In a year defined by the coronavirus, a Bastrop County residential treatment facility for child sex trafficking survivors has adapted both its daily operations and the way it reaches potential donors and informs the public of its mission.
Steven Phenix, the director of communications for Refuge Ranch, said even in non-coronavirus times it’s a challenge to properly tell the story of survivors housed at the ranch and the factors allowing sex trafficking to continue.
“We want to tell these hard stories without being further exploitative. We have children who are hurting and in need and looking for help,” Phenix said. “We don’t want to further traumatize them while they’re trying to get help.”
The Refuge Ranch, run by The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST), opened in August 2018 and is a 48-bed, 23-building facility located on 50 acres in Bastrop County.
For security reasons, the exact location of Refuge Ranch can’t be disclosed.
It’s the largest long-term, live-in rehabilitation community for child survivors of sex trafficking in the country, and is designed to house girls aged 11 to 19.
These girls have experienced high levels of trauma from being forced into the sex trade for long periods and through coercion, manipulation or fraud.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Refuge Ranch had to cancel two upcoming fundraisers though the center needs to raise money to continue operations.
In the resulting shift of its fundraising efforts, and to provide the public with a never-before-seen look at Refuge Ranch, the treatment center created a 30-minute online tour of the facility, titled “Circle of Hope.”
The online tour provides outsiders with a look at life inside Refuge Ranch, a place normally reserved only for residents, staff members and advocates directly involved in survivors’ care.
“Circle of Hope” was first broadcast Sept. 23 and rebroadcast Oct. 15.
The video follows a representative child sex trafficking survivor named Kiara as she goes through the rehabilitative journey at Refuge Ranch, from her first day to her transition back to the outside world.
No actual residents are shown in the video. All women shown during the tour are either actors or adult volunteers.
The online tour of the $7 million facility, which was built and funded by donations from more than 3,300 sources, is guided by Brooke Crowder, the founder and CEO of The Refuge for DMST.
“You’re not bringing large tour groups through just to show the donors what they helped make. That was another reason for that video,” Phenix said. “It was a way to tell the story kind of end to end, in a cinematic fashion so people could truly absorb it.”
Creating the video, which was directed by Emmy Award-winner Debra Davis, during a global pandemic presented its own set of challenges.
In addition to completing background checks on those who entered Refuge Ranch to help make the video, tests for COVID-19 were also required.
Phenix and other Refuge Ranch staff members also worked on the video crew during production.
“We were production assistants and set dressers and prop people and all the stuff,” Phenix said. “Then a lot of shooting around the girls’ natural schedules — when they’d be in school, things like that — just to kind of eliminate that stress. We went to extreme measures to avoid adding stress to their daily lives.”
People interested in viewing an online tour of the facility were able to purchase tickets for each showing of “Circle of Hope.”
For the September viewing, the J Campbell Murrell Fund matched all donations made in support of “Circle of Hope” up to $150,000, and for last week’s viewing The Refuge for DMST board of directors matched all donations up to $50,000.
Phenix said donations exceeded the $150,000 donation match for the September viewing. It’s not yet known if it met or exceeded the $50,000 donation match from last week.
“‘Circle of Hope’ is the hope,” Phenix said about current fundraising efforts during the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s showing what our mission is to people who have never been able to access it before. They always described trafficking before this as a pandemic, but it only affected a vulnerable and niched population. Now we are in a pandemic that affects everyone.”
Changes due to COVID-19
A change in its fundraising strategy wasn’t the only change Refuge Ranch made because of COVID-19.
Now with 70 employees — including administrators, counselors, house parents and therapists — Refuge Ranch changed its interaction procedures to adapt to the coronavirus pandemic.
“At the residential treatment facility, any flu that came through, everybody got it. So, with COVID, we completely changed all our interaction procedures and all that,” Phenix said. “To date we’ve all remained healthy. Volunteers are not coming in and out anymore. It’s just core staff.”
Phenix said the intake cottage at Refuge Ranch became “like a quarantine cottage” where new residents would stay for 14 days upon arrival.
The new residents, who arrive at Refuge Ranch from foster homes and juvenile justice centers across the state, are exposed to only one house mom located in the intake cottage compared to the larger ranch population.
Standard Centers for Disease Control protocols for COVID-19 are also being followed at the facility, such as mandatory mask wearing, a ban on hugging or kissing, temperatures checks and frequent handwashing and cleaning of surfaces.
“Each cottage is kind of its own bio environment as well,” Phenix said. “Thanks to Zoom and things like that we’re able to have community-wide events with different cottages.”
One of these community-wide events is a series of Zoom chats between the girls and successful women from different backgrounds, which recently included three members of the country music band The Chicks.
Online technology has also allowed the girls to complete courses through an onsite University of Texas charter school, which lets the girls earn high school diplomas while at Refuge Ranch.
Sex trafficking during COVID-19
Advertisements for sex trafficking in the Austin area dipped from March to April following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, before rising significantly in May, according to data from Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) Texas.
The number of sex trafficking advertisements in Austin, one of six key areas of focus for CEASE Texas, was higher in May than it was in each of the first four months of 2020.
Phenix said the amount of total unique advertisements for sex trafficking in May in Austin, which numbered more than 10,000, came as a result of traffickers changing wording in their advertisements to appear COVID-safe.
Research by CEASE Texas found that “men will still continue their sex purchasing behaviors despite the danger of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Phenix also cited statistics from the World Health Organization that correlate an increase in human trafficking with major events like droughts, famines, plagues and wars.
“If you put any stress on a population like that, a plague or a famine, desperate times lead to desperate measures and trafficking does go up,” Phenix said.