At age 14, Sara ran away from home in western Maine, and a madame in Lewiston sold her for sex to countless men. After she escaped “the Life,” drug-addicted boyfriends beat her, and people she grew to trust traded her to other men for drugs. She had to exchange sex for food and shelter, lost a son to the state, spent time in and out of jail, and was held captive in hotels, she said.
Now at 25, Sara is starting to have hope. She’s learning to build trust and healthy relationships. She recently got a job as a sales associate, and she aims to become a certified nursing assistant. She’s finishing her high school education, trying to stay sober and learning how to care for a young daughter. The BDN is not releasing Sara’s last name or other identifying information to protect her safety.
Sara is at Hope Rising, a home that provides 24-7 care to sex trafficking victims free of charge at an undisclosed location in Penobscot County. The long-term program is the first of its kind in Maine, according to its director, and provides victims access to nurses, social workers, counseling, addiction treatment, career advice and a number of other services intended to help them move past deeply rooted traumas and reach for a future of their choosing.
“It’s a place where I know I can be safe. I don’t need to pretend to be tough, I don’t need to pretend that I’m OK. I can cry, and that’s OK,” Sara said. “I’m very grateful for this place because they took me in with nothing.”
Federal and local law enforcement officials, health care workers, prosecutors and advocates for trafficking victims all agree: Long-term programs like Hope Rising, or comprehensive outpatient care, can be key to a victim’s recovery.
An all-encompassing program like Hope Rising, or case management services such as those offered by the nonprofit Preble Street in Portland, help trafficking victims build a life for themselves. But nationwide, such facilities and services are few and far between. They can be expensive — especially residential services — and there’s little state, federal or even private funding available to pay for them.
The resources don’t come close to serving the number of sex trafficking victims throughout Maine, nevermind the country.
There are an estimated 200 to 300 cases of sex trafficking in Maine per year — out of 14,500 to 17,500 people being trafficked throughout the country, according to a Maine human trafficking needs assessment conducted by South Portland-based Hornby Zeller Associates.
Hope Rising, which opened last year, has five beds. In 2015 and 2016, it brought 12 women through its program. It’s one of just a few long-term residential programs the BDN has identified in New England.
Perhaps the greatest thing Hope Rising has given Sara is a sense of peace.
“I don’t feel like I have to give them anything. I don’t feel like I owe them anything like that,” she said. “I don’t have to give them my body, my mind. It feels nice to be at a place where I’m supported, I’m loved and I’m safe — because I haven’t had that in a long time.”
‘Vital’ long-term programs
More of these “vital” long-term programs are needed nationwide, and they deserve the support of the government, according to Dave Rogers, the former agent in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s human trafficking program in the bureau’s Civil Rights Unit.
Due to Hope Rising’s efforts, five women at a time are receiving help. But programs like it are expensive and difficult to start and sustain, he said. Hope Rising, for instance, currently has enough funding from grants, and private and in-kind donations, to stay in operation until next summer.
“It would be great if legislation would actually help these long-term providers. That’s a huge need,” said Rogers, who now serves as the U.S. program director for the global anti-human trafficking organization Hope for Justice. “Five beds were five more than there were before, but what happens if there were 500 victims?”
The only trafficking victim support program in Maine that receives federal funding is the Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition, a network of southern Maine service providers that connects victims to counseling, addiction treatment, shelter and long-term support, and fulfills other basic needs. Since starting in mid-2014, the program has helped 111 sex and labor trafficking victims between the ages 14 to 58 in Cumberland and York County, said Daniella Cameron, who manages the coalition.
One of those victims was Sara, whom Preble Street referred to Hope Rising.
“We don’t have enough programs like Hope Rising that address all the various needs of trafficking survivors,” Cameron said. “Five beds is definitely limited.”
The Preble Street Anti-Trafficking Coalition started after receiving a $400,000 Department of Justice grant in 2013; they recently received a second $250,000 DOJ grant last year. There are eight other anti-trafficking coalitions in other parts of the state that help victims but have far less money. Meanwhile, even with the federal grants, Preble Street is stretched for funding and significantly understaffed, Cameron said.
The availability of services such as Hope Rising could aid prosecutors in putting pimps and predators behind bars, said Assistant Attorney General Meg Elam who previously prosecuted sex trafficking cases at the Cumberland County district attorney’s office.
That’s because victims need to be stable, sober and functional throughout a trial to be reliable witnesses, she said. If victims have a place to live and services to help them get on their feet, they can be served a subpoena to appear in court, and they’re more likely to show up to trial dates or meetings with a detective, instead of finding drugs or being sick. Their testimony is also more likely to be considered reliable.
But getting off drugs, finding housing and moving on with their lives is not easy for most victims, and requires a great deal of long-term help.
“Trauma treatment is really important because you are being raped day after day after day. Imagine that trauma,” Elam said. “Until we help victims become healthy, functional people, they can’t assist us prosecute the people who exploited them.”
With victims receiving the services they need from a place like Hope Rising, law enforcement can focus on building cases against traffickers instead of worrying about whether victims who will be key to the prosecution’s case are going to fall back into a trafficking ring, said Bangor Police Sgt. David Bushey.
“It’s nice to know we can focus on prosecuting the criminals, and the victims can be in good hands and taken care of,” said Bushey, who’s part of a Homeland Security Investigations-led Maine human trafficking task force. “Long-term care is the best way to make sure that somebody is not revictimized.”
Funding long-term victim care
The concept behind Hope Rising dates back to the late 1800s when a group of nuns in Quebec called the Good Shepherd Sisters helped trafficked women imprisoned for sex work. The Good Shepherd Sisters created the organization Saint Andre Home in Biddeford in 1940 to house unwed mothers and offer adoption services.
