The plight of women and children trapped in prostitution was not on Jeanne Allert’s radar until, about 13 years ago, when a group of people from a nearby church invited her to their street outreach in downtown Baltimore, Maryland. The experience of meeting women who were being sexually exploited and were in need of shelter care had a dramatic impact on Allert.
“It just struck me so profoundly,” she says. “It didn’t make sense that this would happen in America.”
One of the people Allert met was Heather. Heather had not come from a stereotypically rough background. She had grown up in a small town, the daughter of a single mother. Her mom’s boyfriend took a lot of interest in Heather, and he continued keeping in touch with her after he broke up with her mom. Eventually, he convinced Heather to run away with him. She was 14 years old.
After Heather agreed to go with her mom’s ex-boyfriend, he trafficked her up and down the I-95 corridor for four years, during which time she became addicted to drugs. He left her on the streets of Baltimore once she was no longer of use to him. “That was around the time that I met her,” says Allert, “and that wrecked me.”
So in 2007, Allert left her lucrative D.C. consulting company and used her savings to buy an abandoned 23-acre estate in Baltimore where she established The Samaritan Women (TSW), an organization that provides holistic, restorative care to women who have been trapped in domestic sex trafficking. Over the next decade, TSW would serve over 100 young women referred from across the country. Allert and her team developed their unique Care Model and began mentoring other agencies in this form of ministry.
The ‘tremendous gap’ in Shelter Care
“For the last 12 to 13 years,” says Allert, “we have been providing direct service to survivors of domestic sex trafficking who are referred to us from all over the country. About 22 different states have sent us young women.”
What TSW does is commonly called “shelter care.” “Restorative care” is a term Allert’s organization coined for their particular model, one they are now teaching to others around the U.S. When TSW first started, people in the States were barely aware that domestic sex trafficking was occurring, much less how widespread the problem is. Even though there is greater awareness now, it is still difficult to find exact numbers of how many people are being exploited.
The University of Texas at Austin did a study in 2017 that reported 79,000 child victims in Texas alone. The same study found there has been “an estimated 846 percent increase in reports of child sex trafficking in the U.S. from 2010 to 2015, making it the fastest growing crime in the world.”
The University of Louisville in Kentucky released a study in 2019 that reviewed 698 cases of child sex trafficking in the state of Kentucky, and those were only cases that had been documented. Furthermore, the city of Atlanta is “one of the biggest hubs of sex trafficking nationwide.” One study found that 7,200 children are exploited every month just in that city.
So what does care look like for those who are being trafficked? As of March 2020, TSW has identified 136 shelters across the U.S. that serve those who have been sexually exploited. Sixteen states in the country have no shelter program at all, and 12 have only one. The shelters that do exist account for fewer than 1,100 beds. “So you look at those few studies that are starting to bubble up,” says Allert, “and the sheer number of victims, and those are just child victims, not even accounting for adults, and you can see there is a tremendous gap in shelter care.”