Every year, millions of men, children, and women are trafficked worldwide – there are an estimated 24.9 million victims worldwide at any given time.1 Furthermore, approximately 300,000 American children are trafficked every year and only one percent are rescued.2 Human trafficking can happen in any community and it can affect victims of any gender, race, nationality, or age. Oftentimes, traffickers lure victims in by using fraud, coercion, or force.
Education is key to spotting, reporting, and preventing trafficking. Safe House Project is an organization located in Alexandria, Virginia that was created with the intention of uniting communities to end domestic sex trafficking and to restore hope, freedom, and a future to every survivor. In addition to ending human trafficking as a whole, the founders of Safe House Project, Kristi Wells and Brittany Dunn, also recognized the need to increase survivor identification (which is currently at one percent) through education. They also provide emergency services and placement to survivors, ensuring that every survivor has access to safe housing and medical care after they are rescued. The three key areas they focus on are education, survivor empowerment, and safe housing.
We took some time to talk to Kristi Wells, the CEO of Safe House Project, to learn more about the organization’s mission and the importance of educating community members on human trafficking.
Here is what she had to say:
Tell me a little bit about yourself and how you got started with the Safe House Project.
I’m Kristi and I’m the CEO of Safe House Project, which is a national anti-trafficking organization that started in 2018. Our mission is to combat human trafficking through our educational trainings and to increase identification. We work to empower survivors through emergency services, economic development, and mentorship services. In addition to that, we also work on extraction, emergency transportation, survivor placement into safe homes, survivor advocacy, and we create internship opportunities for survivors. The ultimate vision that we hold is to see communities across America unite to end domestic sex trafficking, as well as to restore hope, freedom, and a future to every survivor.
We focus on several different key areas in the anti-trafficking industry and we’ve got a variety of trading solutions that we deploy which equip community members or industry-specific groups on how to spot, report, and prevent trafficking. One of the ways we teach is through free community-based trainings. We have other programs that are monetized, and the dollars that are raised through our training solutions and fundraising initiatives are deployed to our two other programs.
We also work to help survivors escape their trafficking situations. The calls come to me and then we work with them to try and coordinate an escape plan. Sometimes it’s as complicated as sneaking them out the back door of a hospital with the help of one of our former Navy SEAL buddies, and getting them into a safe house four or so states away. We also have a lot of survivors who reach out to us and need restorative care services. So we coordinate to get them into one of the safe houses that we support.
A substantial amount of our dollars that are raised are programmatic. I’d say about 96% of what we raise goes towards the mission of our work. We run a very lean operation intentionally. The dollars that we deploy on the restorative care side [are] helping fund, mentor, and launch new safe houses. The reason that’s important is because every year, there are about 300,000 American kids trafficked in the United States and victim identification is only at one percent. If they don’t have a safe place to go to heal and receive restorative care after they’ve been trafficked, 80% will end up back in the traffickers’ hands. When we began, there were only 100 beds in safe homes across America. To date, we’ve helped add 272 new beds through new safe house programs. This year alone, we are pushing out half a million dollars to continue to expand the national capacity. We’re also the national certification agency for standards of care. So we certify different residential care programs to ensure that they’re adhering to the best practices and serving survivors.
We actually work with a lot of trade schools, too. Our friend who is chairman and vice president at the Aviation Institute of Maintenance is actually the one who got us connected with a lot of the career schools. We’ve developed great partnerships and many of them have trained their healthcare workers on how to adopt our training and identify trafficking in the healthcare setting.
The training that we created is with the Academy of Forensic Nursing and a team of survivors. All of our trainings are written with and by survivors. It provides two and a half hours of continuing education for nurses. The training is either video-based and it integrates into SCORM [Sharable Content Object Reference Model] packages, it’s in a SCORM pack and it can integrate into a learning management system, or we independently house it in our LMS [Learning Management System]. Then we just upload the list of those who will be taking it and it gives them access to it.
Does the Safe House Project have any volunteering opportunities?
We do not have opportunities to volunteer at the houses just because they are all in undisclosed locations and in highly secure facilities. We do, however, coordinate drives, especially around the holidays. Our survivors are from all over the nation and when they exit their situation, sometimes we send them a few states over. So geographically, we don’t have something that’s so focused. Oftentimes, we try to leverage things like gift certificates and cards. If we’re working on doing an exit then we’re usually purchasing airline tickets or any other means of travel. So receiving those kinds of donations is really helpful.
