Alex can’t pinpoint an exact moment or event that freed her from her past as a victim of America’s multibillion-dollar sex trafficking trade.
Maybe it was the weeks of separation from the shadowy, malevolent world she and other victims call “the Life.” Maybe it was the months she spent venting and raging to a mentor for four hours a day. Or the instant she realized it was OK to cry, and that she wanted to, and did mostly that for two straight months.
“After that, I felt forgiven, and kind of clean, like there was some possibility of a future happening,” says Alex, a 23-year-old from a small Southern town who was lured into the sex trade nearly a decade ago and didn’t escape from it for six years. She is now a community college junior with a 4.0 GPA and the manager of a small Baltimore bakery.
Few are lucky enough to achieve release from long-term bondage. For Alex, it happened within the structure provided by a Baltimore nonprofit called The Samaritan Women. Named for a New Testament story about a scorned woman who finds acceptance at a well, it has provided restorative care for victims of trafficking for 12 years.
Its multipart residential program, the first of its kind in Maryland and still one of the few in the United States, cuts trafficked women off from the Life, offers more than two years in a stable environment and presents a range of educational opportunities to build independence.
Founded and driven by a former Baltimore businesswoman, Jeanne Allert, the faith-based facility has hosted nearly 100 women rescued from 22 states, including Maryland, and is now working to export its model across the country.
“If anybody else is doing everything [The Samaritan Women] is doing, I certainly haven’t heard of them,” says Kay Duffield, executive director of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Initiative, a coalition in Reston, Va. “They’re so innovative, and they have more than a decade of proving that their approach works.”
From the ground up
Drive west from downtown on Edmondson Avenue, pass the cemeteries, rowhouses and fast-food joints, and make a left up a steep side street. You’ll arrive on a rolling hilltop you might not expect to find within the city limits — the home of The Samaritan Women.
Volunteers cross the grounds en route to meetings or classes they will teach. One or two residents — there’s a maximum of 14, all women — might be using the tree swings, a feature Allert added for those who were trafficked so young they missed out on that simple childhood pleasure.
“Play is a stage of growth, and we want our ladies to have every opportunity to experience what they need to experience to discover who they are,” Allert says.
It’s a formidable task, battling the effects of a fast-growing form of organized crime. The Polaris Project, an anti-trafficking nonprofit, estimates that the trade earns traffickers more than $32 billion a year, thanks to explosive growth from the internet, which allows them to find, groom and sell sex slaves at exponentially greater rates than they could a decade ago.
“The depth of cruelty [the trafficked] go through — the rapes, the violence, the constant threat of violence — this is a kind of traumatization that isn't going to be repaired in a month or a year,” says Deanne Wallace, a victims’ advocate specialist for Homeland Security Investigations, a division of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. “You pretty much have to start from the ground up.”
Allert happened on her calling 13 years ago.
Growing up in a middle-class Midwestern family, she directed her talents for math and technology toward school and career success. After moving to the Washington area, she started a consulting and technology-solutions firm, then co-founded a Baltimore distance-learning company.
By her mid-40s, though, she was wrestling with a sense that her accomplishments lacked meaning.
“I lived in a beautiful house in Ellicott City, I’d traveled around the world, and I was making money, but I couldn’t shake this feeling of spiritual emptiness,” she says. She decided, more or less on a whim, to take part in a church ministry to the homeless.
While volunteering one day in 2006, something drew her toward a young woman lurking in the shadows of a desolate block in Southwest Baltimore. The emaciated teen explained she was lured into the Life at 13, trafficked up and down the East Coast, then dumped in the streets once illness killed her earning power.
The more Allert learned about this other world, the angrier she got. She also noticed that listening to her new friend intently, and with empathy, calmed the woman and seemed to bring a bit of light into her eyes.
This, Allert recalls, felt more gratifying than closing a deal.
“I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life doing exactly this kind of ministry,” she says.
