Good, Look Good” Scholarship by DoSomething.org and the Los Angeles County Probation Department Award
- Awarded the AmeriCorps Scholarship
- Awarded Certificates of Recognition by the California State Senate and the California State Assembly
- Received the California Youth Score Award
- Commended by the California & Alameda County Foster Youth Alliance
- Keynote Speaker at the Alameda County District Attorneys’ H.E.A.T. Conference
- Guest Speaker at the Law Day Student Luncheon of Alameda County
LinkedIn (Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew)
Glamour (Withelma “T” Ortiz-Macey: The Bravest Truth-Teller)
Don't Sell Bodies (Independence Day by Withelma "T" Ortiz Walker Pettigrew - Survivor)
ABC News (Foster Care and Sex Trafficking Survivor Testifies on Hill)