When Sarah was very young, a family member sexually abused her. She ran away from home, but confusion, brokenness, and self-hatred stayed with her. Though she wanted to be free, she needed a place to stay, and gravitated toward the first man who gave her attention. At first, she thought the man cared for her, but soon, he abused her. Before long, he forced Sarah to have sex with other men for money.
Sarah’s story is not unusual for girls who become victims of sex trafficking. In 2016 alone, 123 girls in Colorado were recovered from sex trafficking. The girls had an average age of 15. It’s estimated that thousands more are currently in sex trafficking rings that have not yet been discovered.
“People think it’s not happening in their city, but it really is,” says Kristen Harness, executive director of Extended Hands of Hope (EHH). “People have a misconception of who these girls are and what their families are like. They come from all over the Denver metro area, from all kinds of backgrounds.”
After law enforcement officers recover girls, EHH, founded in 2013, provides safe housing and support services. Girls can stay with EHH for 24 hours or up to 24 months, says Harness. For their residential program, five girls at a time, ages 12 to 17, can live at The Avanti House, during which time they”ll receive schooling (many survivors are four and five grade levels behind), group and individual counseling, life skills classes, and mentorship, in addition to art and recreation opportunities. Girls not living at The Avanti House, ages 12 to 24, are paired with one-on-one mentors. “We learned through research and experience that this population thrives when they are able to be in a home-like environment,” Harness says.
Harness says it’s important that parents educate themselves about sex trafficking. “Girls are not choosing this lifestyle. They are not the criminals,” she says. “The men who purchase sex often get a pat on the hand and are told to leave the situation. A lot of these kids have gone through severe abuse their whole lives.”
Harness says that often, sex traffickers will use middle and high school boys and girls who also are victims to recruit new girls. Recently, a girl who worked in a fast food restaurant was befriended by another young employee who was trying to recruit her. Harness says to watch for girls who might come home with expensive gifts or services like manicures, that were purchased by a boyfriend. And although there are more female victims, young boys, too, are at risk. “Understand who your kids are hanging out with. When something seems out of the ordinary, that is a warning sign,” Harness says.
It’s important to talk to your children about the risks, too, so they can watch out for their friends: “Kids might tell friends what is going on in their lives before they tell parents,” Harness says.
As a mom of a 10-year-old boy herself, Harness says she often thinks about how boys can be influenced so the cycle of abuse does not continue. “I teach my son to see a girl as a valuable person, and not someone to use any way he wants,” she says. “If you teach your boys to respect life and humans at whatever age they are, they will look at girls differently.”
HOW FAMILIES CAN HELP
- Serve as a one-on-one mentor to a recovered sex trafficking victim. Mentors must be a female age 21 or older, who passes the necessary background screenings.
- Organize toiletry drives, food drives, and clothing drives with your family or group to support victims, who often come to EHH with nothing.
- Participate in the Justice Run to benefit EHH, in October. See the website or Facebook page for more details.
- Make a financial donation on the website.
Extended Hands of Hope