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Nov 27, 2012 | Carol E. Barnwell

Freedom Place is a Refuge for Domestic Victims

[Diolog MagazineHope resides just outside Houston for American girls who have been victims of sex traffickers. There is no sign that marks Freedom Place, a two-story lodge surrounded by 110 acres of woods. The privately run safe house is able to offer long-term housing, counseling, schooling and recreation for up to 30 young girls and is one of only a few such facilities in the state. 


Freedom Place provides an alternative to juvenile detention, and a new solution for officials as they try to support young victims. There are a number of programs for international victims but few for domestic victims.


Efforts shifted in 2010 when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that domestic minors younger than 14 involved in prostitution be considered victims, not criminals. But there was no established response to provide necessary services without criminalization. 


That same year, 2010, Nikki Richnow, a member of St. John the Divine, Houston, traveled to Bangkok with a group of women to learn about human trafficking and returned home determined to make a difference. “It took me 15 minutes on the Internet to see Houston was a hub for human trafficking,” she said. 


“There are 6,000 runaways on the streets of Houston. One in three children is prostituted within 48 hours of being on the streets and 90 percent of them were abused in their homes, so they are running away from something,” Richnow explained. 


She met Mark Tenant, CEO of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, the largest foster care group in the country, at a luncheon and found a kindred spirit. The two were soon making plans to renovate and redecorate an Arrow facility as a safe house, and Richnow went to work raising additional funds for services that would be needed.  


For security reasons, the property’s location is never disclosed. Besides a very homey lodge with living and gathering areas, the property has an additional educational center, a ropes course, pool and lake as well as horses that will be used for equine therapy. Each bedroom includes two twin beds and is decorated in pale greens and lavender. 


“Costs have prohibited many people from doing something before this,” Richnow explained. “It costs about $240 a day per girl for 24-hour oversight, education, counseling, and to comply with all the regulations.” But Richnow was not deterred. 


Hewlett Packard donated $30,000 worth of computers and set up the networked educational system. Every can of paint was donated and the kitchen was set up and stocked by Taste of Texas. The rooms were decorated entirely through a gift registry at a local bedding store. 


Freedom House had girls waiting to move in when it was completed in June. Two of the first four had been coerced into prostitution over the Internet. Two others were in juvenile detention for lack of anywhere else to go. 


The girls need constant monitoring because they are often so distrustful or manipulated by their traffickers. According to a story in the New York Times, “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.”


Freedom Place provides a template for others to follow, Richnow believes. “I have no idea how many beds are needed,” she said, but she knows there are not nearly enough. 


Most girls who come to Freedom Place will stay between 9–18 months. The home has a $1.8 million budget for its first year, funded primarily from private donations and grants. 


“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, another nonprofit group seeking to help victims.


Human trafficking is a complicated problem with many moving parts that include ties to drug traffickers. Some groups provide training for the public, others establish safe houses, still others educate law enforcement or go after the johns and pimps. 


“Everyone is chipping away at different areas and this one is ours,” Richnow said, looking out over the freshly planted flowers in the garden surrounding Freedom House. “There’s still a lot to be done.” 


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