The other day, I actually got a gal out with about 10 minutes to spare with an Uber. Every drive is different and everyone has very specific needs. We did a suitcase drive in Virginia where churches pulled together over 100 suitcases for us that had all of the things that the survivors would need. We give people these suitcases right as they’re exiting. We dispersed them from DC down to Georgia, and then to our program partners in the emergency safe houses. That way, when a survivor comes in, they immediately have a suitcase with things that they would need. We found that gift cards are sometimes more beneficial than tangible items. We also do a lot of stuff around Christmas time. Sometimes we’ll do gift card drives because we have survivors across the country who have been out of their trafficking situation for a while and they’ve gone through restorative care so they don’t really have anybody. We also don’t know where they’re coming from or where they’re going. So because of that, gift cards are really useful.
How would you define human trafficking?
Human trafficking is multi-faceted. It comes in many forms and shapes. Generally, though, it involves the use of force, fraud, or coercion to obtain some type of labor or commercial sex act. Every year, millions of individuals are trafficked worldwide. Traffickers oftentimes use violence, manipulation, or false promises of a better future to lure in their victims. It’s also important to note that trafficking can affect victims of any age, race, gender, or nationality. Moreover, sometimes victims don’t reach out for help due to fear of their traffickers or law enforcement. Traffickers normally look for people who are susceptible [due] to a variety of reasons, including economic hardship, lack of a social safety net, or emotional vulnerability. There are many myths and misconceptions around human trafficking, so that’s why we believe that educating the community is the first step in combatting it in the long run.
What types of human trafficking are there?
So in our trainings and community-based educational seminars, we talk quite a bit about the different types of human trafficking. Some people don’t know this, but trafficking comes in many forms, and it’s not necessarily always hidden, so to say. Sometimes it can happen right before your eyes and you might not ever know. So we definitely place a lot of emphasis on training our health professionals and the community to be able to identify when trafficking is taking place.
Forced labor encompasses a range of activities such as recruiting, harboring, or transporting. It is best defined as any work or service which people are forced to do against their will, under threat of punishment. It is essentially a slavery practice. It can also involve using force or physical threats, psychological coercion, [or] abuse of the legal process intended to hold a person in fear of serious harm. Forced labor is often found in industries with a lot of workers and little regulation. These industries can include domestic work, construction, agriculture, fishing, etc. This can also include forced child labor which involves the use of children under 18 in armed conflict, prostitution, and illegal activities such as drug trafficking.
Debt bondage, also known as debt slavery, is the pledge of a person’s services as security or the repayment for a debt or other obligation. Some workers fall victim to traffickers or recruiters who unlawfully exploit a debt assumed as a condition of employment, while in certain countries some workers “inherit” the debt.
A domestic work situation becomes trafficking when the employer uses force, fraud, or coercion to maintain control over the worker and to [make them] believe that he or she has no other choice but to continue with the work. This type of work can create a lot of vulnerabilities and it can happen in a lot of public work environments. However, these workplaces are often informal and they create the perfect environment for exploitation.
Sexual exploitation includes forcing an individual to engage in commercial sex acts, such as prostitution or the production of pornography. This type of labor exploitation includes domestic servitude, restaurant work, migrant agricultural work, or sweatshop factory work. According to statistics, the most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation. This type of trafficking affects every part of the world. Oftentimes, vulnerable women and children from developing countries are lured in by false promises for a better life. These victims are provided fake travel documents and they are pulled into organized networks used to transport them to the destination country. Once they get there, they find themselves forced into sexual exploitation and held in inhumane conditions.
Trafficking for the removal of organs
Organ trafficking is the practice of stealing or buying organs through exploitation to be sold on a black market for profit. Waiting lists for transplants are very long in many countries, and this gives criminals the opportunity to exploit patients and potential donors. Moreover, the health of victims is put at risk as operations may be carried out in dangerous conditions and [with] no medical follow-up.
Human smuggling is the provision of a service, which typically involves transportation or fraudulent documents, to an individual who voluntarily seeks to gain illegal entry into a foreign country. People smuggling is similar to human trafficking as it happens when migrants fall victim to forced labor while they are actively looking for better work opportunities. Smugglers may force migrants to work in inhumane conditions in order to pay for their travels and opportunities that were promised to them in the first place.
What inspired you to start the Safe House Project?
