Miami-Dade County

How a plan to help sexually exploited girls went awry

In a cozy one-story home in Miami, six twin beds dressed in bright prints stand empty. Yoga mats and art supplies are packed away in the living room, and a tire swing in the backyard hangs still.

Until early June, this was a refuge for six teenage girls who were victims of sex trafficking. Run by the nonprofit Kristi House, it was the state’s first short-term “safe house” for sexually exploited children, founded in the wake of new, highly touted legislation that allowed victims to be treated in specialized shelters rather than confined as if prostitutes. When it opened April 1, many hoped it would be a model for safe houses around the state.

Yet the shelter suspended operations just two months later, after girls housed there repeatedly ran away. One reported being raped while on the loose. The incidents, publicized in a June grand jury report, have prompted child welfare administrators and legislators to consider whether child sex trafficking victims should be locked up for their own good, at least temporarily. Advocates say this would be a step backward in helping children who fall prey to the sex trade.

The victim, a girl in her early teens under the care of the Department of Children & Families, reported being sexually assaulted after running away from the shelter 10 days after it opened, according to the child welfare agency. She was trying to return to the safe house, and an older man refused to drive her there unless she had sex with him, said Kristi House Executive Director Trudy Novicki. Shelter therapist Tabitha Gallerani reported the rape, which she said took place “very far” from the safe house.

“She didn’t know it was rape. She had no idea. I really sat with her and spent time to see what was going on,” Gallerani said.

It’s common for children in foster care to run away, and child welfare authorities can’t legally detain them unless they face imminent harm because of mental illness. In addition, experts say young sex trafficking victims — many of whom have suffered past abuse — often develop a “trauma bond” that draws them back to their traffickers.

Kristi House decided to retool its residential program, and by early June the girls were moved to alternative placements. The group planned to reopen in August after hiring more staff, adding mental health techs, consulting experts and adding security features to discourage running, such as fencing.

But the incident prompted many to advocate a tougher alternative to the safe house model.

In mid-June, DCF said it was considering moving toward a secured short-term facility for victims and would stop referring all but a select few girls to the safe house, Novicki said.

“I’m not sure an intervention where we lock them down for a period of time is an answer,” said DCF interim secretary Esther Jacobo, “but a short-period evaluation time might be something we all want to look at.”

Without further measures, safe houses may be a good option only for girls who are low flight risks, she said.

Our Kids, the agency that DCF contracts to oversee foster care in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, is advocating legislative change that would allow involuntary confinement of child sex trafficking victims.

“Maybe the law fell short. Maybe foster care is not a place you lock someone up, but these are such special circumstances that we have to change the law for this discrete segment of kids,” said Our Kids CEO Fran Allegra. “These kids are engaged in behavior that could easily kill them.”

Detention for 30 days could be a “detox” or “cooling-off period” to begin treatment, Allegra said.

DCF’s decision to rethink the safe house model came as the agency faced intense scrutiny for a spate of deaths among children who’d 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, it’s 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. There’s 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. “It’s not like you switch on a light and everything is going to change for these children. It’s 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 aren’t 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 he’d consider proposing to amend the law to allow involuntary confinement, but only if there was a consensus among experts that statutory change was required.

“I’d 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 it’s been common practice for decades that we don’t,” 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 didn’t 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 aren’t being served the way they need because we’re not operating right now,” Gallerani said. “They called it home.”