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, pool and 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 facilitates 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. Recent legislation changed the label for kids charged with prostitution from "delinquent" to "child in need of supervision" and allowed for these records to be sealed.
Texas ranked best in a 2011 report by Shared Hope International that analyzed policies regarding youth involved in domestic sex trafficking in each state. But Texas has no “safe harbor” laws that establish a systematic response for placing minors into necessary rehabilitation services without criminalization. As such, Texas counties have different methods in place for collaboration between local nonprofits, police enforcement and court systems to transition girls into treatment. Child Protective Services is usually involved only if the child is being directly trafficked by a family member
Girls can often be distrustful or so manipulated by their trafficker 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 offenses such as 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 Legislature, 66 children were arrested for prostitution and 53 children were referred for prostitution in 2009.
“Most girls are so, for lack of a better word, enslaved by their pimps and traffickers, including their minds, that as soon as you put them into a facility that is not secure or if you send them home that is just inviting them to go straight back to their pimp,” said Patricia Davis, a human rights professor at Southern Methodist University.
Davis serves on the board of the Letot Center in Dallas County, a public-private partnership which has launched a capital campaign to finance a 96-bed residential facility to meet the needs of domestic trafficking victims and serve other female youths.
In San Antonio, there are not yet any comparable facilities. Elizabeth Crooks, who runs a mentoring organization called Embassy of Hope, identified a “great need” for both emergency and long-term housing in the San Antonio area to provide community for such victims and to help address the trauma.
"They feel like orphans. They feel like nobody wants them," Crooks said of the girls, later adding, “It’s not just a crime issue. It’s not just a victimization issue. It’s pains of the heart."
Now 52, Crooks said she can relate personally to the victims' struggles because she was a victim of sexual exploitation as a teenager. Crooks said she escaped the cycle with help from a church group, but did not recognize that what she had gone through was illegal sexual abuse until she was 45 years old.
Freedom Place gives victims a safe haven. "We can’t decriminalize and not have places for these kids to go,” said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, the co-chairwoman of the Joint Interim Committee to Study Human Trafficking.
Seven girls currently reside at Freedom Place, where most will likely stay between nine and 18 months. The first four residents were referred by the Harris County Girls Court, which focuses on sex trafficking cases. Girls can also be referred by family members or refer themselves. A new resident will arrive roughly every week until capacity is reached.
The nonprofit organization Arrow Child and Family Ministries oversees Freedom Place, but participation in religious activities is optional. The home has a $1.8 million
“Freedom Place takes it to this next step,” said Robert Sanborn, president and chief executive of Children at Risk, a nonprofit group. “We need to have a place to bring girls that isn’t a place where they are considered offenders but they are victims.”