So my co-founder and I both came from varying areas in corporate America. None of us were looking to launch a national organization to combat trafficking. We’re both military spouses, and move pretty regularly. But, both of us had seen trafficking internationally. I saw it when I was 16 years old in Costa Rica. [My co-founder] was involved in mergers and acquisitions at careerbuilder.com for over a decade and ran the Southeast Asian markets. So she saw a lot of trafficking in Southeast Asia. When we teamed up initially, we were supporting a mission in South Africa to build a safe house to protect girls that were at risk for trafficking. But as we started doing that, people started to say, ‘That’s great, but what are you going to do here?’ I didn’t have an answer. I mean, as a military spouse, my husband has traveled around the world to combat a foreign enemy. But that was really where we decided to become students of the industry. That’s where we realized that the DOJ at that point was reporting 300,000 American kids were being trafficked and victim identification was only at one percent.
So we work to increase victim identification through education. We help survivors escape their trafficking situation and get them placed into restorative care homes. Then we help fund mentors and launch new safe houses. Another problem that we ran into is that 80% of survivors end up back in the hands of their traffickers due to a lack of safe houses. When we started, there were less than 100 beds across the U.S. for child victims of sex trafficking, so one of our main goals since we started has been to create more safe houses for victims.
We kind of boiled down what the problem was, what the needs were, and tried to identify what we could do about it with our backgrounds. We saw something we couldn’t unsee. There was also a third gal who helped us launch this. We had three husbands deployed with seven children under the age of seven. It wasn’t the ideal time to launch a national organization, but we dove in head first. It’s been about five years since we built up the organization and we are really glad we did because it has made a huge difference in the community.
What is your training program like?
So we have the different modules which all introduce human trafficking. We actually write our courses with survivors because they are the best source when it comes to going over the process of what happens in these situations. We share intersection points with community members for what signs and indicators are present. So when we can share a survivor story, it allows us to really provide the visual representation of what surviving actually looks like.
Right now, so many people think human trafficking is something that only happens at the border. That can indeed be human trafficking, or more likely human smuggling. But it prevents people from understanding what trafficking really looks like in our communities. When we do the visual representation of the stories, it allows us to best pass a lot of those myths because 40% of child trafficking is done by a family member and 66% by somebody that they know and trust. So our survivor stories are actually written by and with survivors because they are able to narrate what happened to them while simultaneously providing an accurate visual representation of it.
We have a Netflix award-winning documentary specialist who did the visual representation of the story of what was happening in the healthcare setting. So you can see those interpersonal dynamics, as well – the things that aren’t going to make it into a PowerPoint checklist, but when you see how some things play out in this power control dynamic, it allows for better education to take place.
Then you’ve got the industry expert analysis, which was really where the AFN came in. They did more of the clinical signs and indicators, doing a breakdown of that story. So we go over familial trafficking, child safety considerations to consider when treating trafficking victims, and vulnerable populations that could become victims of trafficking. We also talk about telehealth, external factors that increase trafficking, and labor trafficking. We go through the three different types of labor trafficking, because that’s also an important concept for them to understand. Then we do a final round up, so in between each of these modules is a knowledge check. It’s a really thorough assessment, but once they complete it, they get a certificate at the end.
We do have our free community-based training platform that anybody can go watch. It’s usually for the schools, but we had some healthcare workers request it as well. The other thing that’s important to note is that we don’t just do it from the doctor or nurse perspective. In the child familial trafficking [module], it was actually the janitor that identified the child. So it empowers those people as well, whether they are hands on or behind the desk.
I came from a marketing and advertising background. So I firmly believe that if somebody is doing something great, like training all of their healthcare workers on how to identify trafficking, they should probably get the press in the backup as well, to highlight that partnership. It’s been really fun to work with the schools. They’re doing something that intersects in their community, so it has created a lot of student and external buy-in as well. I tell our board chair all the time how helpful it is. This just gives them a different PR lens, if you will. In regard to our leaders and freedom package, it’s tiered out at different levels: there’s gold, silver, and bronze. Each of those comes with varying levels of press releases and website banners for social media.
Overall, though, I’m really proud of the great work that we’ve done. It’s made a huge difference in the community and the work is very fulfilling. We have several days a year where we raise awareness by putting on some events. January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month. July 30th is the World Against Trafficking Day. So we really just try our best to get out in the community and spread the word.
For more information on the Safe House Project or to find out how you can help, please visit https://www.safehouseproject.org/.
2 www.safehouseproject.com, MaySafeHouseProjectFactSheet.pdf, 2021