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New safe house in Berks County will provide immediate support for trafficking survivors

Refuge Home is opening on Sept. 5

  • Gabriela Martínez/WITF
The living area of FREE's new safe house opening in Reading.

 Courtesy of FREE

The living area of FREE's new safe house opening in Reading.

Berks County survivors of sexual trafficking will soon have a safe place to go. 

The nonprofit FREE, which stands for Freedom and Restoration for Everyone Enslaved, is opening Refuge Home, a safe house to help former victims of human trafficking through their rehabilitation process.

FREE already helps sexually exploited women connect to resources and provides rehabilitative care. It also fosters awareness about human trafficking through presentations at local schools and agencies.

Kimberly Thomas, program director for Refuge Home, said the idea to create a safe house came out of the needs FREE’s staff members were seeing in their drop-in center in downtown Reading.

“They needed feminine hygiene products. They needed clothing,” Thomas said. “That’s a lot of what prompted the realization that there’s a need for an actual safe house, then seeing all these women coming into the drop-in center that didn’t have housing or support.”

There are not many places survivors of sexual trafficking can go in Berks County.

 “We’ve worked with law enforcement officers who have told us that they will have a victim of sex trafficking in their patrol car and they don’t have anywhere to take them, and so they end up just going back on the street, and they’re getting exploited over and over,” said Lauren Haller, FREE’s community engagement coordinator.

FREE often refers people to safe houses in surrounding counties, such as Lancaster or Dauphin. FREE has access to a network of providers and referral system known as the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance.  

The safe house will be at an undisclosed location in Reading and will house women from ages 18 to 28.  The residents admitted to the house will go through an 18-month program that includes trauma counseling, social and recreational activities, job readiness support and opportunities to pursue a certificate program at Reading Community College.

In the first year, the house will limit itself to three residents, but will eventually accept up to six. Thomas said the program does not have the resources to accept people with mobility impairments or other disabilities that require specialized care. 

There are larger challenges when it comes to tracking down and prosecuting human trafficking crimes.

Meg McCallum, Berks County assistant district attorney and a member of its human trafficking task force, said human trafficking cases often go unreported. Survivors generally choose not to self-identify and work with authorities because the person might have a prior criminal record or problems with substance abuse.

Victim advocates from nonprofits and other groups are often crucial for connecting victims to the resources they need.

“We try to be very victim-centered and very victim-specific depending on what their need is,” McCallum said. “If they need clothing and shelter we unfortunately don’t really have anywhere here within Berks County itself, so we would have to consult with another county to get them that sort of housing, if we have to put them up in a hotel or something like that.” 

McCallum added that “it’s not like this is happening every week.”  

The county has participated in rescue efforts for one trafficking survivor this year. 

Since 2020, the county has recorded 56 trafficking cases, McCallum said.

Earlier this year, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts published data that Berks County ranks fourth in the state for counties with the most human trafficking cases. Between 2017 and 2021, Berks authorities filed charges for 106 human trafficking related cases.

McCallum said traffickers are targeting girls as young as 14 years old, but boys are also targeted. Those who are targeted tend to come from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds.

“What we’re seeing is recruitment through social media, where they’re making promises of maybe making a lot of extra money, or perhaps establishing a relationship with them, and then meeting up with them, and then providing them all these wonderful things that they otherwise couldn’t afford,” McCallum said.

The county’s human trafficking task force has tailored its strategy to that trend by targeting buyers, mainly those who seek to purchase sex from a minor, through sting operations. Authorities place fake ads on social media and websites generally used for purchasing sex and arrange to meet up with the person in order to arrest them.

“We’re hoping it’s a deterrent that if you come here to Berks County, there is a chance that you are actually interacting with a police officer and you are going to be arrested, potentially, for that and prosecuted.”

The task force also organizes presentations at schools and hospitals to educate the public about how to identify potential human trafficking situations.

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