The Common Good

Restoring Dignity

(Image by ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock.com)
(Image by ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock.com)

“To love someone is not first of all to do things for them, but to reveal to them their beauty and value, to say to them through our attitude: ‘You are beautiful. You are important. I trust you. You can trust yourself.’ ... To love someone is to reveal to them their capacities for life, the light that is shining in them.”
~
Jean Vanier

When police from the 115th Precinct raided a brothel a few blocks from Roosevelt Avenue in Queens, N.Y., in January 2011, one of the prostitutes leapt from a second-story window, breaking her leg.

The Korean-born woman, along with others in the apartment, was arrested on charges of prostitution. It was a heartbreaking story, even to JudgeToko Serita, who has heard many of them. “This is the saddest case I’ve seen,” she said.

This desperate act might seem to be an isolated, arbitrary event in the life of a single woman, a misfortune created by a series of bad choices she could have avoided.

But her situation wasn’t simply a result of individual choice; this woman was the product of expansive, organized networks of international crime that enslave women into a life of prostitution, robbing them of all dignity — physical, social, psychological, emotional, spiritual — and even their vocational sense of worth.

“She was so ashamed, she’d rather risk the jump than the public humiliation,” said Stella, the woman’s counselor from RestoreNYC — a four-year-old nonprofit that seeks to help sex-trafficked women in New York City escape and establish new lives. (In order to insure the safety of their clients, Restore staff are identified only by first name.)

According to the United Nations Global Report on Trafficking in Persons, an estimated 700,000 to 4 million women and children are trafficked each year in the international sex trade, which is estimated to be a $7 billion annual business. New York is a major entry point and center of the trade in the United States; by some estimates, up to 18,000 people are trafficked into this country every year.

Faith Huckel, Restore NYC’s founder, created the organization in 2008 to combat the problem in New York. Employed as a social worker, she felt the winds of the Spirit blowing her in a new direction.

“I’d had a heart for this already. It was the Holy Spirit working as a perfect storm of passion,” said Huckel, 33, who was honored with the 2011 Classy Award as young nonprofit leader of the year.

Restore NYC’s approach is to leverage partnerships to help provide the network of services sex-trafficked women require. For an organization to help restore a woman’s sense of dignity after being enmeshed in a complex system of crime, it needs to be connected to social programs, government agencies and legal services, she said.

“No organization has everything,” she said. “The key has been to work in a collaborative network.”

Restore NYC has partnered with 22 organizations, including churches, social service and health care providers, the Queens Criminal Court Diversion to Incarceration program, the Department of Homeland Security and many other agencies, to serve more than 200 victims since 2009. (Although this number is tiny compared to the size of the problem, it's a success story in serving a population notoriously difficult to reach.)

Restore also has been able to achieve its goal of establishing a safe house, the first of its kind in New York City to offer long-term residence to foreign-born women.

But the organization seeks to do more than just help women prostitutes escape sex slavery. “We’re not setting them up to just survive,” she said, “but to thrive” — a mission she admits has no “easy equation.”

Human dignity has no set formula. It’s not a problem to fix, a goal to strategize toward, a task to execute, an impact to measure. Dignity is fluid, human, fragile — easy to destroy, less so to restore.

Sex trafficking and poverty

Hollywood films like “Pretty Woman” give a false picture of the world of prostitution, which is violent and desperate. “I hate that movie,” Huckel said. “It couldn’t be farther from the truth.”

The life of Restore client Maria (a pseudonym) is more typical. Born in rural Mexico, she was tricked into a marriage to a man who trafficked her up and down the East Coast for years.

She got pregnant twice and twice was forced to have an abortion; during her third pregnancy, she escaped to a hospital and had a baby girl, who was later sent to a cousin in Mexico. Maria was referred to a social service agency that then referred her to Restore.

When victims of sex trafficking first come to Restore, they have a range of responses. “Some are defiant; some are distrustful; some placate, saying, ‘OK, OK, OK,’ just going through the motions,” Huckel said. “And then there’s the blank, vacant stare. They’re looking at you, but no one’s behind their eyes.”