‘A positive legacy’
Not long after that, Allert was looking for a rowhouse she could buy for “some kind of halfway house” when she got lost. Making a U-turn on a side street, she found herself in front of a dilapidated mansion on a 23-acre property that looked more like Western Maryland than West Baltimore. She tracked down the owner, a retiree weighing a $1.1 million offer on the property. Once John Hilleary of West Virginia heard Allert’s pitch for “a place of healing for women,” he decided to sell her what would become The Samaritan Women campus for less than half that — and later tore up their handwritten agreement.
“Jeanne just had this way about her, and, I suppose, I saw this as a positive legacy for my family,” Hilleary says.
Allert’s business acumen and passion for the cause drew helpers by the dozen, first to pull weeds and paint, then to donate supplies, join a board of directors and offer expertise as contractors, counselors, ministers and teachers.
When money ran low, Allert sold her business, then her home, and finally threw in her life savings.
“You can fall off the cliff of sanity,” Allert says, laughing.
With support from foundations, churches and private donors, The Samaritan Women has a $1.5 million annual operating budget, a paid staff of 26, and works with more than 300 volunteers at least once a month.
The program has grown up in tandem with the site. At first, Allert designed it around a theory that survivors needed unconditional love. But her earliest residents too often fell to bickering, scoffed at the “touchy-feely” rules, or simply returned to the streets.
“We needed a more sustainable model, one that would work in the longer term,” Allert says.
That meant adding structure. She introduced a 90-day "freshman” phase in which new arrivals, sequestered in a secret location, learn to adhere to a strict schedule. During the 18- to 21-month “sophomore through senior” phases, residents take academic and self-help classes, interact with peers, unleash emotions in group meetings and read spiritual works, either the Bible or texts of their choice, every morning.
More recently, the team added a “graduate” level that allows up to six residents to move to an off-campus house, continue working at a bakery the facility runs, and stay connected to the community while building contacts on the outside.
Most earn a GED or enroll in online college courses, learn money management and do charity work, all the while encouraged by celebratory dinners and other rituals. For instance, residents moving to new stages in the process mark their transition with handprints in paint on the walls.
Wallace regularly refers survivors to The Samaritan Women, she says, for its balance of structure, opportunity, positivity, and time, a regimen she says reflects a grasp of the women’s needs.
It takes more than a village to transform someone from a victim into a survivor.— Deanne Wallace, victims’ advocate specialist for Homeland Security Investigations
“It takes more than a village to transform someone from a victim into a survivor,” she says. “It takes knowledge and a tremendous amount of care, and Jeanne’s program is one of the few that brings all that.”
Tears and growth
This is the program that Alex, whom The Baltimore Sun is identifying only by her first name for safety reasons, entered a little more than two years ago.
The daughter of strict, successful parents, she had rebelled as a teen by going “party girl,” dressing provocatively and spending inordinate amounts of time online. Messages began appearing from “Houston.” He told her she was cute; she felt affirmed. When they met in person, she says, she lacked the friends or attentive family to warn her away from the middle-aged man with the money and the fancy car.
A joyride out West stretched over days, then weeks. His affection turned to verbal abuse, then beatings. Again and again, he told her she was worth only one thing, and he showed her by selling her as many as 15 times a day.
“You’re fed a diet of lies in the Life,” Alex says. “As twisted as it sounds, the lies become your truth. I’m not exaggerating when I say I considered him the only authority over me. I worshiped him.”
One day, though, he beat her so badly she could not recognize her face in a mirror.
She fled for her hometown. And there she faced multiple charges over crimes in which her pimp had implicated her. After half a year in jail, her mother gave her a choice: go to this place she’d heard about in Maryland or be kicked out of the family.
When she arrived at The Samaritan Women in May 2017, Alex was resentful and angry.
“I thought, ‘Nobody’s going to f— — change me,’” she recalled with a devilish smile, sitting calmly in Allert’s office, her ash-blond hair framing her bespectacled face.
