When a 25-year-old sex-trafficking victim ended up on the doorstep of a South Denver church, they weren’t ready. They were determined never to let that happen again.
The leaders of Cherry Hills Community Church realized how ill-equipped they were to respond and how little Denver had in the way of resources for trafficking victims. So they took action.
“The church cannot not be ready the next time a sex-trafficking victim comes to us for help,” said Michelle Woodruff, local missions director for Cherry Hills. “We believe God sent Nikki to give us a heart for women in this situation, and we intend to see his mission through.”
God calls a partner
I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey …
– Ezekiel 34:22a
In 2012, Allison Madrigal was a 32-year-old property and casualty insurance broker in Houston. Feeling called by the Holy Spirit to do something else, Allison quit her corporate job. She had learned about the issue of human trafficking the year before – but that was in India.
“I had no idea it was happening in my own backyard,” she says.
For 17 months she researched human trafficking in her own city and across the USA. Her research revealed a gaping hole of need in Houston. Simply stated, they needed to separate victims from victimizers and set them safely on a path of healing and restoration. She had to discover an effective way to do this.
“There was a lot of direct outreach to victims and long-term care homes, but there was no way to immediately get the victims out of their situation,” Allison says. Next, they needed to be able to properly assess and stabilize them, and then place them in the best long-term care home specific to their needs.
Think of emergency assessment as triage. It’s meant to stabilize the victim. Escaping from the sex trade, victims may be suffering from compound traumas – drug addiction, mental disorders, and health problems. Stabilization is a necessary step before the victim can advance to the next level of healing and be placed in long-term care.
Allison discovered her first solution through a group in Atlanta that was rescuing girls by a hotline. In Atlanta, they’d rescued 30 victims in six months. Allison would do the same. By 2014 she had established Rescue Houston, a hotline with a network of resources to support women coming out of human trafficking. Things came together quickly.
“We tell them, ‘We will answer, and we will come and get you … here’s our hotline number. Call anytime – day or night,’” Allison says. When a victim makes the call, an exit strategist assesses the situation, plans the escape with the survivor, and locates a bed in a partner shelter. Once the plan is in place the exit strategist then deploys a two-person rescue team to immediately pick the survivor up, and transport her or him to the partner shelter.
Rescue Houston’s hotline is 24/7, and volunteers are always available to take calls, but they are also proactive. They boldly call the phone numbers listed on online sex advertisements, offering the hotline number for a way out to those who answer.
Rescue Houston’s volunteers boldly call the phone numbers listed on online sex advertisements, offering the hotline number for a way out to those who answer.
Once in a safe shelter, a survivor receives an overview of their emergency assessment program. She or he is invited to commit to address and pursue physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual healing over the next 60 days, during which time a survivor advocate helps to identify continued care placement options for their long-term care. The program includes core therapies and services that holistically assess and address the most common variables that cause victims to return to trafficking over and over again.
“Our goal is to minimize relapse by addressing mind, body, and spirit,” Allison said. The first 60 days are critical, because that’s when a victim is most vulnerable to relapse.”
One of the issues that keeps a victim in fight-or-flight mode is uncertainty – the fear of not knowing what is coming next. “We calendar and plan the next two months for them.”
Having a schedule gives victims a sense of safety and stability, providing them with a secure space and therapies to come out of flight or fight mode, and start their healing journey. As an essential part of their healing journey, each survivor is introduced to The Exchange, a discipleship and healing ministry that equips believers to live an empowered life in Christ. “Every Rescue America client receives eight Exchange ministry sessions,” Allison says.
While clients are in the emergency assessment program, Rescue Houston volunteers provide transportation for dentist appointments, well-woman exams, professional counseling, and drug rehabilitation. A client may have up to seven appointments per week, based on her case-management needs. After graduating from the program, clients begin long-term care, where they continue to recover and learn new life and job skills.
Growing in numbers
Rescue Houston’s process worked well. Over five years, they answered 1,000 hotline calls and freed more than 330 victims, immediately rescuing and stabilizing them. But Allison wanted to do more. So, during those five years, she worked at building more services and perfecting her process.
Allison knew Rescue Houston would be more than a one-city solution. So she rebranded as Rescue America. Her team created a model that would work in any city in the country, as long as that city could raise up volunteers and funds. But she committed to staying in that city until the Lord made it clear she was supposed to go somewhere else.
He did that in the fall of 2018, when Cherry Hills Community Church messaged her. They wanted to focus on rescue, assessment, and stabilization for victims off the streets, but they weren’t exactly sure how, and they couldn’t find what they needed in their own area. Allison says it was “a true Holy Spirit connection” when she received their email.
Cherry Hills hired Rescue America to conduct a landscape analysis of victim resources in Denver – similar to the study she’d conducted in Houston. Allison came to Denver and interviewed 23 local organizations, including law enforcement and government agencies, to identify overlapping services and uncover gaps.
Her most startling finding? There were no beds specifically for adult trafficking victims right off the streets. None. For Denver to be successful in eradicating sex trafficking, this had to change. They needed a rescue and emergency response program like the one she’d established in Houston. But with no existing beds, they were starting from scratch.
By the end of 2019, Rescue America was established in Denver. Along with Cherry Hills, they joined forces with S.A.F.E. Rockies (Strategic Alliance to Fight Exploitation), which funds needs through a Giving Fund at NCF, Open Door Ministries who provide beds, along with other partners in the community.
Now it’s not just Allison and Cherry Hills Church. It’s people from law enforcement and ministry, social services and private givers passionate about freeing captives.
That was a game-changer, Michelle from Cherry Hills says. “Once God led Cherry Hills to the Houston model, doors started opening.”
Light in the darkness
Allison believes national media coverage of recent sex-trafficking busts has increased awareness that this horrific crime is happening here in America. The coverage is giving victims the courage to reach out, as evidenced by the number and origin of distress calls Rescue America has recently received.
“The Lord is shining a light on the darkness – on powerhouse people who are traffickers – and justice is coming,” Allison says. One record-breaking day last July, Rescue America received five hotline calls which resulted in rescuing seven survivors, plus three children for a total of 10 people from trafficking in Tennessee, California, Dallas and Oklahoma City, all within 24 hours.
Another time, Allison’s team was dispatched to support a victim in Atlanta. “We had to get the victim out of state right away, because her trafficker was a police officer,” Allison says. It takes manpower and connections to respond that quickly to all different parts of the country. Rescue Houston has nine paid staff and more than 100 volunteers. They will need to replicate this in Denver.
Watch the video below, and read part 3 to learn more.
Cover photo: Hannah Wei, Unsplash