Bishop Michael Barber, S.J., announced Dec. 8 that the Oakland Diocese's observance of the Year of Mercy will include outreach to girls who are victims of sex trafficking. The first initiative, he said, is to open a safe house where sexually exploited girls, ages 11-17, can heal and "rediscover their humanity."
Catholic Charities of the East Bay is partnering with the Alameda County District Attorney to establish and operate the house, which will be funded through grants and private donations. It will be located outside of Oakland, possibly in a vacant convent. The annual operating cost will be about $750,000, according to Catholic Charities' officials.
The district attorney's office reported that in the past five years 542 youth in the county have been identified as at risk or already involved in commercial sexual exploitation. Ninety-eight percent of them are girls. Of these, 61 percent are African-American.
During a press conference announcing the initiative, County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said that previously girls in the sex trade were arrested and placed in juvenile detention. But, she emphasized, they are victims, not criminals. They need "a home where they can heal from trauma and thrive."
Many are runaways whose families were extremely abusive. Returning them to these situations is not a positive option. "They feel safer being trafficked than being in their homes," she said. On any given night, up to 100 young women are being exploited on local streets, she added.
At the safe house, the girls will receive mental health counseling, medical and dental care, help with returning to school, and instruction in basic life and social skills, said Chuck Fernandez, CEO of Catholic Charities of the East Bay. "We will hold hope for these girls until they can hold it for themselves."
O'Malley said it is essential to envelope these girls with genuine love and caring. Many of them have never been told, I love you, by their families, she said. "These children don't just need a bed, then need a home."
Barber praised O'Malley for her efforts, which include training airport and transit workers on how to spot potential trafficking. Her office is placing posters in strategic areas in Oakland to let victims of sex trafficking know where help is available. "Without her resolve, this might remain in the shadows," said Barber.
Catholic Charities of the East Bay has a history of reaching out to persons traumatized by violence. They will bring that expertise to the safe house, with additional training from Georgia-based Wellspring Living which operates several homes for victims of trafficking. Fernandez hopes his agency will eventually be able to open transitional housing for girls ready to move from the safe house to more independent living. The first safe house is expected to accommodate up to 20 girls.
[Monica Clark is an NCR West Coast Correspondent. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.]