San Diego Non-Profit Helping Sex-Trafficking Victims Wins Fight for New Home

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Sex trafficking is the fastest-growing illegal enterprise in California. The San Diego County District Attorney‘s office reports that in San Diego County alone there are an estimated 12,000 sex trafficking victims and survivors, with the average age of only 15.

Children of the Immaculate Heart, a local ministry which operates housing and rehabilitation services in one San Diego County home for victims of sex trafficking, applied for a license to operate a second home, and was met with pushback from California Department of Social Services over licensing issues. The state was concerned with the ministry’s “Christian Mission,” which amounted to religious discrimination.

The Globe spoke with Thomas More Society Special Counsel Paul Jonna, partner at LiMandri & Jonna, about the eventual successful outcome. He said when Children of the Immaculate Heart applied for an operating license, they were told, “you’re going to have a problem with that religious thing.” But as Jonna pointed out, “they care for everybody. There is no religious requirement.”

Children of the Immaculate Heart was told that if they planned to open a second home, known as “the Refuge,” for sex trafficking victims, then it must also support programs and activities that violate its religious beliefs about sexual orientation, contraception, and abortion. “As a consequence of this Mandate, the government is imposing a penalty on CIH’s religious exercise that must withstand the strictest scrutiny,” the lawsuit said.

“Children of the Immaculate Heart has never been accused of discrimination, and for good reason—it does not and would not. The Refuge’s caretakers would love and nurture every foster girl regardless of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or reproductive choices,” the lawsuit said. But the government ignores all that, because it has adjudged that CIH’s Catholic identity and Christ-centered mission are ‘offensive’ and thus anathema to its political orthodoxy.”

The social service ministry was originally denied the license by the California Department of Social Services over the group’s Christian mission, prompting the attorneys to file a civil rights lawsuit in State Court. The case asserted Constitutional violations in connection with Children of the Immaculate Heart’s pending license application.

“Because of its success working with adult women, CIH aspires to open the Refuge, a therapeutic group home for commercially sexually exploited minor girls,” the lawsuit says. “But after four years of government stonewalling and nearly $600,000 in sunk costs, the Refuge sits empty. That is because state bureaucrats have resolved to advance an anti-Catholic agenda rather than rescue young girls enslaved in sex trafficking.”

“The California Department of Social Services (the “Department”), which regulates California’s foster system, refuses to license the Refuge because of Children of the Immaculate Heart’s sincere religious beliefs about human sexuality. Since submitting its licensing application in June 2018, CIH has repeatedly asked the Department to either license the Refuge or explain definitively why it will not. The Department has done neither. To be sure, the Refuge meets and exceeds all applicable licensing regulations. Yet the government refuses to take any action. In fact, licensing officials had a statutory duty to make a determination on the Refuge’s application over one year ago.”

Timeline of the Refuge’s Application Process. (Photo: from San Diego Superior Court lawsuit)

Jonna said the good news is they were able to work out the licensing issue in mediation, and Children of the Immaculate Heart was able to get a provisional license. By that time, they almost lost the home as the owners put it up for sale. But “the non-profit managed to quickly raise enough in donations to cover the down payment to purchase it themselves: securing a long-term future for ‘The Refuge’ to help these teens who have endured so much already,” CBS8 in San Diego reported.

Jonna said in San Diego County alone, commercial sex trafficking is estimated to be an $810 million annual industry for gangsters and pimps.

The Thomas More Society explained:

Once Children of the Immaculate Heart obtained a provisional license, the organization could begin providing therapeutic services and support for trafficked youth referred by the San Diego County Department of Probation and Child Welfare Services. The Refuge offers a six-month intensive program for sex-trafficked youth who need intensive trauma-informed care. Services include targeted mental health treatment, family relationship building, developing life skills such as self-care and job readiness, and academic success counseling. The January 2021 finalization of the purchase of a four-bedroom home in North County now gives The Refuge assurance that its doors will stay open long-term.

“Social service began in the ministry of the Church,” Jonna said. “Children of the Immaculate Heart has a wonderful track record of success working with adult women, but the average age of entry into sex trafficking is 15. And there are an estimated 10,000 plus victims in San Diego annually. We trust that the State of California will welcome Children of the Immaculate Heart’s expansion.”

Children of the Immaculate Heart offer a housing and rehabilitation program for adult women and their children, as well as a newly licensed short term residential treatment facility for minors.

Petition for Writ of Mandate & Complaint-Amend – 12-30-19

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