Stateside Podcast: Leslie King is a survivor. Now she’s helping other women
It was another regular day at work for Leslie King when she got a call from Governor Whitmer's office. After years spent rebuilding her life, filling out applications, working with lawyers, and receiving denial after denial for expungement petitions, a voice on the other side of the phone told her what she'd been waiting so long to hear: the governor had pardoned King for crimes committed decades ago when she was a victim of human trafficking.
"All I could do was scream," King recalled. "I was in my office. I just dropped to my knees, and threw my hands up to God, and just screamed. That's all I could do."
At the age of 15, King was sex trafficked in Grand Rapids. For 20 years, she endured sexual exploitation, violence, and drug addiction, until finally escaping in the summer of 2000. The end to decades of trauma marked a new, hopeful beginning for King: the opportunity to work with other victims and survivors. In 2003, King returned to the streets to offer resources and support to women experiencing the same traumas she had. But it wasn't enough.
"One day, I'm sitting at my desk and I'm like, 'But at the end of the day, there's nowhere for them to go.' You know, I can help them, but when it's time to go home, many of them don't have a home. So they go back to what they know how to do for survival."
So King started Sacred Beginnings, a home for women trying to escape sex trafficking. Sacred Beginnings became the first survivor-led peer mentor program for victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation in Michigan. Today, the organization has homed more than 2,000 residents and worked with more than 20,000 people through street outreach. It also provides resources for detox, trauma counseling, and life skills coaching.
On top of building Sacred Beginnings, King also rebuilt her own life. She overcame addiction, raised a loving family, advocated for victims of trafficking, and began earning a degree in social work from Grand Valley State University. But one thing was holding her back: a long rap sheet of convictions related to her time on the street.
Because her record was so long, King wasn't eligible for expungement. But through The Joseph Project, an organization that connects human trafficking survivors with pro bono legal services, King connected with an attorney who could help clear her criminal record. In December 2022, that years-long struggle for a clean slate finally ended.
"Even though I've been out of the [sex trafficking] life and assisted helping others, I still felt like I had a ball and chain on my leg, and I could only do so much because I was a felon," King said. "But now I'm able to go back to college to pursue my dream and actually become a licensed master social worker. I can apply for things and my record won't pop up to deny me that. So for me, finally, I'm able to say I'm actually free."
Hear more of Leslie King's story on this episode of Stateside.
- Leslie King, author, speaker, sex trafficking survivor, and founder of Sacred Beginings
- Madelaine Lane, attorney, Warner Norcross + Judd
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Additional music by Blue Dot Sessions.