Each year, 300,000 American children are induced by force, fraud or coercion into commercial sex acts, as reported on mysanantonio.com. Better known as sex trafficking, the harsh realities of this criminal offense and exploitation of vulnerable youth were addressed in the 2011 Texas Legislative session with a new emphasis being placed the rehabilitation for these victims.
Brazos Valley’s Still Creek Boys & Girls Ranch has now joined that effort.
by Amber Cassady
Since opening in 1988, Still Creek Ranch is no stranger to dealing with children in a crisis. The Bryan facility provides children – who for various reasons need a safe environment – with a place they can call home. Since October of last year, Still Creek has chosen to respond with the resources they already have in place to provide a haven for holistic rehabilitation for rescued sex trafficked minors.
“There are 3,500 animal shelters in the country but only 50 beds available for rescued [sex trafficking] victims,” says Steve Singleton, Director of Still Creek Ranch. “And notice that I emphasized beds, not shelters.”
That number has now increased by six more beds. A 5,500-square-foot home and an initiative under the non-profit name of “Restore Her” launched October 13 at the annual Still Creek fundraiser. Restore Her will take in international and domestic sex trafficking victims ages 7 to 17, including girls who are at extreme high-risk to get involved in the sex industry.
Rescued girls are given medical, educational, emotional, spiritual and psychological care at Still Creek Ranch, a remote location ideal for the safety of these girls. Facilities include a private Christian school with 60 students grades K-12, equestrian therapy, trained staff, a pool and sports programs, to name a few.
Two qualified housemothers, Texas A&M graduates Jennifer Terry and Ashley Tesar, manage the safe home. It is the responsibility of the housemothers to oversee the girls as they go through rehabilitation. It’s also part of their mission to love the girls in their time of need.
Singleton says that he felt responsible to create Restore Her after he attended a church- sponsored educational seminar on sex trafficking that was held in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. A year later, he and his wife were asked to take over as directors at Still Creek Ranch after founders Danny and Margaret O’Quinn retired to New Mexico to start a camp for abused children.
The singletons were new, excited, and in a position to do something about the scourge of sex trafficking. The idea for a safe home for girls formed out of a realization that the initial rescue was only the beginning of the battle and not the final solution for these girls.
“I thought rescue would solve most of the problems, but it is much deeper than that,” explains Singleton. “Many of these girls left to escape problems at home and then got caught up in human trafficking by manipulators and didn’t even realize they were being trafficked.”
If they are left to go back to the streets or return to abusive homes, there is a high probability of them getting snatched up into a life of drugs and prostitution to survive, according to Terry. “It’s about changing their mindset,” adds Singleton.
He is right. According to the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology: “Women and children recovering from the sex trade often cannot remember the person they used to be prior to their incorporation into the industry. Nor can they perceive a life away from their occupations.” They are in need of an environment away from the streets conducive to their minds being reset to a different life, free from sexual enslavement.
While new Texas laws passed last year have eased the prosecutorial burden to convict traffickers involved in the sexual exploitation of children, and also increased the punishments of those convicted, there is no state government funding for rehabilitation. That role is left to nonprofit organizations like Still Creek Ranch to step up and provide the long-term recovery necessary.
The girls who experience the life-changing love and care at Still Creek Ranch, now and in the future, come from a variety of places. Still Creek Ranch has a working relationship with officials to notify them of girls in need of a home. “We work with the FBI State Department when cases come up that we need to be made aware of,” says Singleton. “We also go into centers in Houston in the Fifth Ward looking for girls who want to get out of [trafficking]. We interview girls and find those who want to catch up in school, and who give indication that they want to be rescued and freed out of the situation they are in.”
“The desire of Still Creek is to get to the heart of every child so that they truly change from the inside out,” says Terry. “We don’t want to just shuffle kids through. We want to impact their life and see total transformation.”
Facilitating this 180-degree change and addressing the complex issues from which sex trafficking victims suffer requires an all-hands-on-deck approach including from specialized professionals.
“For medical treatment, local doctors donate their services, and we are always looking for more,” says Terry. “Our policy is to have girls visit each kind of doctor they need within the first 30 days they are at the ranch.” Common medical needs among the girls range from treatment for sexually transmitted diseases to dental work that many of the girls have never had. On-site licensed counselor Kasey Van Norman meets weekly with the girls to sift through the repercussions of their victimization and help them cope. Most girls have been out of school for two to four years when they first arrive, according to Singleton, so the house moms will do home schooling with the girls, individualized to their specific learning needs. Once they show a certain level of confidence with the material, the girls take a placement test.
“Their grades and behavior and how they relate with the other kids on the ranch will determine when they are integrated into the Still Creek Christian School,” says Terry.
The goal is a holistic approach to health for every child at Still Creek. This includes a lifestyle of a nutritious diet, exercise and a productive schedule, a combination that Terry says Still Creek Ranch believes can help balance out many difficulties their children face.
The Restore her girls also are under the care of people who have their best interest at heart. When asked why she took on the full-time job of being a house mom, Terry replied, “I know about what these girls have survived, and I can’t sit around and do nothing about it. It is worth sacrificing my life to help do God’s work of restoring them. Where else will they go?”
In an effort to rescue even more minors, a project is underway to build a second home to house 8-12 more girls at Restore Her’s secure location. Business owners, trade professionals, suppliers and individuals who are interested in helping with this additional home may contact Steve Singleton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on Restore her and how to be a part of providing a better life for girls rescued from human trafficking, visit restoreher.org. There is also a place on the website to sign up for an email newsletter.