SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Grace Williams’ five-year-long drive to open a home for victims of child sex trafficking is a good argument for the reality—and beauty—of Divine Providence.
Doing battle with a hostile California state bureaucracy with open disdain for the Catholic faith, Williams was undeterred. Years of government licensing delays cost her apostolate a colossal $800,000, but she kept the faith. When government regulators told her she needed to cut Jesus out of her group’s mission statement or there would be no license, she sued the state of California, with backing from the St. Thomas More Society and the Freedom of Conscience Defense Fund.
So when news finally came in September that Children of the Immaculate Heart—her rescue apostolate for girls victimized by sex traffickers—would get its first residents, Williams did the only thing she could think of.
Williams and her colleague, counselor Lyss de la Torre, cut a gleeful rug outside her office. It was a celebration long in the making. “We were dancing in the hallway after our first (resident) interview,” Williams said. “We were pretty happy.”
The show of joy is understandable. For much of the past five years, it seemed the doors might never open to the vulnerable residents the home was designed to serve. The state government agency tasked with helping teenage victims of sex trafficking made it all but impossible for Children of the Immaculate Heart (CIH) to obtain a license.
“Government hostility towards people of faith is unfortunately much more common in California than many other states,” said Paul M. Jonna, a partner with LiMandri & Jonna LLP, the law firm that represented CIH in the Superior Court of the State of California. “Still, the level of hostility here was particularly concerning – especially considering that the state was initially willing to leave sex-trafficked girls on the streets rather than with a Catholic organization.”
The November 2019 lawsuit led to court mediation. The dispute ended with the issuance of a provisional license for the girls home, known as The Refuge. The lawsuit accused the state of unconstitutional bias against Catholic beliefs, and targeting Children of the Immaculate Heart with repeated delays and increased scrutiny due to the Catholic teachings on abortion, contraception, and homosexual acts. The state denied wrongdoing, but quickly asked for mediation after the suit was filed.
“It’s a total testament to God’s providence,” Williams said. “Now that this is going and this is what we all signed up for and we’re like, ‘Yay, our real job is back,’ I look back and I can’t believe we really did all that. That was crazy.”
Jonna was equally thrilled. “We give glory to God that CIH got a license,” Jonna said. “We were blessed to fight for CIH and the rights of the minor children who desperately needed their services.”
The Refuge is a six-bed residential treatment center for girls aged 12-17 victimized by sex trafficking. The home is named for Our Lady of Charity of the Refuge, a French religious order founded in 1641 by St. John Eudes to care for abandoned women trying to escape lives of prostitution.
Minor victims are recruited or coerced by traffickers into committing commercial sex acts. Most have troubled backgrounds, with a history of being abused or suffering other trauma. It’s a dangerous and toxic life, often lived under the threat or use of violence, or controlled by manipulation, intimidation and the use of addictive drugs. The Refuge provides these girls a safe haven, along with education, treatment for addictions, counseling and life-skills training. Stays last up to six months. The goal is to help the girls heal and set them on a new path in life.
The first resident was welcomed at The Refuge on Sept. 10, followed the next day by a second girl. More are expected. The need is great, with as many as 8,000 adult and juvenile trafficking victims each year in San Diego County. There are only 12 treatment beds in the county — and 20 beds statewide — specifically designated for commercially sexually exploited children.
“It’s totally needed. The population is so under-served,” Williams said in an interview with Catholic World Report. “As soon as we got our license, I had several of my priest friends from across the country call me and say, ‘Hey, you should open your next one here,’ in Florida or Pennsylvania or wherever.”
‘A Problem With That Religious Thing’
Williams opened St. Bakhita’s Adult Program for victims of sex trafficking in 2013, but always intended to create a treatment center dedicated to children. She started the license process for Children of the Immaculate Heart in August 2015 by attending a Department of Social Services orientation session in San Diego. After seven months of fund-raising, CIH hired a full-time consultant to help it navigate the licensing process. In January 2017, a home for The Refuge was leased in San Diego County.
In September 2017, CIH submitted its operation plan to a multi-agency review panel. The review took nine months. The committee approved The Refuge’s treatment program and recommended the California Department of Social Services issue a license to Children of the Immaculate Heart. The department was required to notify CIH of its evaluation within 90 days, but by early October 2018, there was still no word.
