Battle Creek

Breaking her silence to help other victims of sex trafficking in Battle Creek

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

"And so, we speak, not from the shadows, but as a lighthouse of hope, guiding the lost to safety and the silenced to voice." — UnSilenced
BATTLE CREEK, MI — Robin Bolz spent the early years of her life in Battle Creek silently enduring mental and sexual abuse at the hands of sex traffickers. In adulthood, she found her voice and a way to be there for those who are the prey of sexual predators.
During National Crime Victims’ Week in April, Bolz publicly shared her story and unveiled Unsilenced: Battle Creek Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition, an organization she founded to educate and support individuals who are where she once was – a very dark place.
Unsilenced currently occupies donated space at EXP Realty and Bolz is seeking funding to become a full-fledged non-profit with its own space, staff, and volunteers.
“Everything happened so fast, it’s like we’re going 100 miles an hour,” says Bolz, Founder and Executive Director of Unsilenced.
The idea came after one of the men who victimized more than 30 years ago was found dead of a gunshot wound in Florida. Police earlier had talked about his involvement with Bolz. Before killing himself, he factory reset his phone to erase any evidence.
The detective she was working with said he had no idea how deep her situation went.
Bolz found an organization in Kalamazoo called the Kalamazoo Area Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition that was doing exactly what she wanted to do in Battle Creek. The head of that group offered to act as the fiduciary for Unsilenced so that they could begin operating as a nonprofit.
“The outpouring of support and partnerships has been unreal. Among the collaborations is one with SAFE Place where Bolz meets “victims in the mess and where they need the most help.”
“We build a rapport and connect them to services they need. It’s not so much about education. It’s about awareness and doing street outreach to connect with victims. As they pursue recovery we want them to know they’re not walking that journey alone,” she says.
For 41 years SAFE Place has been providing services and support to victims of intimate sexual violence says Ellen Lassiter Collier, SAFE Place CEO. Four years ago they broadened this to formally include victims of sex trafficking.
In 2023, SAFE Place served 55 clients who were the victims of sex trafficking, an increase of 17 from the previous year. Lassie Collier says there is a greater awareness of her organization in and outside of Calhoun County.
“For four years now we’ve been serving victims of sex trafficking. People have become more aware of what we do and what sex trafficking is and we’re getting more and more referrals from law enforcement agencies,” she says.
In 2023, SAFE Place collected locations for 71 percent of its clients. Sixty-five percent were from within Calhoun County and the majority were women.
“We have a serious problem in Battle Creek and Kalamazoo with sex trafficking,” Bolz says. “Part of what we’re doing is showcasing how it can happen underneath our noses.”
Robin Bolz hugs Tony the Tiger at this year's Cereal Fest.Lassiter Collier says she thinks some people don’t understand the scope of this issue and many people don’t know that it’s happening.
“There’s a lot of confusion around what trafficking is and how it happens,” she says. “Some people just truly don’t have any idea or they do and don’t want to give attention to it. It’s a horrible experience and it’s difficult to talk about.”
Silent no more
“I came from a very broken family where abuse was prevalent and I went unnoticed. I had ratty hair and would eat rock salt off the ground to make myself feel like I was eating something and had something in my stomach,” Bolz says. “I wore dirty, old clothes.”
She had no way of knowing that her invisibility was making her an easy mark for adult men who were well-known to her and used her vulnerabilities to their advantage, she says.
“When I was in third grade, my dad started fondling me,” Bolz says.
Any attention was welcomed as a child living in the shadows of other people’s lives. Abusers or traffickers are preying on some type of vulnerability, Lassiter Collier says.
“If there isn’t an existing one, they create one like drug abuse or lifestyle that includes access to drugs or something else to where the victim becomes dependent on them,” she says. “Someone may be experiencing substance use but that’s not necessarily their choice. That’s something the trafficker introduces to take control.”
Two years into feeling like someone cared, Bolz says, “I knew it was wrong and told my school counselor that my dad was going into my underwear. I cried and she said I was too old to cry and sent me back to class.”
Throughout the years of abuse, Bolz says she sought but didn't receive the attention she craved from her mother who became an unwitting accomplice through her inaction.
Robin Bolz in an elementary school photoBy the time she was 12 years old, she was being preyed upon by other men, in addition to her father. One of these men was a 56-year-old man her mother was involved with.
“I was permitted to sleep in bed with him while mom slept on the couch,” Bolz says.

