Every day, women and girls across the country are working to integrate back into society after experiencing the trauma of human trafficking. In fact, according to one nonprofit group, one in four girls is sexually abused by the time they reach adulthood.
Wellspring Living has created two safe homes for victims in Georgia. One home is strictly for girls and teenagers, where the victims sometimes come in as young as 12. The second home is a safe place for adult women -- they range in age from 18 to 35. But they all have something in common: they are survivors.
"It is a challenge from the day they walk in. Getting them through the phases and getting them through the process of recovery, and healing from all the things they've experienced," said Lisa Byrd, the clinical director for the Wellspring Living women's home.
The mission of the organization is to confront the issue of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation.
It is an uphill battle. Many of the women are just concerned about staying alive and far away from predators. Both home locations are not known to the public and the therapists and employees work hard to keep victims safe.
Jennifer Swain works on a campaign called A Future. Not a Past. -- a movement to stop child prostitution across the state. The group works to build a barrier between girls and predators. She sees victims every day and says the journey for these girls is frightening. Many exploited women and girls live in fear and -- incredibly -- become accustomed to the painful lifestyle.
"Most victims of child sex trafficking don't self-identify as victims, so receiving the help and therapeutic services is quite naturally hard," Swain said. "Most of them may experience a form of 'trauma bonding' or the 'Stockholm syndrome' with their exploiters. They feel bad for leaving them or the other girls they have bonded with behind. For the girls, it may feel like they are leaving the only family they have known. There are also many forms of emotions they go through on the journey, ranging from fear, anger, hurt and shame."
Byrd says the girls and women arrive at both homes, defenseless.
"[They arrive] incredibly vulnerable," Byrd said. "Some of them we get directly off the street. They're coming from their pimps and 'johns,' and they're looking for a safe place. Some people come to us still under the influence of substance. So, yes -- they're in a very dangerous situation when they come."
There is also no 'one size fits all' therapy program. All the women and girls are different, as are their pasts. Some victims want to focus on going back to school, some want to stop using drugs. Others want to rekindle relationships with family members who are estranged.
"The women's program is about a year long and it is individualized. Every woman's program will look a little different. But the end goal is they will be healthy, and be able to function well in society," Byrd said. "They will know who they are and not have to take any abuse. They will have healthy coping skills, and they have been healed from a lot of the major trauma."
The girls also present a different set of challenges. Tracy Busse is the clinical director for the girl's home. She says initially the daily goals can be as simple as waking up and completing a hygiene regime.
"They have had more horrific experiences than most people can imagine, and they will tell you about them without blinking," Busse said. "These girls are the text book definition of survivors."
The program at the girl's home focuses on individual strengths. Busse says the best teachers have actually been other victims. She found out quickly the young girls respond to a loving environment. But also an environment that is honest, and open to hearing about their experiences.
As a result she incorporates adult survivors.
"When you look at the things that have happened to them and how each girl found their own creative way to cope with those experiences you notice how strong they are," Busse said.
Wellspring Living's two homes are normally working at full capacity. There is demand for this type of therapy. That explains why another safe home has opened recently called Living Water for Girls. Therapy at that home is for girls between ages 12 and 17.
Different agencies across the state collaborate to help victims find these safe houses. Law enforcement, the feds and schools throughout Georgia are gaining awareness and looking for red flags. They search for exploited girls through a statewide initiative called Georgia Care Connection. The support comes from nonprofit agencies, businesses and the Governor's Office for Children and Families.
There is also more immediate help available than ever before. Atlanta fire stations are trained to help a victim in need of urgent help. The Georgia Juvenile Justice Fund created a prevention program called the Voices Project to work with girls coming through the juvenile system. The employees are getting as close to the heart of the problem as ever. They are seeing these girls fresh out of vulnerable situations and trained to look for vulnerabilities.
"Prevention and disabling demand is key right now for Georgia if we truly want to stop the prostitution of children in our state and we are doing that," Swain said.
Want to help in your state?
The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Administration for Children & Families has a list of state and national programs across that offers counseling. http://www.acf.hhs.gov/trafficking/about/coalition_list.html
There's also the National Human Trafficking Resource Center. It is open 24-hours a day. 1-888-373-7888 or http://www.traffickingresourcecenter.org