In a cozy one-story home in Miami, six twin beds dressed in bright
prints stand empty. Yoga mats and art supplies are packed away in the living
room, and a tire swing in the backyard hangs still.
Until early June, this was a refuge for six teenage girls who were victims of sex trafficking. Run by the nonprofit Kristi House, it was the state's first short-term "safe house" for sexually exploited children, founded in the wake of new, highly touted legislation that allowed victims to be treated in specialized shelters rather than confined as if prostitutes. When it opened April 1, many hoped it would be a model for safe houses around the state.
Yet the shelter suspended operations just two months later, after girls housed there repeatedly ran away. One reported being raped while on the loose. The incidents, publicized in a June grand jury report, have prompted child welfare administrators and legislators to consider whether child sex trafficking victims should be locked up for their own good, at least temporarily. Advocates say this would be a step backward in helping children who fall prey to the sex trade.
The victim, a girl in her early teens under the care of the Department of Children & Families, reported being sexually assaulted after running away from the shelter 10 days after it opened, according to the child welfare agency. She was trying to return to the safe house, and an older man refused to drive her there unless she had sex with him, said Kristi House Executive Director Trudy Novicki. Shelter therapist Tabitha Gallerani reported the rape, which she said took place "very far" from the safe house.
"She didn't know it was rape. She had no idea. I really sat with her and spent time to see what was going on," Gallerani said.
It's common for children in foster care to run away, and child welfare authorities can't legally detain them unless they face imminent harm because of mental illness. In addition, experts say young sex trafficking victims -- many of whom have suffered past abuse -- often develop a "trauma bond" that draws them back to their traffickers.
Kristi House decided to retool its residential program, and by early June the girls were moved to alternative placements. The group planned to reopen in August after hiring more staff, adding mental health techs, consulting experts and adding security features to discourage running, such as fencing.
But the incident prompted many to advocate a tougher alternative to the safe house model.
In mid-June, DCF said it was considering moving toward a secured short-term facility for victims and would stop referring all but a select few girls to the safe house, Novicki said.
"I'm not sure an intervention where we lock them down for a period of time is an answer," said DCF interim secretary Esther Jacobo, "but a short-period evaluation time might be something we all want to look at."
Without further measures, safe houses may be a good option only for girls who are low flight risks, she said.
Our Kids, the agency that DCF contracts to oversee foster care in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, is advocating legislative change that would allow involuntary confinement of child sex trafficking victims.
"Maybe the law fell short. Maybe foster care is not a place you lock someone up, but these are such special circumstances that we have to change the law for this
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