That was Maria when she arrived at the Restore safe house.

Although not every woman’s journey is the same, traffickers generally use a range of tactics -- passport confiscation, debt bondage, manipulation, forced marriage, violence and fraud — to force women into sex slavery.

In New York City, brothels move locations throughout the city. They’re often in apartments, but sometimes spas serve as fronts. When law enforcement stages a raid, the women are arrested and treated as criminals, not as victims.

The result has both personal and social consequences. Foreign-born, undocumented women who speak little or no English enter the judicial system, often suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression or physical injuries. The women are poor and often homeless. Without aftercare services and — more importantly — safe housing, it’s likely that they will re-enter the sex trade.

Huckel first learned about this cycle of prostitution when she was employed as a social worker assisting at-risk mothers in Philadelphia, where she grew up and went to college.

“Working with these women, the conversations always started with, ‘How can you get me food stamps?’ But once we dug deeper into their lives, they’d open up about their pasts. Many women had endured atrocities — abuse, rape.”

One woman admitted to prostituting herself to pay for her kids’ food and school supplies.

“That’s what first opened my eyes to what prostitution is — a symptom of poverty,” Huckel said.

During graduate school at Columbia University, she focused her studies on human trafficking. She knew it existed in Southeast Asia and elsewhere internationally, but when her research revealed the crime’s pervasiveness in New York City, she was horrified.

“This sounds a bit naive,” she said, “but I had ideas of what it meant to be an American, standing up for justice, equality, liberty. … That women, not just from New York City, were being trafficked over trans-Atlantic means to work in brothels and in these crime rings blew my mind.”

Late one night in 2004, sitting at a kitchen table, she talked with two friends she’d met in New York about what they would do if they could change the world. “Safe housing for sex-trafficked women is what I dreamed of,” she said.

Three years after that conversation, Huckel launched Restore with a $17,000 grant and a laptop. She worked feverishly out of her apartment for a year, doing research, applying for grants, making connections with other service providers, building a network of relationships within state agencies, forming a board. At the time, there were very few models for serving this population the way she hoped to do it.

There were other service providers in the city for victims of sex trafficking, but none that offered long-term safe housing for victims. Huckel knew from her graduate research that victims were far more likely to re-enter the sex trade if they didn’t have a safe place to live. She wanted to design an organization that integrated key aftercare services with long-term housing and peer community. If she didn’t know how to do something, she either learned how or found someone who did.

But the project was still daunting. “I was a social worker: I developed programs; I worked with people. That was my comfort zone. I didn’t start organizations.”

Through the hard work of launching a startup, Huckel said, her faith, along with some wise advice, sustained her.

“I was 28. I was young, … and all the examples of leaders I had growing up were men; I never had any women to look up to. …Without my Christian faith and church community, I wouldn’t be able to sustain myself for the work.”

While planning the organization, she met Gary Haugen, president and CEO of the human rights agency International Justice Mission. “Gary gave me three insights that have been key to Restore. He said, ‘First, you need to keep your mission and vision absolutely crystal-clear. Second, you cannot do this without your faith sustaining you. Remind yourself where hope comes from. Third, only hire funny people. You’re dealing with horrible tragedies every day. You have to have the ability to laugh, or you’ll never last.’”

Sustainability through collaboration

Restore is a small outfit, with five staff, 300 volunteers and a 2012 budget of $665,000 to expand programs, add staff and develop additional safe houses. Yet it manages a large array of services, because it is designed to work across organizations and social institutions.

One important relationship is with the Queens Criminal Court. Serita, the judge, oversees the Diversion to Incarceration program, which attempts to break the common cycle of women re-entering prostitution by placing them with social service providers for counseling, English-language instruction and job skills training. The partnership was formed through Restore’s participation in the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition.

