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Non-profit to launch Houston center for child survivors of sex trafficking

A Houston non-profit that operates a drop-in center for sex trafficking victims plans to open a new facility designed to help child survivors.

The first-of-its-type resource will fill a growing need in the region, a hot spot for sex trafficking, said Natasha Paradeshi, co-founder and board chair of The Landing, a faith-based nonprofit that has offered aid to trafficking victims in Houston since 2016. It currently serves adults and minors in the same facility.

The Landing raised more than $127,000 at its annual fundraiser Friday to support the new project focused on youth, according to the organization.

The services the existing drop-in daytime center provides — counseling, transportation, food, safety plans and connections to other resources — are critical for victims, said Paradeshi. It often takes several attempts to leave abusive traffickers who use psychological and physical tactics to threaten and manipulate their victims.

A place where survivors know they are welcome to come for help at any time without judgment is often a lifeline, said Paradeshi.

“The national average it takes for a victim to leave their trafficker is seven times,” Rebekah Charleston, a 38-year-old Dallas native who was first trafficked at 17, told a crowd of 600 at Texas Safari Ranch in Sugar Land. “I am here today because there was a community of people who wrapped their arms around me. I’m here because of their unconditional love and acceptance. The Landing does that.”

National resources

National Human Trafficking Hotline: Call 888-373-7888 or email at help@humantraffickinghotline.org to report human trafficking, get information about support services and learn about the warning signs of exploitation. Callers may remain anonymous.

National Center for Missing Exploited Children: The center has an online CyberTipline and a hotline at 800-THE-LOST (1-800-843-5678) to handle reports of child exploitation, suspected abuse, online enticement of children, child pornography or child sex trafficking.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 800-799-7233 for local resources such as emergency shelters, legal advocacy and assistance and social service programs.

The Landing, 9894 Bissonnet St., #605: The faith-based drop-in center within the Bissonnet Track provides clothing, food, toiletries, counseling and case management. It is open Monday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and can be reached at 713-766-1111.

Houston Area Women‘s Center, 1010 Waugh Drive: The center provides free advocacy, counseling, education, career support, help finding child care and case management, and has a food pantry and limited clothing available on site. The center serves men, women and children.

Domestic Violence Hotline: Call 713 528-2121 for help with emergency or transitional and 24-hour hospital accompaniment.

Sexual Assault Hotline: Call 713-528-RAPE (7273) for 24-hour hospital accompaniment for survivors of sexual assault.

Redeemed Ministries: The faith-based organization operates an eight-bed safe house and counseling program for sex trafficking victims in the Houston area. Referrals may be made online or via voice mail at 832-447-4130.

Harris County Pct. 1 Constable’s Office: Call the human trafficking hotline at 832-927-1650 and leave a message for Kathryn Griffin or call the office’s main line at 713-755-5200. Griffin accepts court-ordered participants as well as voluntary ones in her weekly support group. She has connections for shelter, education programs and more.

An estimated 313,000 people in Texas are victims of trafficking, according to a 2017 University of Texas study. Of those victims, 79,000 are minors.

About 25 percent of U.S. trafficking victims are in Texas, a study by the Akron Law Review said.

The Landing served more than 232 survivors so far in 2019, according to the nonprofit, and helped 53 become free from trafficking.

On HoustonChronicle.com: https://www.houstonchronicle.com/local/investigations/thetrack/

A survivor’s story

Charleston, now executive director of Valiant Hearts, a ministry that advocates against sexual exploitation, said the events that led to her being trafficked and abused for more than a decade could happen to any one of their daughters. Raised in a strict home, she said her parents had no idea about the trauma she experienced that made her vulnerable to traffickers.

“I was sexually assaulted as a child,” she said. “I remember feeling so lonely and that men were showing me that all I was worth was my body.”

After she was raped at 14, Charleston said she cut school, used drugs and got arrested multiple times. She ran away at 17 to live with a man she thought loved her.

“This guy took me to his house and at first it was great,” she said. “He told me about all of his dreams. That sounded great to me. But I didn’t realize what his dreams would cost me until the second night.”

Charleston learned the second day the man would traffic her. She was introduced to two of his other victims who groomed her.

“I so desperately wanted to have a family,” she said. “That’s what I was out there searching for.”

Charleston did what her abuser directed her to do.

“It was like my entire world flipped upside down on top of me,” Charleston said. “I remember thinking if I run from them, I will probably get raped and murdered and no one will know what happened to me.”

The trafficker told Charleston no one would love her again because of what she had become. She feared her family and society as a whole would never again accept her.

The woman was able to leave her first trafficker, but said she was tricked by another man who also ended up selling her body. He trafficked her all over the country for more than 10 years, she said.

Charleston eventually went to federal prison for tax evasion when a neighbor reported they saw something suspicious at the home where she was trafficked. Even in prison, she said she still feared her trafficker and would not tell police what he had done to her.

She only realized she was a victim when someone asked her what would have happened if she refused to work for her abuser.

“I started laughing because I could never say I didn’t want to work,” Charleston said. “I worked 20 hours a day everyday. Every birthday. Every holiday. I remember working on 9/11. I realized then that I had no choices.”

When Charleston got pregnant at 30, she said everything changed.

“Trauma victims don’t have enough compassion for ourselves, but we do for others,” she said. “For me, God knew what it would take. I needed something bigger than myself to live for.”

Ending the stigma

Charleston’s story changed 23-year-old Angelina Shroprie’s view of trafficking, the Katy resident said after the speech.

“Movies and media portray prostitutes as like that’s their choice,” she said. “How (Charleston) said she got into and how they treated her — my perspective flipped 180.”

Irene Lawder, who has been volunteering at The Landing for over a year, said she hopes Charleston’s story will help end the stigma of trafficking.

“For so many years, people just turned a blind eye to it,” she said.

The Sugar Land resident said she’s learned a lot from the survivors she spends time with.

“I’ve learned to not judge,” she said. “I didn’t think I judged before, but there was a part of me that did. I think we do it without thinking.”

When Charleston moved back home at 30, she said her family asked her to go to church with them. She said she was humbled by the support she received from that community.

“People decided to withhold judgment and do something for me without wanting anything in return,” said Charleston.

The kindness the survivor received didn’t just change her life, she said.

“They changed my community,” she said. “They changed generations by helping one person.”