Health & Medicine

Safe haven for sex-trafficked minors has waiting list, poised for growth

At first glance, the large house on a hill north of Sacramento suggests nothing out of the ordinary, sitting quietly amid dusty rolling foothills.

Inside, six girls seek refuge from a world that had forced them into childhoods working as prostitutes. On this 52-acre parcel, they enjoy anonymity and safety, from pimps, former customers, even their own parents.

On a recent blistering hot day in September, one of the girls, with her dark hair shaped into a ponytail, hopped on a Razor scooter, then rode to a nearby barn to tend to one of seven horses inside. She is 14 years old and had been forced into prostitution for two years in Bakersfield before coming to Courage House.

“All of the girls have (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms,” said Jenny Williamson, founder of Courage House and Courage Worldwide, the nonprofit group that runs the center. “The trauma they’ve experienced – thousands of rapes – requires a great deal of time and intentional therapy for healing.”

Courage House is one of the few long-term facilities in the state licensed to help minor victims of sex trafficking. Forty girls, almost all of them American, have received therapy since Courage House got its start four years ago, and the sex trade is so prevalent that Williamson plans to expand the center to help 60 victims at a time.

Length of stay is the key to recovery, said Williamson, a life coach and motivational speaker who is also chief financial officer of Williamson Energy Inc., an energy consulting business she started with her husband in 2000.

Residents stay at the home a minimum of 12 months, but recovery typically takes a minimum of four to five years, she said.

The girls are encouraged to create paintings and other art to help them vent years of pain. They complete schoolwork off site to earn high school diplomas. Most importantly, they’re given the space to live the normal life of a child or teen.

Animals play a big role here; horses, in particular, are considered a mirror species that reflect and respond to the emotional state of whoever is taking care of them, Williamson said.

“The girls are so young and cannot yet adequately identify their own emotions,” she said. “The girls have a difficult time trusting people – for obvious reasons – so they can also practice loving, trusting and caring for animals that can be transferred to people.”

Courage House’s success can be measured by the recovery of its first “unofficial” resident: 28-year-old Liz Williamson.

Like many sex-trafficked minors, she said, she was ushered into the sex trade early, at age 6. “I consider my mother my first pimp,” she said.

In the beginning, she said, her parents made her spend private time with men, drawn to income of as much as $200 per visit. During school years, she said, her parents drove her around the East Coast offering her to clients.

She wouldn’t escape the trade until she saw a video about a sexually abused teen that Jenny Williamson posted online titled “Believe in Me,” she said. That spurred a round of emails between the two women, and a circle of trust began. When the two first spoke over the phone, Liz Williamson said, she instinctively called the older woman her “mom.”

“The weight of the word ‘mom,’ when I first said it? It shocked even myself,” said Liz Williamson.

Jenny Williamson’s influence has been so deep that Liz changed her birth name to Williamson a year ago. She now works at Courage House full time as a volunteer coordinator and lives in her own nearby apartment.

Like the girls now at Courage House, Liz Williamson said her interaction with the center’s horses helped her trust people again.

“I used to take them for walks. I’d spend hours with them,” she said. “I didn’t have to be afraid that they would hurt me. They were gentle and kind. It was enough to brush and pet them and give them a bath.”

Sex trafficking, the term used to describe all children forced into prostitution, remains a problem in Sacramento, as in most major metropolitan areas. From October 2011 to April 2015, authorities in the Sacramento region recovered 139 sex-trafficking victims and convicted 19 pimps, said FBI spokeswoman Gina Swankie.

The lucrative nature of sex trafficking is also becoming a draw for gangs, which have been moving into the activity, said Derek Stigerts, a detective with the Sacramento Police Department, which is part of a multiagency task force that investigates trafficking locally. There are 71 such task forces in the United States.

The crime of sex trafficking is not strictly an urban one. Minors are also recruited and trafficked in rural counties, said Madera County Sheriff Jay Varney. “People assume that because Madera County is a rural area that it’s an easy place to try to commit this crime,” he said. “And people here think that because they live in a quite safe area that this kind of thing doesn’t happen here.”

The Internet has expanded recruitment to rural counties, said Varney, who works with a multiagency task force run out of Fresno. This year alone, Varney has been involved in a dozen cases, all of them involving minors or young adults.

The idea for Courage House blossomed in 2007 when Williamson first heard about the problem.

“I went to church on a Sunday, as I’ve always done, and there was a man speaking who told me I live in a world where children are sold for sex. I heard they needed a home and a family, so I said I would build them one,” said Williamson.

In 2008, she began seriously researching the idea and followed up with a series of concerts and other events at 15 Christian churches to raise money for the center. Courage House bought the property in 2010 for $1.1 million, $650,000 of which came from private funds, while much of the rest of it was raised by faith-based organizations and community groups. The owners financed the remaining amount, Williamson said.

“The conditions were ripe for this,” she said.

Most of the minors are referred to the home by social services or the juvenile justice system. When they’re admitted, each gets what Williamson calls a “unique life plan” that includes life and treatment goals and an agreement that they will thrive in school and emotional relationships.

“When they reach those goals, we’re confident they will be successful in a home with a family – a Courage Family – which is a Courage Worldwide volunteer couple who have been building relationships with the child while she is at Courage House,” Williamson said.

Those families are required to complete a minimum of 24 hours of initial training so they’re prepared to deal with traumatized minors, and are required to be fingerprinted and submit to a background check. “The families are made available if the child is in the foster care system – which 80 percent of our children have been in,” Williamson said.

The extent of the sex-trafficking problem becomes clear in the house’s numbers: Some 150 minors are now on a Courage House waiting list.

“Our goal is to support our law enforcement ... and Courage House has become that partner for our law enforcement and for our city,” Williamson said.

Williamson is not stopping there. She has filed papers to expand Courage Worldwide to Texas and Mississippi, and a program is already operating in Tanzania, Africa.

“My plan,” she said, “is now to bring Courage House to every city in the world that needs one.”

Edward Ortiz: 916-321-1071, @edwardortiz