Haven for trafficking victims planned for Bastrop County

Brooke Crowder found her calling in graduate school when she saw a video of young girls being pulled out of a hole in the floor of a brothel in India. They had been victims of sex traffickers. The footage left her weeping for an hour.

That cause, her adviser told her, could be what you do with your life.

And so it has been. She spent four years working with trafficked girls in Costa Rica and moved to Austin in 2010 to concentrate on the problem stateside.

“It’s a problem not just in our country but in our community,” said Crowder, who’s worked with nonprofits for more than two decades. “It’s more prevalent than any organization realized. There’s no coordinated protocol to treat a child victim. This is going on in my country on my watch.”

To meet the issue head on, Crowder is trying to create the Refuge, a campus on about 50 donated acres in Bastrop County that would help trafficking victims recover. With a planned start date of fall 2016, the facility would take in up to 48 girls ages 11 to 17.

There are only 350 beds in the country dedicated to trafficked girls, Crowder said, and her facility would be the first of its kind in Texas. The Refuge would provide long-term holistic care with customized services and counseling to help each girl recover and re-enter the world in a “therapeutic, Christ-centered community.”

Many trafficked girls also face the challenges of substance addictions and post-traumatic stress disorder, Crowder said.

The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says about 100,000 children in the United States become victims of trafficking and prostitution each year. The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition puts the number as high as 3,000 in Texas, although Crowder says it’s closer to 7,000. A 2014 Department of Public Safety report claims trafficking is the fastest-growing enterprise in organized crime and the third-biggest criminal enterprise in the world.

Texas Assistant Attorney General Kirsta Melton doesn’t want to put a number on the problem, but she says it’s bigger than most can fathom.

“From my experience there are far, far more girls — and boys — than we know about, because I have sat down with kids identified as victims,” she said. As an assistant district attorney in Bexar County for 14 years, Melton helped create the trafficking prosecution unit there and is a big supporter of Crowder’s work.

Austin police Sgt. Bob Miljenovich with the human trafficking and vice unit said Austin is known to have an active commercial sex industry.

He said some minors who are rescued and turned over to Child Protective Services, for example, are willing to jump out of vehicles just to return to a life they know because of past trauma, substance abuse or a perceived lack of legitimate opportunities.

That leaves law enforcement little choice but to find something to charge them with so they can be held in juvenile detention, he said.

“There is a protocol for recovering runaway kids,” but as far as how to help someone who’s been trafficked and getting them into a structured program, Miljenovich said, “there’s not a secure facility for juveniles recovering from trafficking for immediate care.”

He said a place such as the Refuge is long overdue.

The Refuge incorporated as a nonprofit in the fall of 2013, and Crowder has been working to make the estimated $6 million to $7 million facility more than just artists’ renderings.

The plan is to have 12 cottages: 10 for long-term housing, with four girls and two housemothers in each cottage; one cottage for girls nearing completion of the program; and the 12th will be for girls transitioning into the facility.

They’ll have medical care, individual and group therapy as well as equine, art and music therapy and on-site schooling.

Crowder won’t reveal the precise location of the facility because of security concerns, but the facility will have a guarded kiosk, and the group Bikers Against Child Abuse is making itself available for security.

The money for the project will come from foundations, investors and, possibly in the longer term, public funds, Crowder said.

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