Santa Rosa human-trafficking survivor helps others overcome barriers
At 33, Elizabeth Quiroz considers herself lucky to be alive. By the time she was 16, she was a victim of human trafficking on the streets of San Francisco, and arrested for armed robbery, the first of several incarcerations.
She survived 11 years on the streets, selling and using drugs, staying in “dope houses” and never daring to imagine a better life.
Today the Santa Rosa resident is a community advocate working to help those affected by addiction, incarceration and the terrors of human trafficking. She is a voice of compassion and understanding.
She's so driven to move forward that she once burned off the “property of ...” tattoos on both her arms with a lit cigarette; she was high at the time and didn't feel the pain.
A former boyfriend and trafficker who sold her for sex initially labeled her with the tattoos. Now, a large rose tattoo on one arm, and a rose and cross on the other conceal traces of those dark days.
Quiroz is apologetic for the actions that landed her behind bars - from meth sales to auto theft - and finally understands she was victimized by several men she loved and trusted, who coerced her into criminal activity and prostitution.
Rather than quietly walk away from her past and focus on her job, her college studies and the responsibilities of co-parenting five children ages 7 to 17 with her husband as part of a blended family, Quiroz feels compelled to share her story and help others overcome seemingly impossible barriers to success.
“I feel like I've come a long way,” Quiroz said, “and there's more to come.”
Becoming an advocate
She serves on the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force, is president of the Santa Rosa Junior College Second Chance Club for formerly incarcerated students and recently established a confidential support group for victims and survivors of human trafficking in Sonoma County. She leads the group with the support of Verity, a rape crisis, trauma and healing center based in Santa Rosa.
Quiroz also is establishing a nonprofit to provide housing in Sonoma County for victims and survivors of human trafficking, something she said is desperately needed. She's also working with multiple agencies to host a human trafficking awareness event next summer at San Francisco City Hall. She is in the process of earning a pardon.
Quiroz also works 32 hours a week as an Alcohol and Other Drug Studies counselor at a Santa Rosa drug treatment program called Turning Point.
She's taking 13 units at SRJC, where she's set to graduate this spring with associate of arts degrees in human services, social advocacy and behavioral sciences. Quiroz hopes to attend Sonoma State University next year as a sociology major and aspires to earn a master's degree in social work.
Looking forward to the future
Ultimately, she wants to be a parole officer. For now, though, the energetic mother wants to help raise awareness about human trafficking, an issue so deeply associated with shame that victims - and survivors - often won't discuss their backgrounds and experiences.
“I'm trying to bring awareness and talk about it,” she said. “It's huge. It's been happening in San Francisco and Oakland for years. It's happening here, too, but it's a shameful thing.”
As part of a national campaign, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors declared January Human Trafficking Awareness Month; local efforts ranged from a billboard campaign on buses to a panel discussion and screening of a documentary about the perils of human trafficking.
Quiroz has spoken publicly about overcoming human trafficking, reaching victims and policymakers alike.
She's addressed the County of Sonoma Commission on the Status of Women; the Petaluma Police Department; and John Burton Advocates for Youth, a San Francisco-based nonprofit dedicated to homeless youth and current and former foster children. She's been a guest on the Pocho Live Show on local radio station KBBF 89.1 FM and addressed a group of stakeholders in violence prevention in Santa Rosa, among other engagements and keynote addresses.
Janice Blalock, a member of the Sonoma County Human Trafficking Task Force and a commissioner and immediate past chairwoman of the Sonoma County Commission on the Status of Women, said she is inspired by Quiroz.
“She's not jaded and is so open and inspired by life to keep moving forward,” Blalock said. “She really wants to make a difference, and it's very genuine. “She's a great part of our conversation and has so much energy.”
‘She's sort of our missing ingredient'
Quiroz brings a unique perspective to the task force, comprised mainly of law enforcement and service providers, said Blalock, who encouraged Quiroz to apply. “She's sort of our missing ingredient. She brings things full circle.”