July 24, 2012
By Emily Foxhall
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....
“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....