The Public Eye

This charity keeps raising money to help young sex-trafficking victims. But where are the victims?

lsterling@sacbee.com

A year after closing its home for young sex-trafficking victims and repeatedly vowing it would reopen, a controversial Rocklin nonprofit has announced it will not seek a new license to serve minor girls at its Northern California “Courage House.”

The announcement marks a stunning reversal by Courage Worldwide Inc., which had promoted a grand vision of local and global expansion in the fight against sex trafficking. For a time, its founder and CEO, Jenny Williamson of Granite Bay, was catapulted into celebrity orbit.

But drumbeats of doubt began last year after the Northern California home’s abrupt closure, and revelations by The Bee that the facility was facing a rash of citations from state regulators over inadequate staffing and repeated violations of clients’ rights. Neither Williamson nor her board of directors made any public announcement before or immediately after the shutdown and continued to raise money through golf tournaments, training sessions, races and other events, a Bee investigation found.

Located on 52 acres of rolling countryside, Courage House opened in 2011 as a state-licensed group home for up to six girls, ages 11-17. The nonprofit organization opened another home for sex-trafficking victims around the same time in the East African nation of Tanzania.

Millions of dollars poured in from churches, major corporations, foundations and individuals – a “who’s who” list that has included some of the most recognized names in the Sacramento region. Additionally, the state was contributing $9,100 a month per girl in public money though the Department of Social Services.

Even after the group home closed, Williamson continued to tout elaborate plans for a major expansion of the Northern California facility to house up to 60 young girls. But donors were receding and, by year’s end, at least $600,000 in planned contributions to the group had been withdrawn, The Bee found.

The group’s troubles continued this year when Courage House lost one of its oldest fund-raising efforts – a Thanksgiving Day “turkey trot” race in Elk Grove – amid criticism from one city councilman, who called the group’s representations to the city “deliberately deceitful” and “dishonest.”

“I realize it’s difficult to believe when someone speaks so nicely, but that is how cons are performed,” Councilman Darren Suen wrote in a Feb. 17 email to another city official who had been working with Courage Worldwide officials.

That email was among 585 pages of documents released to The Bee through a Public Records Act request to the city. The records highlight concerns city officials had in their dealings with Courage Worldwide, which has come under scrutiny for its persistent fund-raising in California even though its only operation in the state has been shut down for more than a year.

Bill Halldin, a volunteer spokesman for Courage Worldwide, characterized the clash with Elk Grove officials as “a series of miscommunications and misunderstandings that occurred and we apologize for any that our staff played a part in creating.”

Willliamson and her board of directors have explained that last year’s abrupt closure of the Sacramento facility was voluntarily and amounted to only a brief “pause” in operations so that they could prepare for new state licensing requirements. At the time, the last four clients living in the group home were given seven-day notices that they would have to move out.

For nearly a year, Williamson continued to insist that Courage House would reopen and blamed “negative publicity” for many of her difficulties.

“In 2017, we will reopen Courage House Northern California and expand Courage House Tanzania,” Williamson wrote in a Feb. 14 email to supporters, saying that “our only barrier to reopen is raising three months operating costs to recruit, hire, and train the staff needed to welcome home residents.”

“With your help, we will overcome!” she wrote.

Courage Worldwide now says that the new state regulations that took effect this year make it virtually impossible for the organization to continue to safely serve minor victims in California. In a June 5 letter to supporters, Williamson said the state’s overhauled licensing system for group homes, which emphasizes short-term placements, is not compatible with the sex-trafficking population that she claims requires “a minimum of 12 months” to achieve positive outcomes.

Moving forward, Williamson said, Courage Worldwide will attempt to focus efforts on victims 18 and above and minors in Mississippi and Texas, where the group has promised for years to open Courage House prototypes.

“Though incredibly difficult, we do believe this is God’s direction for our organization,” Williamson wrote in her June 5 letter.

She also noted that some of the state’s new requirements “are in conflict with our Christian values/beliefs.”