A Licensing Division administrator called Williams and told her the state would do a walk-through inspection and then issue a license by end of the month, according to the CIH lawsuit. That never happened, and there was no response in October, November, December or January. In February 2019, the licensing official called CIH with eight pages of deficiencies in The Refuge’s program statement.
The state wanted assurances that CIH would ensure residents get transportation to off-site, homosexual-affirming activities and programs. It asked for a procedure for dispensing “gender reassignment” medications, and it wanted CIH to show how it affirms and supports LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) youth. Williams submitted a revised program statement for review in April 2019. Ninety days passed before the state came back with a written review containing even more deficiencies. This is where the bigotry began, the lawsuit states.
The Department of Social Services wrote that it was “offensive” for CIH to talk about its mission to “restore all things in Christ.” State officials also asked for further assurance on supporting LGBTQ youth. Williams said she couldn’t believe the agency viewed Jesus Christ as offensive. She suspected the scrutiny was really due to Catholic teachings. In a follow-up meeting in mid-July 2019, a state policy analyst said it “would be best if CIH removed all references to religion,” the CIH lawsuit said. The official “asked why Christ was even in the mission statement.”
The Refuge’s operation plan already stated the facility had no religious requirements, but government officials asked whether CIH “would force The Refuge’s staff or residents to go to church or pray.” Questions were asked about handing out contraceptives or driving the girls to Planned Parenthood to obtain abortions. Williams said residents wishing to attend LGBTQ programs could obtain transportation from family, friends, a probation officer or volunteers. She told the group CIH “would not condone, promote nor facilitate” contraception or abortions.
Williams asked the Sacramento analyst if CIH’s Catholic beliefs would be a “deal-breaker.” Her reply, according to the lawsuit: “You’re just going to have a problem with that religious thing.” According to attorney Jonna, this effectively created an “arbitrary mandate” that sought to force the Catholic apostolate to certify it supports and affirms homosexual acts, contraception and abortion. The state told CIH staff that California law required it to comply. More delays followed the July meeting, and by November 2019, CIH filed suit against the Department of Social Services.
“The mandate has no basis in any state law or regulation,” Jonna wrote in the legal filing. “Nor is it justified by any compelling interest. Thus, the mandate discriminates on the basis of religion and imposes a substantial burden on CIH’s religious exercise.” Williams said there was no way CIH would alter its Catholic identity. “We just wouldn’t do it,” she said. “We would just work with people over 18, do something different. God is drawing all people to himself. We do our part. That’s his work and if we can’t do it with them, then we’re not doing it.”
The state asked for court mediation shortly after the suit was filed. Williams said state officials disclosed that a homosexual advocacy group threatened to sue if a license was approved for CIH. The mediator assigned to the case was a retired jurist who is Catholic and conservative, Williams said. A solution was forthcoming on the first day. “The state came up with some really simple language that we could all agree to. A way that respected all protected classes,” Williams said. “That’s what made us able to move forward.” A provisional license for The Refuge was issued in June.
By the time the lawsuit was filed, CIH had spent $600,000 for what remained an empty treatment center. All the while San Diego County officials described the dire the need for treatment beds. The losses eventually rose to nearly $800,000. Most of the original CIH staff left for other jobs, frustrated with the long delays. “It was a lot of money,” Williams said. “We could have bought the house with it. But there’s no price tag you can put on a soul, so it was worth it.”
Elizabeth Yore, a Chicago-based child-rights advocate, said she’d like to see Children of the Immaculate Heart homes established across the country. “This is what has been needed,” said Yore, a former general counsel for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “They need hundreds of these programs in literally every state. They require a great deal of expertise. What they need is of course psychological counseling, employment counseling, life-skill counseling, medical care, education. It’s the whole soup to nuts.”
Despite the anti-Catholic bigotry experienced by CIH, Yore said human trafficking is a good issue to be combatted by a strong Catholic apostolate. “It’s absolutely critical. We Catholics, Christians, absolutely believe that in order to truly heal we have to have the power of Christ in your daily life,” Yore said. “No one can imagine the horror and the trauma that these kids go through and what they’ve been subjected to. So I’m just thrilled that it (The Refuge) is now operational.”
