According to New Mexico child welfare officials plans for the state’s first safe house for young sex-trafficking victims are finally moving forward, more than two years after Bernadillo County commissioners voted to allocate $1 million to the project .
The shelter will house up to 12 people between the ages of 14 and 18 who have been referred by law enforcement, the juvenile justice system, medical professionals or other relevant authorities.
Proponents say the facility will fill a serious gap in services for some of the state’s most vulnerable youth by providing specialized, comprehensive services and extending the length of stay for clients compared to existing shelters.
Liz Hamilton, assistant director of behavioral health in the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families, said the new model will allow social workers to get to know the young people in their care, “to establish relationships with them and to really be able to identify what their needs are.”
“It also gives us the ability to stabilize them in terms of their mental health, if there’s a medical need or a need for substance use,” she said. “That gives us a lot more time to really individualize the plan for them.”
Myth versus reality in sex trafficking
Although popular depictions of human trafficking tend to conjure up ideas of violent abduction and cross-border human trafficking, the majority of sexual exploitation occurs much closer to home and likely involves someone close to the victim, according to experts.
“The images that America has had for several years around human trafficking are girls chained to beds and things like that,” said Shelley Repp, executive director of the New Mexico Dream Center, a nonprofit Christian organization. non-profit which works with survivors of sex trafficking.
She said those the images “do not correspond to the lived experience of the victim of human trafficking”.
A victim does not need to be transported anywhere to be trafficked – trafficking is the act of forcing someone to work or engage in sex, no matter where they are. All commercial sex involving minors is considered trafficking under the law.
Some young people are more at risk than others of being trafficked. Important risk factors include recent migration or resettlement, substance use, mental health issues, involvement in the child welfare system, and being a runaway or homeless youth. according to the polaris projectan anti-trafficking organization that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
These vulnerabilities can be exploited by traffickers to control their victims.
Repp recalled the story of a youth, a refugee who had been placed with a foster family in Albuquerque.
The girl was told she would be evicted from the family home once she turned 18 because federal relocation support payments would end. She was then coerced into commercial sex by the foster family, Repp said.
Another young girl Dream Center first worked with ran away from home at age 11 to stay with a friend who was in a gang. Eventually, the girl was forced into the sex trade by the gang to earn money, Repp said.
Misconceptions about trafficking are so widespread that many young victims don’t realize they’ve been coerced and blame themselves, Repp said.
“The perception of the victims that we see is that they made bad choices,” Repp said. “’I chose to run…so I’m not a victim, because I choose that. Like – that’s what it is.
Fill a service gap
Currently, New Mexico does not have a dedicated shelter to meet the needs of young people who have been victims of sex trafficking. There are also no residential drug treatment programs for minors.
It’s not without consequence, Repp said. Over 80% of young Dream Center clients also struggle with addiction.
“If you’re in the state of New Mexico, and you’re a kid and you’re addicted, and you want to get out of it, you just have to…hope your parents have a lot of ‘money and can send you somewhere,” Repp said. “You just kind of have to suck and survive and hope you make it.”
The proposed shelter will differ from existing facilities in that it would be equipped to house clients for up to 90 days, which is significantly longer than the 30-day limit common at area shelters.
The facility will also have tighter security than other shelters, and full-time support staff and on-site services, including academic, medical and behavioral health services, such as addiction treatment, tailored to meet the specific needs of survivors of trafficking.
Albuquerque Police Department Detective Kyle Hartsock has long been a proponent of creating a specialized safe house.
Hartsock helped establish the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department’s Shadow Unit to handle human trafficking investigations from what he described as a “victim-centered” perspective — one that helps also law enforcement.
“The more we are able to build trust and connect with victims of human trafficking, the stronger we can pursue criminal prosecutions,” Hartsock said. “One of the weak points that we have seen is that the emergency shelter program for young people has not been set up for victims of trafficking to succeed. »
The shelter is a joint project of CYFD and Bernalillo County, where Albuquerque is the county seat. According to Project Polaris, the greater Albuquerque area is a major traffic hotspot in the state. It is home to nearly a third of New Mexico’s population and is a major confluence of interstate highways. Trafficking operations often overlap with commercial transportation and trucking activities, the organization says.
In December, the county and state finalized a contract to build and operate the facility described in the original proposal. Officials attribute the lengthy process to the state’s strict requirements for facilities housing young people, as well as a limited real estate inventory.
The chosen building – location and identification details are kept confidential for the safety of CYFD customers – is owned by the state. Officials said they took into consideration the site’s suitability for housing young people, the safety of the surrounding area and proximity to services.
In November, CYFD began the process of finding a contractor to operate the facility. The department could issue a request for proposals this month, CYFD told Youth Today.
Hamilton hopes to see the shelter up and running by the end of 2023. The state allocated $400,000 a year to pay a contractor to operate the safe house, as per the agreement.
“We expect a process of around eight to nine months,” Hamilton said.
Despite the complex process and long timelines, Hamilton and others are hopeful the new facility will provide a safe space to engage in trauma-informed treatment and services for some of the county’s most vulnerable young people.
“For me, the safe house will be a place [where] these young people who have been trafficked… needn’t worry,” Hamilton said. They’ll have “people there who basically have your back and can say, ‘What do you need? “”