The June 5 letter continued to appeal for money and, this week, the group’s website was promoting an Aug. 26 fund-raising triathlon. As of this week, the Courage Worldwide website had not been changed to reflect the new mission for the over-18 population and still says the group aims to “rescue more child victims of sex trafficking and help them find their purpose by building 1,000 homes in 100 countries in the next 10 years.”

Courage Worldwide spokesman Halldin said the organization is “still seeking to serve children” but is not clear how that might look. He said that Courage Worldwide currently employs two full-time and two part-time workers in the United States, and 12 full-time workers in Tanzania.

Most of the staff was laid off last summer.

In an email response to questions from The Bee, Halldin said the group would not disclose where it will serve its new population of adult clients.

“Our mission is the same,” Halldin wrote, “just changing the age of the population we will serve here in CA.”

But some of the region’s most prominent donors and charitable organizations, along with government entities, have grown skeptical of such assertions.

The governor’s Office of Emergency Services, which signed off on a $60,808 grant for the operation on June 17, 2016 – three days after Courage House halted operations – learned about the closure from a Bee story. That money was to be used from March 1 through Aug. 31, 2016, and Courage House submitted invoices for reimbursements of $39,000 up to the day it closed. OES agreed to pay only $19,819.

In December, Cal-OES rejected another Courage Worldwide grant request – this time for $997,338 to pay for staffing, office and apartment rentals, laptops and the hiring of a “director of real estate development.”

Other major donors, including Dignity Health and Rotary Club of Sacramento, also withdrew their pledges last year to the organization.

The backlash has continued into this year, when the annual Big Day of Giving, a major charitable fund-raising effort in Sacramento, dropped the group in April because of “too many inconsistencies” in the operation, an official with the Sacramento Region Community Foundation said at the time.

The same month, the city of Elk Grove denied Courage Worldwide’s application to sponsor the Thanksgiving Day run it had relied on since 2011 as a fundraiser that had generated more than $85,000.

City officials say the decision was made because they could not determine that Courage Worldwide was providing any services that benefited city residents.

Emails released to The Bee show there were other concerns, as well, including worries that Courage Worldwide was advertising to raise funds on the Turkey Trot before its application was approved.

The emails also highlight city officials’ efforts to get Williamson to collaborate on the race with other organizations that serve Elk Grove clients, including WEAVE, Rotary Club of Laguna Sunrise and Chicks In Crisis, an Elk Grove non-profit serving young mothers and children as well as sex trafficking victims.

Councilman Suen set up a meeting between Williamson and those groups on Feb. 10, where they discussed working together on the fundraiser.

But, city emails state, Williamson never mentioned at the meeting that Courage House had filed for a permit to run the event on its own four days earlier.

“Interesting … I wonder why she didn’t mention that they already submitted their application,” Deputy City Manager Kara Reddig wrote in a Feb. 17 email to Suen.

“You are a kind person Kara,” Suen replied. “Her actions were deliberately deceitful.”

Williamson subsequently told city officials in an email that there had simply been a “miscommunication” and that it was filed as part of a month-to-month checklist Courage House workers follow.

Suen said in a telephone interview last week that “there were certain interactions that I experienced that obviously I was not comfortable with.”

“I think the city made a good decision to focus on organizations that have a direct benefit to the Elk Grove community,” Suen said, adding that officials have approved a new Thanksgiving Day race – the “Gobble Wobble” – that will benefit Chicks In Crisis and other groups.

Inez Whitlow, founder and CEO of Chicks In Crisis, told The Bee last week that the groups’ dealings with Williamson “just started being shady, and it wasn’t right.

“We all wanted to partner together to make this run and she was going to be part of it, and it just started to go downhill from there,” Whitlow said.

Whitlow said Courage Worldwide started to suck money away from other organizations with its constant fundraising.

“I became a nonprofit to be held accountable for what I did,” she said. “At the end of the day, I save babies, that’s all I care about.”

Marjie Lundstrom: 916-321-1055, @MarjieLundstrom

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