Trafficking a Growing Scourge
Sex trafficking is one of the fastest-growing criminal enterprises in America, experts say. San Diego County is one the largest human-trafficking hot spots. A 2016 study by the University of San Diego and Point Loma Nazarene University estimated between 3,400 and 8,100 people are trafficked each year in the county. Study authors said the illicit sex trade in San Diego is worth $810 million a year. Many trafficking victims are under 18; some are as young as 11 or 12. Girls in foster care are especially vulnerable. Most trafficked girls have a history of childhood trauma such as sexual assault, domestic violence and exposure to alcohol and drugs. Most sex trafficking in San Diego is gang-related.
According to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), child sex trafficking is defined as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, obtaining, or advertising of a minor child for the purpose of a commercial sex act, which involves the exchange of anything of value – such as money, drugs or a place to stay – for sexual activity.” It is not prostitution. “There is no such thing as child prostitution,” said Charisma De Los Reyos of San Diego County Welfare Services in an August interview with NBC7 television. “What you’re buying is child rape.”
Nationally, between 200,000 and 300,000 minors are victims of sex trafficking each year, Williams said. Average age at entry into trafficking is 16; one out of six juvenile victims is younger than 12. In 2019, NCMEC responded to more than 10,700 reports of child sex trafficking. Some 23,500 endangered runaways were reported to the agency in 2019; nearly 4,000 were suspected victims of child sex trafficking. During the COVID-19 pandemic, NCMEC reported a steep increase in reports on its CyberTipline of online enticement of children. The agency “became aware of predators openly discussing the pandemic as an opportunity to entice unsupervised children into producing sexually explicit material,” said John Sheehan, a NCMEC vice president, in an online report.
The U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline reported a nearly 170-percent increase in contacts from trafficking victims and survivors between 2015 and 2019. The hotline identified 22,326 trafficking victims and survivors in 2019. Nearly 14,600 of them — 65 percent — were victims of sex trafficking. The rest were victims of labor trafficking or a combination of the two categories. According to the Polaris Project, which operates the hotline, sex-trafficking victims primarily work for escort services, illegal massage, health and beauty shops, bars and strip clubs, and in production of pornography. Traffickers typically use force, fraud and coercion to keep victims from leaving. This can include exploiting substance abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, intimidation and emotional abuse, Polaris reported.
The U.S. Marshals Service and the FBI staged high-profile raids in recent months, arresting suspected traffickers and rescuing dozens of girls and boys. In Scioto County, Ohio, a 69-year-old man and members of his family were charged in federal court with providing illegal drugs to addicted parents to gain access to their minor children for the purpose of commercial sex acts. Marshals recovered more than 70 children in raids conducted in Indiana, Georgia, Ohio and Florida as part of Operation Homecoming, Operation Safety Net and Operation Not Forgotten. Marshals arrested 262 suspects and recovered five children in Operation Triple Beam in Oklahoma City. Nine arrests were made for sex trafficking. Eleven missing or endangered children were recovered by U.S. Marshals during Operation Summer Rescue, a two-month effort based in New Orleans that ended Sept. 30. One of the rescued teens was a 13-year-old girl. Among the suspects arrested was a man charged with statutory rape. In 2019, U.S. Marshals helped recover 275 missing children.
A benefit to prosecuting accused traffickers in federal court is the likelihood of harsher sentences. On Sept. 21, 45-year-old Brian Folks was sentenced in Vermont to more than 22 years in federal prison for 13 sex-trafficking-related felonies. In Sacramento, Calif., Jaquorey Rashawn Carter received a 14-year federal sentence for sex trafficking a child. Benjamin Jenkins was sentenced in Atlanta federal court to 40 years in prison for exploiting as many as 150 girls to produce pornography, then extorting them with threats that he would post their videos online.
“The scourge of human trafficking is the modern-day equivalent of slavery, brutally depriving victims of basic human rights and essential physical needs as it erodes their sense of dignity and self-worth,” said U.S. Attorney General William P. Barr. On Sept. 21, Barr and the U.S. Department of Justice announced nearly $101 million in grants to fight human trafficking and provide services to victims across the country. “The Department of Justice is relentless in its fight against the perpetrators of these heinous crimes.”
