DALLAS – Not long after the last time Cecilia Roberts was sent to a hotel in Atlanta to be sold for sex, the then-17-year-old was in a residential facility for girls as they recover from the trauma of trafficking as they helped prosecutors convict two adults she had turned to when they needed a place to stay.
Roberts spent about a year in a 15-bed residential facility for girls in the Wellspring Living in Georgia, one of a number of places established in response to what experts call a growing population of sex with children-victims of trafficking in human beings.
Now 24 and work in purchase for a system of health care, Roberts said that the life in the safe house allowed her to focus on her education, and heal.
“For the first time, I am in a room full of people who I felt that understood me, and I didn’t have to explain myself,” said Roberts, who returned to the Source of the job-training program after the move of the facility. “As a child, it was everything that I needed: a just peace, and a little bit of love and attention. That is everything that I was looking for.”
The need for long-term, and specialized care for the treatment of sex with children-victims of trafficking in human beings is increasing. For decades, saved children wound up being arrested and thrown into the juvenile justice system. But that has changed in the past few years, because the states moved to send the victims in the direction of the treatment. Twenty-four states and the District of Columbia are excluded from criminal liability for minors, with all but one state the make of the changes since 2010, according to Shared Hope International , which works to prevent the circumstances that lead to forced prostitution. Experts say that some member states are reluctant to follow suit due to a lack of services for the children.
“We need more safe places where survivors can heal and re-enter their communities,” said Rebecca Epstein, executive director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality at Georgetown Law.
It is impossible to determine how many children are sold for sex in the U.S., but the pole star, which operates the National human Trafficking Hotline, said that the number of cases treated in which it is known that the sex-trafficking victim is a minor has more than doubled in the course of the last five years, from 1,020 in 2012, to 2,495 in 2017.
Proponents say that specialised residential care with a targeted treatment in a home environment can be good for the victims, but they also say that it would be best if the response are tailored to each child.
“In the ideal world, we would have a range of services. So the boy who loved the long-term equine therapy can be treated. Or the boy who is not in any form of shelter, but wanted some kind of support in a foster setting or in their family home might have,” said Carol Smolenski, executive director ECPAT-USA , an anti-trafficking policy of the organization. “In an ideal world, there would be a continuum of types of services, but we are nowhere near.”
Just this past week, the first girls started to arrive at the Refuge Ranch , a new 50-acre residential community of four-bed cottages near Austin.
The ranch provides trauma-informed care, medical treatment, school program, and group and individual therapy for girls in the ages of 11 to 19, according to founder and CEO Brooke Crowder. The girls have access to horses and pets. They will be able to yoga and art classes, or working in a garden. Persons over the age of 16 can apply for the paid internships to learn job skills.
The ranch was built entirely from donations. While the government entities to refer girls to the program, and pay for them to stay there, Crowder says that only one of those contracts so far will completely cover what it costs to care for them. Crowder expects at least nine children who live on the ranch at the end of the year, with plans to eventually house 48 girls.
Children who are vulnerable to trafficking are those who are homeless or runaways, or who are neglected or abused. They can eventually be traded by boys or adults as parent figures.
“Whatever you need, they will be that person,” said Allison Franklin, which fell under the control of a sex trafficker in her 20s after being sexually abused as a child and a runaway in her teens. “Some of them are so adept at this that you might not even have the vulnerability or a need and they make it.”
Now 43, she mentors teen victims in Texas and says the specialized approach at the Refuge Ranch, where the average stay is expected to be a year and a half, will make a difference in their lives.
“The healing from this takes a lot of time and effort,” she said. “For them to a safe place and honors them for that long is just amazing.”
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