Gina Cavallo is an influential voice advocating for victims and survivors of human trafficking. A survivor herself, Gina helps to shape US policy and state legislation, and is a ‘prevention educator’ in schools and colleges


In her book, A Survivor’s Secrets (Tyndale) Gina writes about her own experience of being trafficked, of the ripples it would send through every part of her life and how a growing awareness of God’s truth led to her healing, recovery and ultimate freedom.  

“Sometimes we know something is wrong”, she says. Growing up as the youngest of a large, hardworking Italian-Catholic family in New Jersey, she reasoned that whatever it was about her tumultuous home life, it must be her fault. Often singled out, bullied and blamed by members of the family, it took time to realise what was happening, or to even find words for it. Outbursts of rage, screaming and physical fights were a regular occurrence in her home: “When I was younger I did not know the word abuse. I did not know the words domestic violence.” She explains the sense of confusion: “If it’s people that we’re supposed to trust…people that are supposed to love us and protect us and nurture us, and guide us and we’re being harmed by [them]…getting sprinkles of kindness here and there – it [sends] a lot of mixed messages.” 

As a child she came to the only conclusion that made sense: “[I believed] I was the problem…the stupid person, the worthless person [because] the people who are supposed to love me are the ones criticising me, rejecting me, hurting me.” This belief formed the bedrock of her identity. Gina became determined to win her family’s love and approval and to show them that she could ‘make it on her own’. However, she was more vulnerable than she could possibly have known. On leaving home, she ran into a set of terrible misfortunes, which saw her tricked, kidnapped, forced into prostitution and trafficked across the United States – an ordeal she endured for three years at the hands of multiple traffickers. She reiterates how she couldn’t articulate her experiences at the time: “Being a survivor of different forms of child abuse that led into sex trafficking, I could not find a word to go with that. I literally thought this was my norm.” 

Gina was tricked, kidnapped, forced into prostitution and trafficked across the United States

The ordeal itself was brutal, and traumatising. It featured a catalogue of contradictions where apparent kindnesses and promises of help (such as offers of money or work) turned out to be the lures of predators determined to use her for their own advantage. She was manipulated, held captive and intimidated; repeatedly sold to clients for sex while her traffickers pocketed the money. Her only option was to comply: “I think the abuse of my body took a toll on me…[when] you become a victim of trafficking, they not only take your identity away, but you endure such violence – beatings. Sleep, pornography, food, drugs are all used as rewards and punishments. This [is] how they gain psychological control over you. I endured a lot of violence and torture.


The long road to freedom

When she did manage to escape her captors, another set were waiting in the shadows; and she found herself again at the mercy of those who target young, vulnerable women and girls. Finally, a chance encounter led to her freedom; she made it home to New Jersey and was reunited with her family. However, as she wrestled with the ensuing shame and fear, she found that this wasn’t freedom at all. She was compelled to bury the experience; still reckoning with a set of destructive beliefs that had been instilled in her long before she had ever become a victim of human trafficking. 

Life did move on but Gina kept her secret, paying a price: “I was still doing a lot of self-blaming…I had such a wall up…sabotaging relationships – not even realising it because I didn’t want to be hurt anymore.” She writes about her first marriage ending, which devastated her and sent her spiralling into drugs and alcohol. She found her way into recovery and came to faith through AA. Things began looking up; she married again and had her “beautiful daughter”. Though the marriage ended, she was more resilient and pressed on as her faith grew. But it wasn’t until 2016, by then happily remarried, that her past caught up with her: she started having flashbacks. 

Her daughter’s husband, a pastor at her church in New Jersey, invited her to join ‘Redemption & Recovery’ (a faith-based programme): “I said: ‘I’ll come and make coffee, but I don’t need to get involved in the group.’” Despite her reservations she wanted to give it a try: “I believed I needed it, but [there] was that self-protection…that defence, the world telling me everything was wrong with me. So I went in with that attitude. Little did I know, I was about to do a lot of self-discovery.”

On starting the programme, she reflects: “You have to decide; am I gonna bury my past [again]? Which I thought I did a good job at. But when the horses were at the gate ready to come out, I had a choice to either re-bury it and run, or face the past – which is what I chose to do.” The programme provided the framework she needed, including counselling, mentorship and support groups: “I didn’t have to walk into this alone, and, most importantly, they provided a safe place for me; they take confidentiality very seriously there. So I felt very, very safe.”


Processing her past provided the basis for writing her book: “[it] gave me my truth, my identity and my freedom”. God gently unearthed her secrets, illuminating them with a clarity and insight that helped her to understand the childhood experiences that had paved the way for her trafficking ordeal. It was never about her. She had “grown accustomed to bearing the brunt of the dysfunction of others”: a complex entanglement of circumstances, learned behaviours, culture and attitudes. The neglect and abuse she suffered had prevented her from cultivating important life skills. And never feeling valued or heard meant she hadn’t learned to listen to herself when something felt wrong. Undiagnosed learning difficulties played a role too, meaning she had struggled more than most. In the end, surrendering to God was the key: “I had nothing to lose by surrendering…a life-changing transition for me was turning my will over to the Lord. I learned from my past that putting the word of people before the word of God will only bring me disappointment, and sometimes, as in my personal experience, bring great harm.”

I had a choice to either re-bury it and run, or face the past – which is what I chose to do

Gina’s secrets and past no longer hold power over her. And she extends love and forgiveness to the people who hurt her. She has reclaimed her story too: “if I can survive and change from my tragedies to triumph, so will others”. The vulnerable young woman who was trafficked all those years ago is transformed, but she continues to fight for those like her, using her experiences to enable others to avoid the same pitfalls. Gina knows all too well how many victims aren’t here to tell their stories. She is “full of gratitude” to be able to tell hers.

A Survivor’s Secrets (Tyndale) is released on 7 May. To learn more about Gina’s anti-trafficking work, and to pre-order her book, go to

Words by Alex Noel