|Shayla and Brandon Cox, rescue director for FREE International.|
While sex trafficking continues to exacerbate as a social ill plaguing the U.S., the sad fact remains that few facilities exist to restore those women and girls who have fled the clutches of their oppressors.
The need for shelters is increasing in part because awareness of the problem is growing. There has been a great push for training among law enforcement personnel as well as volunteers in the faith community, but many of the exploited still don't have a haven to go to once they escape their trafficked confines. Nationwide, there are less than 600 beds at residential treatment facilities in which teen girls can go to recover, according to the Polaris Project.
"There aren't that many more shelter beds in this country now than there were 10 years ago," says Michael Bartel, co-founder of FREE International, an Assemblies of God ministry assisting human trafficking victims. "Lots of places tried to launch but couldn't secure funding, while others opened briefly and then ran out of money. Sustainability is difficult."
Bartel is determined not to make the same mistake with FREE International's Oasis Services. FREE International is methodically gearing up to open an 18-bed shelter in southwest Missouri. It is poised to become one of the nation's premier shelters, where girls who have been commercially sexually abused can prepare to transition safely back into society.
FREE (which stands for find, rescue, embrace and empower) International will open Oasis as a holistic and restorative aftercare program specifically to house girls ages 10 to 18 for as long as two years.
"We don't want to be one of those groups that people rally around quickly but doesn't have the anchor for long-term sustainability," says Bartel, who already receives calls every week about placing a girl in the safe house.
FREE International has gained credibility by actively collaborating with government agencies, law enforcement officers, and churches in 20 states.
The majority of costs to run a shelter involve employee compensation. Bartel and Brandon Cox, rescue director for FREE International, are exploring a variety of avenues to staff the facility.
"It is possible to create a collaborative structure through mutual parties that are invested — those who run the program, counselors, a foster care network," Bartel says. "We can have multiple highly competent, proven successful entities playing a role in the shelter — kindred-minded ministry partners under one umbrella. We have the right people who understand Kingdom mentality and who are great servants."
One of the most feasible strategies to get Oasis open may be to recruit existing AG U.S. missionaries who are skilled in areas that are needed, such as nurses, classroom teachers, and counselors. AG missionaries raise their own financial support; thus the Oasis wouldn't need to generate a large payroll for around-the-clock care that will be required.
Bartel and his wife, Denise, who are based in Las Vegas, founded FREE International in 2007. The ministry now has 22 team members, all of them self-supported. Cox and his wife, Shayla, who are AG U.S. Missions Intercultural Ministries candidate missionaries, joined in July 2013 to oversee the aftercare program for sex-trafficked survivors.
Brandon has a master's degree from Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and is a licensed professional counselor. Shayla, the daughter of AG world missionaries DeLonn and Valerie Rance, grew up in El Salvador, received her master's at AGTS, and is eager to work with girls at the shelter.
Brandon Cox learned about the long-ago trans-Atlantic slave trade when he toured a slave castle in Ghana. Outside the tourist site, pimps offered girls to him for sexual lease for 30 minutes. When he returned home to Missouri, someone approached him to buy an 8-year-old girl - permanently.
"The slave trade is not something that happened 300 years ago, and it's not just in West Africa," Cox says. "It's in my neighborhood."
Oasis will be part of the rescue initiative of FREE International, with the goal of restoring girls emotionally, physically and spiritually. The shelter will have classrooms, a computer lab, exercise room, dining area, reading area, kitchen, pantry, laundry area, and an arts and crafts room.
The 13,000-square-foot building is nearly ready to go, and it's been no small task getting it built and equipped. David and Betty Cribbs donated the four-acre property and one-story shell of a building in 2011. U.S. Mission America Placement Service workers and RV Volunteers have donated hundreds of hours of labor to construct interior rooms. With a brick front exterior, it has the appearance of a large church building.
All that's left to be done outside is landscaping, fencing around the property, and construction of a garage. Eventually there will be goats, chickens and gardens on the site.
Arlene Allen, retired director of AG Women's Ministries, has continued to lead fundraising efforts to furnish the facility, which now is fully appointed with beds, dressers, tables and other equipment.
Shelters are costly to perpetuate, even if donors wind up indirectly covering most of the staffing costs through missionary giving. With utilities, food, clothing, health and beauty products, art supplies, medical and dental costs, and security protection, Oasis still might cost $750,000 a year to operate. There are many government regulations involved in getting a shelter up and running for minors.
"All of this will be provided in the context of strong spiritual guidance and working within a local church community of support," Cox says.
Girls who have been manipulated, raped, beaten, forced to take drugs, choked, and repeatedly prostituted need much nurturing to counteract the psychological damage inflicted upon them.
Oasis will be working with foster care and adoption networks. Some of the younger girls would be adoptable if their family of origin is unsafe.
The FBI and National Center for Missing and Exploited Children estimate between 100,000 and 300,000 children are at risk of being trafficked for commercial sex annually in the U.S., nearly all of them runaways and homeless kids. Within 72 hours of leaving home, a pimp or trafficker has approached two-thirds of them.
"If you are a 14-year-old runaway and living on the streets, you have very few options for food and shelter," Bartel says.
The number of teens recovered is tough to determine as well, as not all escapes and rescues are reported to government agencies. However, since 2003, the FBI, in conjunction with the Department of Justice and NCMEC, reports more than 3,400 children have been set free from trafficking.
"No one organization has the lone power to end the tragedy that is human trafficking," Bartel says. "But together, working with partnerships on all levels of society, we can maximize our effectiveness toward ending this problem."