As a young girl, Mindy Osantowski was a victim of sex trafficking at the hands of her then-step father. As a survivor and advocate in West Michigan, she sees major holes in the state’s awareness and care for current sex trafficking victims, especially young boys.
Today, Osantowski, known to many people as Mama Bear, serves as a mentor, an advocate, and a healer to hundreds of young victims of sex trafficking through her Angels of Healing campaign. She advocates for children in court, and even sits with them in classrooms, to ensure recovery and justice for those she says are written-off by the current justice system.
Osantowski sat down with Stateside to discuss her experiences and advocacy work.
You can read highlights below or listen to the conversation above.
On becoming Mama Bear:
“Actually that name was chosen for me.”
When Osantowski’s son was injured in a car accident, they went through a period of separation. During that time, she began mentoring children.
“...they kept, you know, calling me like Mama Bear, and I started doing stuff with them. It’s like well could do something Saturday, you know, maybe you guys could go to the beach or whatever. We’d have days where we’d just go do whatever on Saturday and Sunday. I would end up taking them to church, and I’d never tell them where we were going. I was like, ‘No we’re just going to the beach,’ and then we’d go to church, and then go to the beach.”
On escaping sex trafficking:
“I was there till I was 13. And there was a girl in school who had rode the bus with me and had lunch with me, and one day she had come in the bathroom because I used to go in there instead of the lunchroom. At that time, I didn’t comprehend why other kids were always happy. I didn’t understand how they could go through what I was going through at home and be so happy. I didn’t know what wasn’t happening in their homes. She’d come in there to share lunch with me one day, and I got scared and freaked out on her like, ‘What do you want? What do you want from me, you know, why are you even talking to me?’ It was not too long after that a cop and a teacher had talked with me.”
“But I had no idea for years that that girl is the one that said … I always thought it was the teacher that noticed something. Later on in life, this girl got a hold of me on Facebook. She said I remember you and she started asking me about seeing me in the bathroom with bruises and bleeding and washing up and different things."
On talking with authorities:
“I thought it happened to everyone... Inside, I knew something was very wrong with what was happening. I didn’t like it, and I didn’t want it. When the cop was talking to me, he was asking me questions and as I answered him, he was crying. And I didn’t understand why he was crying, and I asked him. ‘Why are you crying?’ And he said, ‘Moms and dads are not supposed to do this to their children.’ And I got an instant anger inside of me that rose up.”
On the signs of human trafficking:
“Bullying is one of the top signs of human trafficking and abuse. Bullying or being bullied. Both of those are avenues of a sign of serious abuse going on at home, and a lot of people miss that and don’t recognize that.”
“Kids come to school closed, dirty, act rebellious, anger, the kid you don’t want to talk to.”
“Every one of these children, in a sense, are getting stolen on a daily basis and we need more people to step up and say 'Hey this don’t look right across the street. I’m gonna do something.'”
“We need to join forces and all our tools and equipment that we have to be able to help these youth and young people. These are our future. They’re not just write-offs. They have kids that they label as throw-aways. These are live kids. These are breathing kids.”
You can learn more about Mama Bear's work with Angels of Healing by going to angelsofhealing.org.
You can reach the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 888-373-7888 or at humantraffickinghotline.org.