Jessica Neely lives in a small town in Oklahoma with only one stop sign. It’s a quiet life, and that’s just the way she likes it.
Neely could have just as easily spent the remainder of her life behind bars.
A prostitute and former pornography actress, Neely ran a brothel in Denver. She traveled the Interstate-70 corridor across state lines with some of her “girls,” renting hotel suites and soliciting a steady stream of business.
When Neely discovered she was facing 30 years in prison — she says police threatened her with that if she didn’t help them find bigger traffickers — she was stunned.
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“When vice told me I was a human trafficker, I didn’t even know what they were talking about. My mind was so far gone.”
“I thought I was the victim,” Neely says. “What did I do wrong?”
Desperate, Neely says she sent more than 300 emails to Christian organizations and churches with the words “help me” and her background story.
“Not a single one responded,” she says.
But an operation called Refuge for Women did.
A name beyond ‘victim’
The wood-paneled closet is sparsely dotted with women’s clothing — a few blouses, a dress, a sweater. Arranged neatly on hangers, the clothing is meant for women who need something appropriate for a job interview.
Or a court appearance.
“We call it Sarah’s closet,” Olivia Turner says. As director of Refuge for Women’s new Miami outpost, Turner is dedicated to rehabilitating adult victims of sexual exploitation, including trafficking, prostitution, stripping and pornography.
“Sarah” is the term the staff uses to refer to the victims of sexual exploitation, Turner says, explaining the name Sarah means “princess of the people.” It was derived from Sarai, Abraham’s wife in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, who was bartered in much the same way as women are today.
She notes that when referring to sexual exploitation, the term “john” refers to customers and “pimp” refers to controllers, but the women themselves don’t have any designation except “victim.”
“They deserve a name, at least,” Turner says.
So Sarah it is.
One dark night
Neely grew up in a loving, upper-middle class family in Colorado Springs. She enjoyed sports and took piano lessons and cake decorating classes. At 19, Neely became a youth pastor, following in the steps of her pastor father.
But everything changed on a bitter cold Easter Sunday in 2004.
In the dark of night, three days before she was scheduled to give a speech about purity, she was randomly attacked and raped in a parking lot. Having learned that being raped meant that she was no longer “pure,” she resigned from her youth pastor post.
Suffering post-traumatic stress disorder from the brutal rape, Neely, then 23, fell into a vicious downward spiral.
“PTSD is a rewiring of the brain where you are constantly in fight or flight,” Neely says. “My hair was falling out. I was stuttering. I was peeing all over myself. I lost 100 pounds.’’
Feeling ruined, Neely got a job doing the only thing she felt worthy of — prostitution. She says she and her family broke apart. After a short career in pornography and five months after being raped, she began life as a madam — the female equivalent of a pimp.
Or what the Colorado police refer to as a “human trafficker.”
Florida: A top state for trafficking
Florida is the third-highest sex trafficking destination in the United States behind California and Texas, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. And while organizations exist to help exploited minors, Turner says that adult victims have few places to turn.
Refuge for Women is a faith-based, cost-free alternative for those over 18.
“The ladies now were the [exploited] children of yesterday,” Turner says. “They’ve learned to be defensive, suspicious . . . in order to survive. We help them learn to break the patterns of behavior that need to change in order to build different relationships.”
The Miami house, which hasn’t opened yet as the nonprofit is raising funds to sustain it, will be the fourth location for the Kentucky-based, not-for-profit charity. Founder Ked Frank says the organization has graduated 134 women from the program since it began in 2009.
Refuge for Women-South Florida Inc. is a subsidiary of the Refuge for Women. Charity-reporting agency GuideStar gives the organization a Gold rating, and the Miami Herald has not uncovered any complaints against the organization.
Warm home for the women
Many victims of sexual exploitation become ensnared in the life while searching for a sense of security and belonging, Turner says.
“That’s how a lot of the pimps and traffickers manipulate and recruit the ladies . . . by pretending to be an older boyfriend or family that’s going to take care of them. So there’s this whole twisted perversion of our innate need to be loved and a part of something and accepted that they use to capture these young girls. It’s a sick process.”
Turner, 32, is a graduate student majoring in mathematics at Florida Atlantic University. Petite even in heels, she clips across the hardwood floors of Refuge for Women’s house in midtown Miami, giving tours to interested volunteers and donors.
The white house is pristine and spotless, stocked with little more than the bare essentials. Turner is hoping to obtain donations of artwork, bedding and decor to make the house feel welcoming and cozy before the first women arrive.
Surrounded by a chain-link fence, the lawn, like the women who will call this home, is in need of some TLC. A low brick wall is crumbling in places, but the 15-foot palm trees give the yard a tropical vibe.
The 2,700-square-foot ranch house is located in a transitioning neighborhood near the Design District. The house can accommodate up to eight women, each with their own twin bed. The board of directors is seeking the donation of another site to house additional women as they pass into the next part of the three-phase, nine-month program.
“We are distinctly treating the PTSD that comes from sexual trauma and addiction and then redefining it,” Turner says.
With bright eyes that sparkle with hope, Turner discusses how she became involved with Refuge for Women.
“I was oblivious to how the sex industry is everywhere,” she says.
She became aware of the immense reach of sex trafficking through her work with children’s and family ministries. She then traveled the country to visit other sexual exploitation rehabilitation facilities and gauge their success working with victims.
“I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she says. But Turner also says she didn’t want an industrialized look or feel to the center. She wanted it to feel like home, believing that a warm, family environment would ultimately help the women transition more easily into everyday life.
“When they come in they are very broken. They all have triggers — food, alcohol, drugs, self-cutting, night terrors, anxiety,” Turner says.
“They don’t have anywhere to go. They don’t fit into any other programs.”
A friend put Neely, now 35, in contact with Refuge for Women, but she was told there was a long wait. Neely drove from Colorado to Kentucky and checked into a hotel room. For a week she begged daily for a spot in the program. Unable to turn her away, Refuge for Women took Neely in, where she slept on the floor for 2 ½ months until a bed became available.
Experiencing tenderness and compassion for the first time since her rape, Neely says, “I was just a crying mess when I found so many people who loved us.”
Turner says there are a lot of misconceptions about the sex trade.
“We see runaway teens or a stripper and we think, ‘Oh they’re just a troublemaker,’ but no! They’re hurt and they’re looking for something and they’re trying to survive, pay a bill, eat.”
Volunteer Marilda Janse van Rensburg, another FAU graduate student who shares Turner’s commitment to Refuge for Women, says the three-phase rehabilitation process is geared toward helping the women build the skills they need to ensure that they do not relapse back into the sex industry. Because many of the women have been heavily controlled, they often do not know how to balance a checkbook, plan meals or interview for a job.
The women’s daily schedules include individual counseling, group therapy sessions, chores, homework, reading, prayers and physical exercise. The ultimate goal is to help the women obtain the skills necessary to integrate into society, says Janse van Rensburg.
Each woman is required to be enrolled in school or have a steady job by month six. When appropriate, the program also includes healthy family reunions.
Now living in rural Oklahoma, Neely aspires to become a certified rape crisis counselor. She travels the country to educate people about how to avoid becoming victims of sexual exploitation.
“I speak at colleges. I educate parents about social media. I found all my girls on Facebook,” she says. “I speak with prosecutors about how I trafficked and recruited girls. They all came from social media. All of them.”
While Neely is one of Turner’s favorite success stories, she looks forward to helping many more “Sarahs” when the Miami location opens.
Seeing each woman blossom and allow herself to be loved is payment enough for the volunteers, Turner says.
“Our hearts are open. Our hearts are broken, too.”