In addition to him, there were other men in her mother’s life and when her mother was with one of them, she would lock the doors so that Bolz couldn’t get into the house. More often than not, when this would happen she would have to seek shelter wherever she could find it and her health suffered as a result.
She contracted pneumonia in 1994 at the age of 14 and was admitted to Battle Creek Health Systems. Her respiratory therapist was a frequent visitor to her hospital room. Bolz says she understands now that he knew an opportunity when he saw it and began grooming her to do whatever he asked of her.
“He knew my story."
He made sure she knew how to get to his house when she was discharged. She would ride her bicycle to his Level Park home knowing what would be expected of her. He chose forms of sex that would not leave any potential DNA evidence.
Robin Bolz with Toucan Sam at this year's Cereal Festn addition to him, Bolz continued to her involvement with the 56-year-old.. In 1995 he abducted her and she was kept in a room in the apartment he shared with his mother with orders to stay silent.
“I don’t know how long I stayed in that room. He would feed me when he ate but forced me to starve and asked for sex in exchange for letting me eat. There were special things I had to do for him to get my basic needs met like taking a shower.”
He also made her available to other men.
“It was more oral sex and fondling. I was never drugged or chained. I was very trauma-bonded and thought it would be such a disrespect to him if I tried to leave," says Bolz. "I was with him until I was almost 18."
She says she was beaten if she tried to go against his will. 
“He never sold me. He was like my dad and my lover and I was his trophy.”
During the time she was with him, her mother later told her that she filed a total of 80 police reports.
“I can’t imagine a child of mine missing for three years and not bringing the police in right away. They knew I wasn’t in school. They asked my mom four different times for dental records because they thought I was dead,” Bolz says. “They told her that ‘You are a child and until you’re an adult you have to follow your mother’s rules. That was their trauma-informed approach back then.”
The little remaining faith she had pushed her to make a break from the man who would be the last to abuse her, she says.
While in a hotel room with him, she says, she told him she was leaving and he threatened to kill her.
“I walked out of there and went into Bill Knapp’s restaurant and called my stepmom because it was the only number I could remember. I told her I couldn’t leave because I felt like I was betraying him. This man came out of the bathroom and handed me a $100 bill and said, ‘You need this more than me.’ I told my stepmom where I was and stood on a toilet waiting for her.”
For six months, she says she fought the urge to go back to her abuser feeling like her life was off-balance without him telling me when to eat and sleep.
“Sex trafficking is incredible abuse and a manipulative situation,” Lassiter Collier says.
While many victims are groomed through person-to-person contact, the most common way a relationship between an abuser and their victim begins is through the Internet on dating sites where a trafficker develops a relationship, making promises and expressing a desire to meet up with their victim.
“Sometimes the victim agrees because of the need for attention, love, money, or drugs,” Lassiter Collier says. “The victim becomes dependent on the trafficker for whatever is promised them. It creates environments where the victim is depending on them and they exploit that to their advantage.”
A victim no more
Four years after her sex trafficking nightmare began, Bolz enrolled in an alternative high school program in Delton to earn her GED. During this time she became pregnant with the first of three children by her first husband and earned her diploma before giving birth.
“I was focused on giving this child the life I didn’t have. She still is my driving force. I got pregnant with my other two one year apart.”
The marriage ended because her then-husband “couldn’t take my trauma. It was just too much for him.”
She is now married to a man who deals with her trauma and supports her, she says. Together they have five children.
When the children became independent, Bolz lost her purpose and her focus and she began to have suicidal thoughts. She sought counseling for the first time at the age of 40. She later enrolled in Kellogg Community College where she earned an Associate’s degree in Early Childhood Education and Childhood Growth and Development.
“My children asked me if this is what happens when you turn 40,” Bolz says of her decision to seek counseling and continue her education.
For 10 years, she taught preschool for various organizations in Battle Creek. It was a vehicle, she says, to give children there the voice she never had.
Through the ups and downs of her ongoing counseling, she decided it was time to do something for herself. She left her pre-school career behind and applied for a job at Summit Pointe working with autistic children. Inspired by her work there, she applied to be a Peer Support Specialist with a local organization. However, the interview wasn’t going well and the person interviewing her said she was concerned that the job would cause her to regress in her recovery.
She wanted to give up but pushed herself to apply for a job as a Peer Support Specialist with Skywood Recovery Center.
The head physician there told her that she had a God-given talent for “meeting people in their mess” and encouraged her to become a Social Worker.
Now a senior in Western Michigan University’s School of Social Work, Bolz also works at an urgent care facility in Kalamazoo focusing on crisis intervention and de-escalation. After earning her Bachelor’s degree she plans to work on a Master’s Degree in Social Work.
“I love working with addiction because I know how and why it happens. People tend to look at all addictions as being the same,” Bolz says. “Trauma bonding is five times harder to break than heroin.”
Lassiter Collier says the healing process can be difficult.
“It’s so complex Somebody may be able to get out of the exploitative piece but they might still be struggling with substance use or legal issues like immigration. These things can take a long time to resolve. Victims need to have access to long-term stays to be successful in their healing journey.”
To meet this need, SAFE Place plans to to add six apartments with a total of 16 beds to its current 20 rooms with 56 beds at SAFE Place. The groundbreaking will take place later this summer. The new apartments and beds will make SAFE Place the largest shelter in Michigan for victims of domestic violence and sex trafficking, Lassiter Collier says.
“The more voices around any issues like this the better,” she says. “The more awareness raised and education conducted brings this out of the darkness to a place where people who need help can identify it and it creates a community that says we’re not going to be tolerant of this behavior.”

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Read more articles by Jane Parikh.

Jane Parikh is a freelance reporter and writer with more than 20 years of experience and also is the owner of In So Many Words based in Battle Creek. She is the Project Editor for On the Ground Battle Creek.