Human trafficking rehab group Selah Freedom opening new long-term residence in Manatee

kirby@bradenton.comJuly 6, 2014 

MANATEE -- Suicide attempts aren't commonly known for opening doors -- for good reason -- but Selah Freedom's "Selah Baby" might describe hers that way.

The Selah Baby, who can't be identified by name for safety reasons, was the first human trafficking survivor taken in by Selah Freedom, a nonprofit organization that is working to bring awareness to the issue of human trafficking and to rehabilitate victims.

Elizabeth Fisher, the CEO, president and co-founder of Selah Freedom, said the girl's situation was textbook for human trafficking victims. She was sexually abused by her stepfather when she was 7 and was bounced from home to home. Even in foster care when she was sent to a private, Christian school, she was still abused.

"It's almost like these girls attract abuse," Fisher said. "Like until the cycle is broken, these situations keep happening to them."

The Selah Baby was the first victim taken in last year to the Selah Freedom house in Sarasota, a rental that opened in November and now houses four girls, its maximum

occupancy.

But Selah is opening an expansive five-acre property this month in East Manatee that can house up to 16 girls so they can treat even more survivors. And the need is significant.

"I could fill up 50 beds tomorrow like that," Fisher said, snapping her fingers.

Fisher said people don't realize how prevalent the issue is locally. Three of the four girls they are caring for are from the Bradenton-Sarasota area, and Florida is one of the top three states for human trafficking. Between 100,000 to 300,000 American children are sold into sex slavery every year, according to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center.

"People hear human trafficking and think it's somewhere else, in another country," Fisher said. "But it's happening right here, and these are our kids."

Raped at 14

The first Selah Baby became pregnant when she was raped at age 14 and gave the baby up for adoption. Despite the abuse, she still pushed through and received her high school diploma and wanted to go to college. But due to her past, she was limited on places she could go, and she didn't want to continue with foster home situations.

"She had a girlfriend who told her, 'I met these guys, they have an awesome house, come live with us,' " Fisher said. "She asked her friend if they would help her pay for college, and her friend told her they'd help her with whatever she wanted."

As in most human trafficking situations, the men at the house were nice at first and let the girls do what they wanted, which is called "the grooming stage."

Then the men started telling the girls they had to work at their friend's strip club to help pay the bills, and later said they needed more money and the girls needed to start sleeping with clients.

The Selah Baby eventually tried to commit suicide and was hospitalized under the Florida Baker Act, meaning she was detained for 28 days for mental health evaluation and treatment. But at the end of the 28 days last October, she didn't know where she was going to go, or if she'd have to return to the house.

On her last day in the hospital, a social worker came in and told her about Selah Freedom, which was opening a long-term residence for human trafficking victims in Sarasota.

"Now she's doing amazing," Fisher said. "She was offered two college scholarships, and she's going to Gulf Coast Community College. She's starting in August and already chose her classes."

That's what Selah Freedom wants to do for all the human trafficking victims they can, Fisher said. They want to give the survivors a place to go, feel safe and realize their potential as human beings.

Tough training

Dave Bristow, spokesman for the Manatee County Sheriff's Office, said deputies undergo training on human trafficking so they know what to look for, but they don't see a lot of it in the area.

It's not easy to treat the survivors' needs. In addition to the need for extensive one-on-one, trauma and group counseling for the victims, many of them need basic education and life skills. The Selah Baby is currently their only survivor with a high school diploma, and though Fisher said the girls are sharp, some of them are only at a third-grade reading level.

One skill that coaches teach the victims is dating and how to relate to the opposite sex in a non-sexual way.

"One of the big things they do is a dating group and dating class to introduce these girls to dating, because they don't know what to do besides sex," Fisher said.

Selah addresses needs that the average person wouldn't even think of -- from removing branding tattoos, to learn how to communicate with other women in a non-competitive way, since they've been so conditioned to compete with other women for male attention.

"So it's taking somebody, first of all trying to get them back to a blank slate, and then building health," Fisher said. "It's a whole deal of unprogramming and reprogramming."

Selah Freedom was founded by Fisher and Laurie Swink, who works as the residential care coordinator for day-to-day activities in the home. Swink said she realized the need for the long-term housing when she saw a video of a survivor telling her story, who said she couldn't go back to where she came from, so she wasn't sure where she could go.

"I remember literally, not figuratively, literally feeling a piercing in my heart. Like, oh God, where do they go?" Swink said. "In my mind, getting out was the end, but that's only the beginning."

Focus on young women

Selah Freedom is currently funded exclusively through private donations. The Pentecost Foundation in Bradenton recently pledged a matching grant of $250,000 to the nonprofit.

Selah opened an assessment home in Tampa in 2011, which they still use. Victims who want to apply to live in the long-term residence stay in the assessment for two to four weeks, where Fisher says the focus is to rest. Most girls come to the assessment home seven or eight times before they really decide to get help, Fisher said.

"Women coming out of domestic violence relationships and they think, 'Oh but he loved me, he didn't mean to hit me, and yeah I know he raped me and made me sleep with 25 men but he loves me,' " Fisher explained. "So what we know about that, no matter who the client is, it's seven to eight times of intervention before a woman will actually stay and receive help."

The long-term residence in Sarasota opened in November 2013, and the Manatee residence will open in mid-July. Fisher said the plan is to have girls stay at the group residence for a year before transitioning them into independent housing.

"It will be like the kid who's a senior in high school, maybe the first year of college if they stay home," Fisher said. "They're still under our covering but they have the freedom, they're working, they're going to school, but they need a safe place to come home to. So they get three years with us if they choose it."

Selah Freedom specifically takes victims between the ages of 18 and 28. Fisher said there are many homes in Tampa for minors, so they wanted to address the young women demographic that is often forgotten.

"It's watching them come alive again," Fisher said, "and figure out who they are."

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