Yore said federal involvement is key. “The other interesting phenomenon that I experienced with these girls in trafficking, was that for the first time in their lives they were empowered because they had the power of the federal government behind them, believing them,” she said. “That’s no small matter. They need that because these guys (traffickers) are out looking for them, trying to track them down, intimidating them, threatening them, so they need the power of the federal government to be involved in the prosecution and in these investigations.”
A Place of Healing and Help
Girls are placed at The Refuge either by probation and parole officers, or the county child-welfare system. Many are runaways from foster care. Their stories are always heartbreaking. “Half the referrals that we’ve accepted from child welfare right now, by the time we say yes, the kid has run away from wherever they are,” Williams said. “These kids, if they’re not given the appropriate care, they run. Which means they probably went back to the (trafficking) life. One of our teenage girls that we have now, she’s like, ‘This is the only placement I’ve ever had that I didn’t want to run from.’ I was like, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’ ”
The Refuge creates individual treatment plans for each girl. Clinical services include substance-abuse and mental-health counseling, crisis intervention and access to medical care. Therapeutic services include cognitive therapy, behavior coaching and relationship counseling. Educational and social supports include tutoring, career advising and life skills, such as cooking, cleaning and budgeting.
While most of the girls have had no positive male role models in their lives, Williams said she often sees even deeper mother wounds. That’s why it was natural to place the home under the patronage of the Blessed Virgin Mary. “These girls need a mother,” she said. “These girls don’t have moms. One of our girls was crying last week because one of her friends was dying, and she said, ‘I just wish I had a mother to hold me.’ Her mom is gone. Our Lady wants to console these kids and she wants us to do it with her.”
Refuge staff strive to treat each resident with the love and dignity that they’ve been denied by their abusers. It’s a gradual process. “Every single staff person has to win every kid’s trust,” Williams said. “And then their responsiveness to treatment comes, because they know you have their best interest in mind. You listen to them, you really respect them, give them the space that they need. They’re teenagers, they’re almost adults. That responsiveness I find comes when the kid knows they’re really loved without conditions.”
Children of the Immaculate
Williams had her future all mapped out, but the Lord had different plans for her. A convert to Catholicism at age 20, she initially felt called to consecrated religious life. She planned to enter the Abbey of St. Walburga, a Benedictine convent in northern Colorado. About a month before moving to the convent, the California native was having a phone conversation with a friend, Father Dave Nix of Denver. He related his desire to use his priesthood to fight human trafficking. As he described his ideas, something moved Williams’ soul. “I walked away, I remember the moment, I was walking down my parents’ house hallway and something clicked in my head. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this makes perfect sense of my life.’ ”
As Williams developed plans to open CIH as a home for adult trafficking survivors with children, she was encouraged to put the project under Mary’s protection. Then a student at John Paul the Great Catholic University, Williams approached Fr. Carl Gismondi FSSP, for spiritual direction. “I kind of encouraged her to take Our Lady under her title Immaculate Heart as her patron,” Fr. Gismondi said. “And that is because Our Lady’s heart is the heart of love; it is the heart of love for each one of us, it is the heart of a mother.”
Williams said sex trafficking of women and girls is fed by many societal ills, including the objectification of women, normalization of extramarital sex, breakdown of families and support for contraception and abortion. Ultimately, she said, it is an issue of purity, which is why Our Lady is the perfect patron. “Chastity is at the heart of our cultural battle to end this,” Williams said. “As far as our professional work goes here, we’re helping kids get out, and get out and heal, but the cultural battle that we really face is really one over chastity.”
Part of the solution is to increase consequences for those who purchase children for sex. “The penalty for running a red light is a worse penalty legally in California than it is for purchasing a 14-year-old girl for sex,” Williams said. “You’re going to pay more for running a red light and you’re not going to have a difference in your record.”
Ultimately, she said, society needs to rediscover God’s designs for the complementarity of man and woman in sacramental marriage. That means, as the Church teaches, no sex outside of marriage, and the husband and wife always being open to transmission of life. “If sex has nothing to do with marriage then what’s the big deal in paying money for it or not paying money for it?” Williams asked. “If contraception is fine then we can sell people and use contraceptives to make sure they don’t get pregnant too much.” The answer, at least in part, comes from respecting our God-given roles, she said.
“We really need to rediscover what this relationship is supposed to be about.”
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