Over the next 70 years, Saint Andre Home opened three other group homes around the state. But the group homes closed in 2013 after losing about $2 million annually following state cuts for Private Non-Medical Institutions, according to Saint Andre Home Executive Director Reid Scher.
Saint Andre Home has since turned its attention elsewhere, including to Hope Rising.
A nun from Good Shepherd Sisters introduced the idea of Hope Rising to Saint Andre Home officials after learning about Maine’s problems with sex trafficking, bringing the organization’s work back to the original mission of the sisters in the 1800s, Hope Rising’s director, Carey Nason, said.
Saint Andre Home was able to launch Hope Rising a year ago after receiving a grant worth $400,000 from the Next Generation Foundation of Maine, Scher said.
In addition to serving a total of 12 survivors at the home, Hope Rising has helped more than 70 additional trafficking victims throughout the state over the past year, providing them with essentials like food and clothes, and connecting them to housing. Hope Rising has partnerships with Penobscot Community Health Care and St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor that allow its residents access to free medical care.
But Hope Rising’s future depends on its ability to assemble a patchwork of different funding streams into a sustainable operating budget.
In addition to the $400,000 in seed money, Hope Rising raised $410,000 over the past three years through private donations, small grants and fundraising events such as art shows and concerts. Hope Rising needs to raise another $400,000 in order to stay open for another year past next June, Scher said.
Saint Andre officials are hoping a year’s worth of data showing positive outcomes for Hope Rising’s residents will qualify the group home for additional grants, including a $600,000 Specialized Services for Victims of Human Trafficking grant available through the Department of Justice.
Saint Andre Home has had discussions with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services about providing future funding for Hope Rising. For now the department has been providing Hope Rising residents with short-term housing subsidies through the state’s Bridging Rental Assistance Program.
Like Hope Rising, other residential programs for sex trafficking victims across the U.S. are also learning and adjusting their programs as they go — and facing a shortage of funding.
Hope Rising officials plan to share the results of their failures and successes with others. “We have an opportunity to see what works in theory and what works in practice,” Nason said.
In Maryland, a religious-based nonprofit The Samaritan Women has helped 53 women through its two-year residential program since 2011, founder Jeanne Allert said. It shares a similar mission to Hope Rising but requires survivors to stay longer. Also like Hope Rising, it relies entirely on private donations and grants, and receives no money from the state or federal government.
The group doesn’t yet have standard measures of success — such as whether survivors keep jobs or enroll in school — but are working to create them. It’s also trying to create a network of long-term provider programs across the East Coast. Doing so would allow victims to heal outside of environments in which they were abused.
The Samaritan Women recently surveyed 15 agencies that provide long-term care to victims in 11 different states throughout the country. Most of the facilities she surveyed had four to eight beds, costing $3,861 per month to care for each adult client, Allert said. The two agencies for minors that she surveyed receive state funding, but the remaining 13 facilities, for adults, receive neither state nor federal funding.
Last year, the Department of Justice released $14.7 million in funds for organizations that support victims — part of a $44 million anti-trafficking grant, according to a DOJ press release. The money went to dozens of organizations, including at least four offering adult residential services.
There are few pools of available private funds, Allert said, describing how she knows of only two major foundations that have made sex trafficking a key part of their funding agenda. However, with clever grant writing, organizations can sometimes tap into sexual assault and domestic violence-focused funds, she said.
Each victim has a different story and different needs, said John Cotton Richmond, founding director of the Human Trafficking Institute and a former federal prosecutor in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit.
“Not everybody wants to be in a shelter,” he said. Rather, there needs to be a diversity of programs and services tailored for individual victims.
When victims enter Hope Rising, the program tries to address their most basic needs first: clothing, nutrition, physical and mental health. Sometimes victims need an official ID or to re-apply for Social Security cards, said Leah Maxwell, a social worker at Hope Rising. Other times they work on addressing internal needs, such as how to make choices for themselves, she said.
Then they try to address long-term needs, working with victims to envision their future and a plan to get there, Nason said. Sometimes that means continuing their education, finding volunteer opportunities or reconnecting with family members.
“We really want people when they are finished with our program to have the skills that they need, so they are ready for whatever that next step is,” Nason said. “So they can live a life that is independent, however they would like that to look.”
Without the long-term and ongoing support, victims often self-destruct, Allert said.
“This is a long process. Anyone who is telling you that someone is better after three months or six months has not done the work,” she said.
Sara came to Hope Rising from jail. A case worker at Cumberland County jail heard Sara’s story and referred her to Preble Street in Portland, which then referred her to Hope Rising. It was a way to reduce her jail sentence — she sold marijuana to minors and later violated her conditions of release — and to change her life.
When she started the program, she said she didn’t trust others and didn’t trust herself. Now she is gardening, writing poetry, supporting other victims and learning algebra.
Victims at Hope Rising need to make a six-month commitment but are allowed to stay up to two years, Nason said. Even after residents leave, the program continues to support them. Sara hopes to graduate from Hope Rising in November but will continue receiving support from the program’s counselors afterward.
Sara still has nightmares about running from boyfriends who used to beat her and about performing sex acts on men for drugs, but they are becoming more manageable. She ran away from Hope Rising for three hours a couple months ago. A friend wanted her to perform sex acts on men, so they could hitch a ride to Augusta. She didn’t. Instead she called Nason, in tears.
“When I left I realized I didn’t want that life any more,” Sara said. “I don’t want to be like this anymore.”
Visit Hope Rising’s website to learn more about the program. Check out the 2016 Music Heals Concert for Hope, a Sept. 24 fundraiser in Westbrook for Hope Rising and Boston-based Amirah, featuring performances from country stars Steve Azar and Deana Carter.
If you or someone you know might be a victim of sex trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Resource Center Hotline at 1-888-373-7888. To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine.