The Refuge provides trauma-informed, long-term restoration in community with on-site services for girls and minors who have been exploited through sex trafficking. Our Story Team sat down with Christine Prater, the church liaison for The Refuge.
ST: What are some misconceptions about sex-trafficking in Austin?
CP: I think the biggest misconception is that it doesn't happen here, that this is something that only happens overseas. In reality, some of the children that are targeted are coming out of affluent homes. They are targeted by members of their own family. Many of the targeted children are foster children, but a lot of them are your everyday girls feeling misunderstood and wanting to be noticed. It’s very easy for them to be prey, and the people who traffic know what they’re doing.
ST: How is The Refuge involved?
CP: The Refuge seeks to be the hands and feet of Jesus by redeeming these girls. There is no rescue without restoration. In the past, teenage children would get picked up on soliciting charges and then put into juvenile detention centers and treated as criminals, instead of victims. Now, we have a judicial system that understands what trafficking is and isn’t falsely incarcerating girls for selling something they can't legally even give away. So now we at least have awareness and advocacy groups, but there is still nowhere for our victims to go and find healing. While some families may or may not have the means to afford some of the best care, our victims need an immersive experience. It’s not something you can treat in an hour-long counseling session, once a week.
This is a level of trauma that is most accurately compared with extreme forms of PTSD. These girls need to be in a holistic, immersive community where everything from their education to medical care, to their trauma, to the communities, to their supervision, to their discipline is treated with trauma in mind and researched thoroughly so that these girls receive the highest level of care.
A four-year study from the Steve Hicks School of Social Work and the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault reported that there are almost 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking in Texas today. Some of these victims are now 35 years old and have been trafficked since they were 15. Prior to the opening of The Refuge Ranch, Texas only had 24 beds available for child survivors’ long term recovery from trauma. Short term shelters and safe houses are launching (and going away) all the time, and at a higher rate now that people are recognizing the depth of this problem. Developing the long-term care is the hard, expensive thing, both to create and sustain. Now with the 48 new beds at The Refuge Ranch, Texas has 72 long-term beds dedicated to caring for child survivors of this particular trauma.
Our hope is that The Refuge is the start of a progression, where other communities can begin doing the same things we are. We hope building community to help these girls heal will also allow our judicial system and the advocacy groups time to eradicate trafficking for good. We will hopefully one day work ourselves out of a job, when those numbers of cases become less and less.
ST: How long do the girls typically stay in your care and what are they doing at The Ranch?
CP: We do not follow a set formula. Every girl that comes in has a dedicated advocate. Their therapist helps determine how long each girl needs to be there and what her needs are when she's there. Some girls come and stay a few months, and some will be there for years. We don’t put a cap on how long they can stay.
All of the girls are taking classes at the University of Texas-University Charter School (UT-UCS) and working towards their high school diplomas. On average, the girls have improved 1.5 grade levels since they arrived at the ranch. Three have graduated from the UT Charter School and are now enrolled in college and taking online courses. Some are creating their own businesses and learning how to be entrepreneurs. They’re learning how to think through a project from beginning to end, and how to learn what their gifts are and how to use them. It’s really empowering.
We might have a girl who has lost her identity, who through The Refuge is getting to find out what she loves, what she can do, what gifts God gave her. We can then help these girls figure out from a business standpoint how to take that from here to there. It’s a celebration for these girls to say, “I’ve created something. I can do something.”
ST: Tell us about the house moms.
CP: I really would like to rename them house saints. They are doing so much more than mothering – as amazing as that is and so needed for these girls. They are devoted to these girls, showing them structure, friendship, and what it is like to be a part of a healthy family. They are modeling for them kindness, generosity, self-control, that they may not have experienced before. These girls are going to grow up, get married, and likely have children one day, and now they have a beautiful example of what their role should look like in those seasons of life.
ST: How can people get involved?
CP: The beautiful thing about getting involved with The Refuge is that there are many layers of need. All of this happened because of God – this is his project, his redemption. We are always in need of prayer! Another level of need would be “The List.” This is posted on our website and regularly updated with tangible items we are in need of at The Ranch. Another great way to support us is through clothing donations – new clothes with tags still on them. We put them in our boutique, where girls can come in and choose their own clothing.
We also have a variety of volunteers who offer up their individual gifts. We have a wonderful local chef that has donated kitchen supplies and teaches cooking classes. We also have ladies who come in and stock our library. Whatever your passion is, think of a way that you could use that as an offering to these girls.
Lastly, if you’re able and willing to be a part of financially giving to The Refuge so that we can keep the lights on, get books and materials we need, etc., not a dime is wasted. We are grateful for everything.
ST: What has God taught you through being involved in this ministry?
CP: He’s shown me that love is a community effort – family doesn’t just take place under one roof. I don’t have children of my own, but the Lord has shown me how I can mother and care for and defend the family of God, including these children. When we get involved with an organization like The Refuge, we have the opportunity to restore and point these girls toward redemption in Him. It’s a community thing and is a calling from Christ Himself to care for those in need. He was our perfect example, and now He has equipped us to go and do the same.