Claire’s House to welcome trafficking victims

Catholic Charities of the East Bay, which serves the Diocese of Oakland in northern California, is preparing to open Claire’s House, a home for girls who are victims of human trafficking. A unique facility among dioceses nationwide, the home will be housed in a former church rectory and provide a “safe and secure place” for girls to recover from a life of exploitation in the sex trade.

The program was launched at the request of local elected officials who approached the diocese about establishing such a home, said Bishop Michael C. Barber of Oakland. Police regularly encounter such minors but have no place to take them where they can begin a new direction in their lives.

“They have no family to go to for help and no way of escape,” Bishop Barber said.

Critical need

Described as a “therapeutic living community,” the home will have 12 beds and serve girls ages 12-17. They will be aided by a staff led by Leah Kimble-Price, a licensed marriage and family therapist who has been named director of the new home. Its target date for opening is February 2018.

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Kimble-Price

“We want to be a home where young people are able to restore their stolen childhood,” Kimble-Price said. “We want to be a place where they can get healthy, have their initial needs met, go back to school and start talking about their goals.”

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley played a key role in the establishment of the new facility. In a statement on behalf of Catholic Charities of the East Bay, the district attorney thanked the Church for “stepping up to create a safe and stable house for these young people.”

She noted that during her time in the district attorney’s office, she’d seen hundreds of youths forced into the commercial sex world. At any given time, she said, hundreds of children are being advertised for sex online or on the streets in the Bay Area. Should they attempt escape, they risk torture or death.

When police come across such young people, they are not arrested, she explained, because they are victims of a crime rather than criminals themselves. Catholic Charities, in fact, avoids the term “child prostitute,” as children are unable to consent to prostitution and are instead victims.

There is a “critical need” for homes such as Claire’s House, O’Malley said, “because in the Bay Area and throughout California there simply are no places for these kids to go once they’re separated from a trafficker.”

A mother’s legacy

Claire’s House provides more than just a bed, O’Malley said; it “comes with love, support and caring. These are all the things that the Catholic Church and Catholic Charities provide.”

Because of O’Malley’s key support for the project, the new home was named for her mother, Claire O’Malley, who took homeless youths into her home. Residents of Claire’s House will stay at the home transitionally, with an 18-month stay being the expected average. Some girls may stay at the home just a few months; others, for several years, depending on the particular circumstances. Girls will be free to leave the facility at any time, although should they leave the facility prematurely, Kimble-Price said, the staff will certainly ask, “Do you have a plan? Will you be safe tonight? Can we support you?”

Forcing the girls to stay at the home would be the wrong approach, Kimble-Price believes, because “being forced to stay was a life they’re coming to us from, a situation from which they’re trying to heal.”

The program will be funded by taxpayer dollars, and hence will have no specific program of Catholic education. However, Kimble-Price added, should a girl express a desire to go to church or for a spiritual component for her healing, “we’ll do everything we can to facilitate that.”

Claire’s House has been two years in the making. Early stages began with a weeklong visit to Wellspring Living, a successful faith-based home for adult victims of human trafficking in Atlanta. The facility has three houses serving as many as 30 women. Kimble-Price said the visit helped Catholic Charities staff “learn to design a program that is welcoming and provides opportunities for job-skills training.”

‘A hub of the sex trade’

According to the human exploitation and trafficking tip line of the Alameda County District Attorney, there are between 27 million and 35 million victims of human trafficking worldwide, with 14,500 to 17,500 in the United States. Another 100,000 young people in the United States are deemed “at risk” for trafficking. Victims of sex trafficking are as young as age 12 and quickly can feel trapped in the lifestyle due to a need for money, addiction issues or fear of retaliation.

There are many components to battling human trafficking, including raising awareness and identifying and prosecuting traffickers by law enforcement. Homes such as Wellspring and Claire’s House provide another component, helping victims of human trafficking to heal.

“Human trafficking is an open wound on the body of contemporary society, a scourge upon the body of Christ. It is a crime against humanity.”

Kimble-Price currently is in the process of hiring 28 staff members to serve Claire’s House. These include therapeutic living counselors (TLCs), case managers and a house manager. TLCs will be on-site for eight- to nine-hour shifts to counsel the girls; case managers will assist with practical duties, such as enrolling the girls in school, taking them for court dates or helping them obtain driver’s licenses.

Once the home is up and running, Claire’s House will provide a model for the opening of additional homes, including a second one in neighboring Contra Costa County. The homes will be of great benefit to the local community, Kimble-Price said, as “Oakland is a hub of the sex trade.”

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Volunteers will be welcome later in the process to provide the girls training in such basics as cooking or to offer help with fundraising, planning events, participating in public awareness campaigns or mentoring girls. And although public funds will reimburse Catholic Charities for expenses in future operating costs, Catholic Charities is seeking donors to cover start-up costs. The costs include the remodeling of a 15-bedroom rectory that once was the home of a single priest.

There is a need to protect the privacy of Claire’s House residents, hence its specific location is not being publicly disclosed. However, Kimble-Price wants to advertise the work of the home, because “we want to involve the community, not only to help our particular girls, but so that they understand the scope of the problem. We want people to understand that human trafficking is everywhere, not just overseas, but here in our own backyard.”

Jim Graves writes from California.