International Crisis Aid volunteers working to raise awareness about sex trafficking, open a safe house in St. Louis

Friday, August 3, 2012
Volunteers with International Crisis Aid — Heartland, pose with the soda tab bracelets they sell to raise funds for the organization. (Laura Simon)

When Linda McKinnis first heard about the St. Louis group working to open a safe house for victims of sex trafficking, she assumed it would be for girls from other countries. It was a shock to hear that the home would actually house American victims -- many of them teen girls rescued from St. Louis, where McKinnis herself was once a young girl. She quickly joined forces with International Crisis Aid to raise awareness about the issue in the Midwest and raise funds for ICA's first American safe house, set to open this fall at a private location in St. Louis County.

"It's a real problem all over the country, but we don't think about it happening in the U.S. and in the Midwest," says McKinnis. In fact, St. Louis is a hub of sex trafficking due to its location in the middle of the country and its proximity to interstate, air and rail transportation, notes ICA founder Pat Bradley. Nationwide, 1.2 million children are being trafficked every year, and that's in addition to the millions already held captive by the $32 billion industry, according to ICA data. The average American victim is 11 to 14 years old, but some are as young as 5 and 6. Some are runaways or have been kidnapped. A staggering 30 percent are first sold by their own parents.

"There was such a tugging on my heart for the victims, and I couldn't close my eyes to it anymore," says McKinnis. She started an ICA-Heartland group in Cape Girardeau to partner with the St. Louis organization. Due in large part to the local group's efforts, the safe house will open a few months ahead of schedule this fall and will house up to 24 victims of sex trafficking, when it had originally planned for only 16.

But the work is far from over. Once girls come to the safe house, they'll need a great deal of mental, emotional and physical rehabilitation.

One of the first things pimps do after taking the girls is get them hooked on drugs -- because they're easier to control that way. They're abused and brainwashed until they're completely broken down, then forced to have sex up to 40 times a day. Girls who enter the safe house will need a great deal of support to get off the drugs, gain self-esteem, catch up on schooling, trust others, learn how to get a job and move forward in life. It might take weeks, months or even years. And it will cost an estimated $500,000 each year to provide this support, depending on the needs of the girls who come to the home.

"If we opened the doors today, we would fill it in a day. And once the doors open, we can't close," says McKinnis. ICA has also discussed opening homes in Atlanta, Miami and Orange County, Calif., after the St. Louis house opens.

As a mother to a teenage daughter, ICA volunteer Marsha Edwards refuses to leave those girls without help or hope. That's why she's thrown herself into speaking about sex trafficking to community groups, making and selling the group's signature soda tab bracelets and coordinating fundraisers, including a Zumbathon Aug. 25, a golf tournament Sept. 10, a 5K Sept. 22 and another 5K Sept. 29 in St. Louis. The group's first fundraising lunch at Outback Steakhouse this year was a huge success, and it plans to make it an annual event in January. The 2013 event is set for Jan. 11 -- National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.

"Every girl out there is someone's daughter or sister," says Edwards. "And the fact is that so many of those girls are sold by their own families. If their own families can't take care of them, who else is going to do it?"

And at the rate children are being prepared for sexual exploitation, Edwards' biggest regret is that she didn't get to work as soon as she bought her first soda tab bracelet.

Angie Umfleet has also helped make bracelets, design ICA T-shirts and plan fundraisers.

"To think of children being locked up and forced to do things that rob their childhood is despicable," she says. "When you are a parent you become much more emotionally tied to injustices of children. When I think that my daughter could be taken from me and emotionally and physically scarred for life, it breaks my heart. Someone has to speak up for these children."

As if sex trafficking isn't horrible enough, the victims are often labeled "prostitutes," say McKinnis and Edwards. They're sent to juvenile detention facilities or prosecuted for the very crime they were forced into -- and that doesn't sit well with ICA and its volunteers.

"They're not prostitutes. They're victims. They're girls who have been stolen," says McKinnis. "Prostitution is a choice. Sex trafficking is a life of prostitution forced upon someone. These girls have no hope, but they want out of that life."

LAURA SIMON ~ lsimon@semissourian.com

About the bracelets

ICA volunteers make the soda tab bracelets and sell them for $10 each, with every cent going back to the organization. Volunteer Dale Humphries says they sell as quickly as volunteers can make them, and they're also a great way to introduce a conversation about sex trafficking.

"This is my favorite piece of jewelry," says McKinnis. She likes to share the symbolism pointed out to her by another ICA volunteer: "These girls have been thrown away. Just like these soda tabs, they have been lost and then found, and we're going to restore them and make them into something beautiful again. We don't know where they've been, but they're still beautiful."

By the numbers

$32 billion: total market value of illicit human trafficking

1.2 million: children trafficked every year

30 percent of American victims first sold by their own parents

20+: the number of mental health issues faced by sex trafficking victims

11 to 14: the average age of sex trafficking victims in America

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