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November 3, 2017

They were enslaved by men who once promised to love them forever.

“My trafficker,” they called the men.

The Jacksonville women, ages 23 and 26, were locked in hotel rooms waiting for their next abuser to arrive. They were told they would be killed if they ever talked. “I was scared and felt like no one really cared about me,” said the younger woman. “Violence and sexual abuse was normal to me.”

They were trapped in the world of human trafficking, which the National Human Trafficking Resource Center calls a “form of modern-day slavery” in which force, fraud or coercion is used to make victims engage in commercial sex acts or labor services against their will.

“He promised … to love me and always take care of me, and I fell for it because I thought all my dreams were going to come true,” said the 26-year-old victim. “Being a victim like that is terrifying, you are desperate and bewildered. You are hopeless.”

The Times-Union is not identifying the women for security reasons and to not compromise the court cases against their traffickers. But they are now safe in the care of Her Song, a Jacksonville nonprofit that serves human trafficking victims and provides community awareness and education.

Wednesday, Her Song opened Freedom Cottage, billed as the first safe house in Northeast Florida for women leaving human trafficking. The two women were among its first four residents.


“There was something inside of me that wanted a better life,” said the younger woman. “Her Song was willing to walk with me until I could find that life that I dreamed about. I felt safe with them and they believed in me, and when they offered me a place in the home it gave me something to hold on to, something to keep me going.”

Her older housemate agreed.

“I am scared to start this new part of my life, but this home says to girls like me that someone loves us,” she said. “I can’t believe that this beautiful place is my home. I hope I can make it. I feel listened to and safe here. “

Rachel White founded Her Song in 2013. At the time, she was busy with her private mental health practice and raising four children when she heard a report on the radio about human trafficking. Horrified, she began volunteering as a counselor for local trafficking victims. She quickly learned that local services for them were inadequate and sanctuaries nonexistent.

“I was appalled that this was right in our backyard,” she said. “I saw the devastation of human life. Human trafficking is pure evil, and the degradation of the body, mind and soul is egregious and shocking to witness.

“I asked the question, ‘Where do these women go for help?’ and no answer came,” she said.

White and her board built “strategic alliances in our city to work together to create a pathway out for women.” She now runs the nonprofit full time, with a mission to support victims “all the way from the point of rescue to recovery to reintegration,” she said. Her Song gets referrals from law enforcement and hospitals, and sometimes family members or victims themselves reach out.

At a March conference on human trafficking, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office reported that in 2016 police rescued 44 victims out of human trafficking, 10 of whom were juveniles. There were 29 trafficking-related arrests and 14 federal indictments for trafficking.

Sheriff Mike Williams said at the conference that he could not pinpoint the level of trafficking in Jacksonville. Police long made street-level prostitution arrests without considering the broader picture, he said.

“But we continue to dig, we continue to look, to learn more,” he said then. “I think we have a system here that’s going to allow us to do one of the better jobs in the country in terms of identification, prosecution of these cases and really helping these victims.”

Freedom Cottage is the first of what White hopes will be multiple Northeast Florida safe houses. Four women at a time will live in the home, with on-site coaches who provide special “trauma-informed care” not available in traditional temporary housing.


Lawanda Ravoira is president & CEO of the Delores Barr Weaver Policy Center in Jacksonville, which works to improve the lives of girls and is active in anti-trafficking efforts. She said there is a “critical need” for safe homes and drop-in homes for adult survivors and children and for trauma experts and survivor mentors to jointly work with victims.

“To ensure that safe homes are successful … everyone involved in the safe-house community must deeply understand the impact of trauma and the physical, psychological and emotional journey of healing,” she said. “Staff and volunteers who are part of the safe homes community must … be willing to walk alongside the survivor through each stage of healing — recognizing that this journey will be different for each survivor.”

Her Song board member Gary Lee Webber is pastor of Southside Baptist Church, which has partnered with numerous organizations to help address human trafficking. He has supported Her Song since its inception.

“While seeing Freedom Cottage completed is a huge blessing and encouragement, it is also a bit overwhelming to realize that these are the first and only beds in our city dedicated specifically to addressing this issue. The need is so great and this is important, but only one tiny first step,” he said.

“There appears to be a persistent inability to recognize the problem in our own community. Part of the problem is our unwillingness to admit that a growing demand is driving the supply,” Webber said. “To admit the size and scope … is to admit that men we may know, respect and love are the source of the demand and therefore the heart of the problem.”

Her Song volunteer Chantelle Kammerdiener, a freelance writer, is helping spread the word.

“As a community, we’ve chosen to look away,” she said. “My purpose … is to educate the public that human trafficking is real.

“The sex trade is fueled by demand,” she said. “Every time a man visits a pornographic website, goes to a strip club or buys a ‘dirty magazine,’ he is a consumer and part of the problem. It’s that simple. Yes, men can be victims and women can be predators, but those cases are the exception rather than the rule.”

Complicating the work further are public misperceptions about human trafficking: that it is an international problem, not a local one, or that is only impacts migrants, or is the same thing as human smuggling, White said.

“If the public could understand that young girls in our community are … being intentionally groomed into products to be sold in a retail market, I think we would have public outcry,” she said.

She wants to end the demand for human trafficking by arresting “buyers,” fining them and using the proceeds to help victims. She also wants to end such buyers’ “thinking they have a right to purchase a person and do whatever they want because they paid money for an hour. We have to change things,” White said. Residents of the cottage can now see positive futures.

Her Song is not only teaching them how to build positive relationships, but how to live normal lives. They are learning about budgeting, saving money, going back to school, getting jobs, buying cars and having families.

“I know now that I have power to choose the life I want to live,” the 23-year-old said.

Her older housemate said she is considering becoming a counselor like White “so I can help other girls get out of this life.”

“I want to work a normal job,” she said, “and just be happy.”

By Beth Reese Cravey for the Florida Times Union

Jacksonville nonprofit opens first local safe house for human trafficking victims: News
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