Monday, July 16, 2012

A Shelter for Victims of Sex Trafficking Offers Counseling, Schooling and Safety

A Shelter for Victims of Sex Trafficking Offers Counseling, Schooling and Safety
Published: July 14, 2012

HOUSTON — On the outskirts of the city, a two-story lodge with a wraparound porch is largely hidden on a 110-acre site in the woods. Horses graze in front of the building, and a volleyball court and educational center stand behind. Down winding paths are a ropes course, a pool and a lake.

But the name of the recently opened facility, Freedom Place, cannot be found, and its address is undisclosed: it is the state’s first privately run safe house that provides long-term housing for American girls who are victims of sex trafficking. The shelter represents a new solution for state legislators and county officials as they try to figure out how best to support such victims.

“Typical emergency shelters — girls would just totally run from them,” said Kellie Armstrong, the executive director of Freedom Place, which can house up to 30 residents. The staff arranges counseling, schooling and recreational activities.

In Texas, the effort to end sex trafficking of minors has shifted since the Texas Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that domestic minors younger than 14 involved in prostitution should be considered victims rather than criminals. But the state has no “safe harbor” laws that establish a systematic response for providing minors with necessary services without criminalization.

Girls can often be distrustful or so manipulated by their traffickers that they leave if not placed in secure facilities. Many of the young victims who are not charged with prostitution must be charged with related crimes like drug possession or truancy to ensure that they are not released back onto the street. According to the 2011 report provided by the Texas Juvenile Probation Commission to the State Legislature, 66 children were arrested for prostitution and 53 children were referred for prostitution in 2009.

Freedom Place gives victims a safe haven. “We can’t decriminalize and not have places for these kids to go,” said State Senator Leticia Van de Putte, Democrat of San Antonio, the co-chairwoman of the Joint Interim Committee to Study Human Trafficking.

Seven girls currently live at the facility, where they will most likely stay between 9 and 18 months. The first four residents were referred by the Harris County Girls Court, which focuses on sex trafficking cases.

The nonprofit organization Arrow Child and Family Ministries oversees Freedom Place, but religious activities are optional. The home has a $1.8 million budget for its first year, largely from private donations and grants. The girls are checked on at least every 15 minutes, but the facility, with carpeted floors and pastel walls, feels like a home.

“We need to have a place to bring girls that isn’t a place where they are considered offenders but they are victims,” said Robert Sanborn, president and chief executive of Children at Risk, a nonprofit group.

At least one more such facility in Texas is being planned. As part of a public-private partnership, the Letot Center in Dallas County has begun a capital campaign to finance a 96-bed residence to meet the needs of domestic trafficking victims and serve other young girls.

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