Allert’s first words to her were like a smack in the face.
“He doesn’t love you,” she said.
First, came a regimen of affirmation. Alex demanded to be listened to, and she was astonished when Allert sat with her four hours a day for three months. Alex told her story, chapter by chapter, and her mentor heard every word without flinching.
“You stayed, and you listened, and you didn’t judge,” Alex tells her. “That earned my trust.”
One day, after six months, Alex felt moisture on her cheeks, barged into Allert’s office and demanded to know what was happening.
“Those are tears,” Allert said. “You’re crying.”
For the next two months, Alex sobbed about almost everything, releasing what she later realized was the rage and shame of the past six years.
She began reading voraciously, particularly the Bible, soaked up information on investment, befriended peers. She interned at the bakery, studied criminal justice at a community college, and talked with ministers at The Samaritan Women, “the first men I’d met in a long time who didn’t lie to me.”
To Allert, the changes spoke of a person who’d crossed a critical threshold.
“Nothing happens unless a resident decides to change,” she says.
Alex went on to make the dean’s list and win a scholarship.
Now a full-time manager of the bakery and a member of The Samaritan Women’s graduate program, Alex says she has a sense of a life in the making, one she hopes might include a career in forensic psychology, marriage, children and involvement in a church.
The details don’t matter, she says, as much as knowing that no one controls her, and a future does await.
“I see my life as a white canvas now,” she says. “I’m the one who can paint on it whatever I want.”
Beyond the hill
Not every resident enjoys Alex’s degree of success. As many as 30% leave during their first 90 days, for example, often to return to the streets, and others do the same after trying the program for a while.
“Changing is hard,” Alex says. “When most women come here, they don’t even realize they’ve been trafficked. You have to sit in your own s— — to figure it out; nobody likes doing that.”
Even so, The Samaritan Women has emerged as a model of stability in an emerging field. The average long-term restorative care facility is less than 6 years old. Fewer than 20 have lasted a decade.
In a 2017 study, The Samaritan Women identified 140 shelters dedicated exclusively to long-term residential rehabilitation for sex trafficking victims in the U.S., though they averaged just six beds apiece. Seventeen states have no such shelter, and nine have only one. That leaves fewer than 900 available slots for hundreds of thousands of potential users.
“No matter how you add it up, we have a shelter crisis,” Allert says.
That’s why her center has taken on an expanded mission. Backed by one of its earliest supporters, Southeast Christian Church of Louisville, Ky., and other donors, The Samaritan Women has launched two initiatives aimed at sharing its model nationwide.
The Morning Sun
One, the National Trafficking Sheltered Alliance, has been working to develop a trade association in an effort to establish goals, standards and best practices. The alliance has built a rapid referral system by which victims are matched to appropriate facilities and moved there within four days.
The second, the Institute for Shelter Care, aims to promote research and launch new centers. It has opened four — in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and a second Maryland site in Cambridge — as part of a $2 million plan to establish 24 shelters across the U.S. by 2024.
The Samaritan Women plans to limit admissions to its treatment program for a time as it ramps up the broader efforts.
Allert says the field has come a long way. If nothing else, awareness of trafficking has gone mainstream, fueled by such developments as the #MeToo movement and the arrests of rapper R. Kelly and New York financier Jeffrey Epstein on trafficking charges.
Still, demand for commercial sex remains staggeringly high, and it rankles Allert that politicians in states such as New York and New Jersey continue to push for decriminalization of prostitution. In her view, anyone who works within the Life has been enslaved. The demand for restorative care remains high.
Allert says she plans to keep applying the formula that has helped The Samaritan Women grow.
“I’ve gotten comfortable with saying, ‘I don’t know how we’re going to make this happen, but I know it’s going to happen,' ” she says. “I’ve learned a lot about being faithful and just walking forward.”