Every Friday, before the diversion court session begins, Salinitro meets with participating social service providers to review each woman’s case. The judge, in consultation with Restore and the other partner organizations from the Anti-Trafficking Coalition, decides which organization best serves each woman.

Approximately 86 percent of Restore’s clients come from the diversion program. Once they are referred, Restore offers mental health counseling in-house, staffing bilingual counselors to work primarily with Korean and Chinese women, although they serve women from other countries, such as the Dominican Republic and Mexico, as well. Other agencies provide everything from legal services to medical care.

Restore seeks partnerships with other organizations that share their mission but don’t duplicate their services. One of Restore’s most important partnerships is with the Department of Homeland Security.

“Providing victims with long-term, safe housing has been one of our biggest challenges,” said Tenaz Dubash, the victim assistance coordinator for DHS’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI).

“The most significant and exciting part about the collaboration between Restore and HSI has been the fact that Restore is one of the few programs nationally that provides long-term housing exclusively to survivors of human trafficking.”

Learning from a safe place

Restore’s collaborative mindset carries over into the design and services of their safe house, the first of its kind. Located at an undisclosed address in Queens (Restore’s staff office is not listed publicly either), the house opened in 2010.

Funding comes from nongovernment grants and private donations, raised through Restore’s annual Freedom Gala and its online giving platform, MyRestore, which allows donors to create a profile, set their own personal campaign goals and share why they support the organization.

The safe house is more than a shelter. “We wanted to make it more of a home, a community,” said Christina, Restore’s program director and counselor.

Up to seven clients and two live-in coordinators can stay there; Restore plans to open at least two others that will accommodate a larger community.

Together in the homelike setting, the women make meals and knit. They participate in a 12-week job training course and enjoy communal activities such as movement therapy and yoga. Two to three times a week, volunteers come to have meals with the residents.

Although Huckel is motivated by Christian conviction — she attends Trinity Grace Church, a nondenominational, evangelical congregation — religious participation is not required of the clients. Restore staff do offer opportunities for the women to explore their religious faith and spirituality, if they show a personal interest.

Some of the women have begun their own business venture making clothing. “Several have discovered they are remarkable seamstresses,” Wu said.

The safe house has a live-in coordinator, Yvonne Chen, who participates in the communal activities of the house, nurtures relationships with the women, holds a job, and in general models a healthy lifestyle.

“We learn from the women what programs to offer and which [ones] not to,” Wu said. The women are a key part of how Restore designs safe house programs, providing feedback on what helps them most.

One lesson, for example, is that the Asian women were skeptical of entirely free housing, so the new houses will charge a small fee.

After a year, Restore’s goal is for each woman to have a work visa, English proficiency, job skills, and the mental and emotional recovery to become socially independent, with a stable job that can sustain her own cost of living.

‘God is big’

For several months after Maria arrived at the safe house, Restore’s counselors didn’t see much progress. On Valentine’s Day last year, the women had their hair and makeup done, picked out new outfits and had their photos taken.

When Maria saw her photograph, she began to cry. “I look so beautiful!” she said, bringing everyone to tears.

Since that first expression of her own sense of dignity, she has made slow progress with the support of the staff and safe house friends.

Maria is Catholic, and she has begun going to church again. She works in a restaurant now, and she is a remarkable seamstress -- working with other women who are forming a business that sells handmade products.

Toward the end of Maria’s stay, Sunwoo, Maria’s counselor, organized a small event to raise money so she could be reunited with her daughter. The money would provide funds for airfare, a down payment on an apartment, furniture and the fees for documentation.

The event raised $5,000. Maria’s response? “God is big.”

Restore can’t guarantee that every woman’s story will end like Maria’s. There’s no surefire strategy to guarantee self-worth, no innovation to ensure self-dignity, no metric for the human soul. But Restore and its partners are working to make sure that more women, like Maria, regain their capacity for life.

Benjamin McNutt is the editor of Call & Response and conducts research for the programs and educational services offered by Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. This post originally appeared on Duke's Faith & Leadership blog.

(Image by ChameleonsEye via Shutterstock.com
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