Tales of sex traffic and Satan don’t hurt just one charity

Courage House, a charity for victims of sex trafficking has been cited dozens of times by state regulators.
Courage House, a charity for victims of sex trafficking has been cited dozens of times by state regulators. lsterling@sacbee.com

Courage House, the embattled and temporarily closed group home for young sex trafficking victims, is back in the news. And not in a good way – not for the Sacramento-area nonprofit, and not for local philanthropy.

Despite millions of dollars in donations raised over five years by its charismatic founder, Courage House has struggled to get past numerous state censures. Meanwhile, donors to it and its parent nonprofit, Courage Worldwide Inc. of Rocklin, have questioned exactly how many abused girls the organization is actually helping.

Now, according to a state investigation detailed by The Sacramento Bee’s Marjie Lundstrom and Sam Stanton, the California Department of Social Services has cited the operation amid findings that shortly before the group home’s June “pause” in operations, a teenage resident was forced to undergo a religious ritual and denounce Satan as a condition of her care and treatment.

The Christian-based nonprofit appealed twice, saying the girl was a Satan worshipper, had a faulty memory and “wanted to pray to become a Christian.” But Courage House lost those appeals, and the conditions of its hefty state subsidy rule out requiring residents to take part in religion.

Don’t let philanthropic scandals deter giving. Do research your favorite charity.

It’s the latest blow to a high-profile charity that has come to seem less credible by the minute; in the last five years, the state has cited Courage House 36 times, at three times the rate of other similarly sized facilities.

Such reports are, of course, disturbing. Exploited children need therapy and support, not more abuse and coercion. Aside from this one nonprofit, however, such cases also have broader consequences: They tend to cast doubt on any philanthropic effort to help the vulnerable, improve lives, or do important work that can’t be done individually.

Well-meaning people wonder whether their donations are really helping, or whether they are being exploited by con artists, incompetents or religious zealots. It’s a particularly pressing question at this time of year, when the fourth quarter winds down and many Americans decide where to make tax-deductible charitable contributions.

Fortunately, such concerns, along with competition from social media and crowdfunding sites, also are pushing nonprofits to be more transparent. Besides longstanding databases such as Guidestar.org, which makes public records of tax-exempt organizations more accessible to donors, online tools such as Charity Navigator (charitynavigator.org) offer ratings, research and reviews.

GiveWell (givewell.org) vets underfunded organizations and keeps an ongoing list of evidence-backed charities that maximize donations. Charity Watch (charitywatch.org) is an alert philanthropic watchdog. So is BBB Wise Giving Alliance (give.org).

Sex trafficking has, in recent years, drawn much attention, though the scope of the problem has been notoriously difficult to verify and prone to inflation. Some high-profile “rescue” charity directors have been caught fabricating numbers and stories, seeking to capitalize on the moral panic; Courage House, founded by a former motivational speaker, is only the latest nonprofit in its niche to face questions about how widespread human trafficking really is and how best to help its victims.

Whatever the cause, though, please don’t be deterred from giving. Even a little charity goes a long way in this season, just like a little due diligence.