Program Provides Foster Homes for Human Trafficking Victims

By Melanie Kozak

WASHINGTON - When their adopted daughter grew up and moved out, a retired couple from Central Maryland started refilling their nest.

One girl who moved in was given cigarettes and ice-cream sandwiches to help her stay off drugs. Another was given a laptop to complete her GED. All the girls this couple has taken in over the years have been given soft beds, warm meals and love they hadn’t felt in years.

The girls had all been previously exploited by others through human trafficking or prostitution and are now trying to start new lives.

The couple is part of the host family program of Maryland’s Safe House of Hope, a non-profit organization providing options to people exploited through prostitution or human trafficking.

CNS has chosen to omit the names of the couple, as well as the trafficking victim currently living with them, in order to protect their identities.

“When I retired I thought maybe I can make myself useful. We have four bedrooms, we felt we could share some,” the woman from the host family in Central Maryland said.

Although Safe House of Hope provides short-term shelter care, the organization’s Executive Director and Founder Denene Yates realized her clients needed more.

“I started the host family program because we opened up our (own) home as a family and the clients just seemed to do better…It’s one of the only things that really works because of the underlying support system,” Yates said.

Over the years Yates has expanded the program to the community. After security checks and training, host families meet with potential clients and invite them into their homes, Yates said.

Yates said she always has a need for more families. Currently she is looking for four host families to help victims.

At first, the Central Maryland couple provided short-term emergency housing for days or weeks for Safe House of Hope. Now, they’ve opened their home for months at a time to help survivors get back on their feet, the Central Maryland woman said.

Currently they’re housing a young African woman who was a victim of forced labor in Maryland for almost a decade.

The African woman first came to Maryland to pursue the promise of the American dream. However, when she arrived in the United States, the woman said the family who’d promised her a place to stay and a job while she went to school, took her passport and her freedom.

For a fraction of the salary they’d originally agreed upon, she became the nanny, chef and servant to the family she’d originally come to live with, the African woman said.

In a foreign country far from friends or family, and with little knowledge of the legal system, she felt helpless.

“I was thinking if I want to run away how can I go? I don’t have a passport. So that was the main thing that kept me staying there and crying all the time,” she said.

With help from Safe House of Hope and the host family program, the African woman began a new start with the Central Maryland couple. She’s now working toward her GED to eventually become a nurse.

“They are very nice, very, very nice. They don’t want me to do any work. Sometimes I do work when they go somewhere and I try to clean the house and they are like ‘no, no, no, you don’t have to do that,’” the African woman said.

The couple has purchased her winter boots and taken her bowling to make her transition easier, the Central Maryland woman said.

Any purchases or living expenses come out of the couple’s pockets. The host family is completely volunteering its house, time and resources.

“You have to realize there are going to be things that people have a need for or would like to have and they don't have that ability to provide for themselves,” the Central Maryland woman said.

Safety and services without the exchange of money is important for clients who come from situations of exploitation.

For the first time no one is making money off of them, and for the clients this is extremely important, Yates said.

Safe House of Hope does provide counseling for both the host families and survivors, as well as education and other services like clothing donations, Yates said.

Survivors of trafficking also have emotional and mental scars that can present a challenge for host families.

“It’s a challenge (to host). People who are exploited have many, many sad stories. It’s not just one event that’s made them vulnerable, it’s many events. They all feel terrible about themselves and totally devalued. They feel like they need to fight for themselves for everything and they have to ask for everything knowing they aren't going to receive hardly anything. That’s a challenge to live with,” Yates said.

For the Central Maryland host family, the sacrifices have been worth it.

One young woman who was with the couple found a job as an office manager and now has her own apartment, the Central Maryland woman said.

The couple is hoping for similar success with the African woman.

“Each individual is very different, but the bottom line is every individual wants to be cared for, loved, have a safe place to lay their head at night, be protected and have some food in their stomach,” the Central Maryland woman said.

For trafficking survivors in Maryland the host family program is one of their only housing options.

Worldwide, the number of victims of forced labor was estimated to be almost 21 million in 2012, according to the International Labor Organization.

At the state level, these numbers are difficult to estimate, but because of the area’s many highways and major airports, the Maryland-Virginia-D.C. area is thought of as a hotbed for trafficking activity.

Maryland doesn’t have designated long-term shelters for women or men who are being labor or sex trafficked, said Amanda Rodriguez, manager of domestic violence and human trafficking policy for the Maryland Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

Until there’s an increase in awareness, services and funding, the human trafficking community relies heavily on volunteers and donations from the community.

There’s so few trafficking victims’ services in Maryland and they’re all in dire need of resources, including workers and volunteers, Rodriguez said.

“It’s a community issue,” Rodriguez said. “The community should be involved and they should be aware of what's happening. I always say it’s the crime next door. You don’t realize but it’s happening right under your nose. I truly believe in my heart that if the community knew they would be railing against it.”

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