Rebekah Rinaldi remembers the day she told the man forcing her into prostitution “that I no longer feel the need to sell my body to get you money. Go out and get your own job.”

The man, her boyfriend at the time, is now incarcerated in California. He used to tie her to a chair and slap her around, at times withholding food and other times force feeding her, she said.

“He’d push me through walls and against dressers,” said Rinaldi, 21, who has been receiving help at Tumbleweed and other Billings agencies since last summer. “He would not let me talk to my family on the phone. He’d take the phone away from me, and when I told him I wanted to leave, he would abuse me more.”

One day, her trafficker left the apartment without his phone — and without tying up Rinaldi. She called 911, and when a dispatcher asked for her address, she couldn’t recall it.

The authorities located her anyway, and when the man returned, “he started yelling at me” before he was taken away, she said.

Eventually, she made her way back to Billings, where she’d been educated at Senior and Skyview high schools.

“One day, Rebekah finally decided she was tired,” said Georgia Cady, program manager for Tumbleweed’s domestic victims of human trafficking and also the agency’s drop-in center manager. “She’d been sleeping in a cave in the Rims.”

For a few weeks Rinaldi had been staying in a Missoula shelter, but she missed her son — one of three remaining children, one child having died at about 6 months old. She’s expecting her fifth child in May, and Tumbleweed is working with her on foster care options, and on obtaining other social services.

On nights when she'd carry her blanket up to her cave in the Rims, Rinaldi remembers looking out over the city below “and seeing how many people there are down there, and thinking about the people who could take me in and feed me.”

Through a partnership with STEP Inc. (Support and Techniques for Empowering People), Tumbleweed helped Rinaldi into a two-bedroom apartment in the floor below a STEP group home. Rinaldi pays her own rent, goes to AA meetings and is in counseling.

“These ladies,” she says, referring to Cady; Erika Willis, Tumbleweed’s executive director; and Jenni Brady, domestic victims of human trafficking case manager, “like to push me to the good days so I am not sitting at home all the time.”

Of course there have been setbacks.

“I lied to these three ladies about using,” Rinaldi said. “I didn’t have money for drugs, so the kids who stay here and I did it together.”

That’s why Tumbleweed, which was awarded a two-year, $600,000 demonstration grant to develop best practices for aiding the victims of human trafficking, is a low-barrier agency, Cady said.

“We will meet you when you’re high, drunk or sober, wherever you are,” she said, and the agency is currently serving 61 victims of human trafficking in 28 counties. “We continue to work with people in recovery or non-recovery.”

“You see people at their lowest, and you help them get to the highest,” Brady said. “We will find that little positive to hang onto and help work on getting them to where they can thrive instead of survive. It has been awesome to watch how hard she’s worked. Every day we have higher expectations, and Rebekah continues to meet them.”

“When I’m not using, I’m happy. I’m not boring Rebekah,” Rinaldi said. “I like being clean, being myself, and talking to people about my feelings.”

Enlisting the public's help

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and Willis calls public awareness “the number one way to combat human trafficking. People need to know what it looks like and how it happens. We are serving 61 people with direct services, and most of them are right here in our town.”

Young people often show up at Tumbleweed asking for something simple, such as a bottle of water, Willis said. Often gradually, Brady, Cady and their colleagues develop relationships with the youth, connecting them as they go with services that are comprehensive.

“A lot of vulnerable people are trafficked,” Willis said, “and we work to decrease that vulnerability because we don’t want kids to end up on the streets.”

About 90 percent come to Tumbleweed through its drop-in center.

“They may want a bottle of water or to get a shower, and we know they are going back out to be trafficked,” Cady said. “We want them to be able to say one day, ‘I’m ready.’ "

“I feel different than I did before,” Rinaldi said. “When he used to traffic me on (social media), he would listen in from the next hotel room. I feel a lot better that he is locked up, and I hope he won’t get out.”

“I can’t tell you how proud we are of Rebekah,” Cady said. “If you reach one person in your career, you have far exceeded what is expected. Holy cow! Who would have thought this wild redhead would be in her own apartment and doing so well?”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.