Detention for 30 days could be a detox or cooling-off period to begin treatment, Allegra said.
DCFs decision to rethink the safe house model came as the agency faced intense scrutiny for a spate of deaths among children whod previously come to the attention of child protective investigators. It also came a week before a Miami-Dade grand jury released its report advocating for a locked-down option and arguing that incidents at Kristi House vividly demonstrate the deficiencies presented by the use of this safe house model.
Novicki, a former assistant state attorney, argues that victims of sex trafficking require a more compassionate touch. Novicki, who authored the 2012 Safe Harbor Act that diverted these victims from the criminal justice system, says detainment is the wrong approach.
The lockdown approach protects public agencies from risk but does nothing to increase the well-being of children. With this population, its gentleness, not speed or feigned toughness that cuts through the trauma, she said.
Legal tools already exist for confining children with dangerous mental illness, such as the Baker Act and the Statewide Inpatient Psychiatric Program, and these can be expedited for chronic runaways, suggested Novicki. Theres no research to support that short-term detainment breaks victims bonds to traffickers, but studies show that detaining young people increases the risk of problematic behavior later on, she said.
Progress takes time, Novicki said. Its not like you switch on a light and everything is going to change for these children. Its more like kindling a fire.
For the most part, the Kristi House model was working, Novicki said. Although there are no evidence-based studies on how best to treat victims, the group drew on its experience working with sexually exploited girls since 2007 and studied similar programs around the country. Girls at the shelter had individual and group therapy, homeschooling, linkages to medical care and training in life skills. They took cooking classes, watched movies and did interpretive dance.
Shelter staff saw it as a sign of progress that girls who left usually returned, often within 24 hours.
Wings of Shelter, a long-term safe house for sexually exploited children near Fort Myers, said it has managed to discourage girls from running away without locking them up. Only two girls have left since the shelter opened nearly five years ago, largely because they arent allowed to return if they bolt, and a volunteer accompanies girls on all outings, according to co-founder Sally Senitz.
State legislator Erik Fresen, who co-sponsored the Safe Harbor Act in the House, said hed consider proposing to amend the law to allow involuntary confinement, but only if there was a consensus among experts that statutory change was required.
Id like to see the debate take place and all the experts weigh in before I have a knee-jerk reaction and say in this case we lock down, while its been common practice for decades that we dont, Fresen said.
With future referrals up in the air, Kristi House decided to indefinitely suspend operating the safe house on July 1. Only two other safe houses exist in the state: Wings of Shelter and Place of Hope near West Palm Beach, both long-term residences with limited space.
Gallerani, the Kristi House therapist, said girls who stayed at the shelter keep sending her texts and emails asking when it will reopen. One girl who didnt realize the safe house was closed waited outside the gate for more than an hour, she said.
It breaks my heart that all these kids out there arent being served the way they need because were not operating right now, Gallerani said. They called it home.