Samaritan Women, a Baltimore sex-trafficking shelter for women, filled with survivor stories

Squatting in the grass and squinting in the sun, 25-year-old Song takes in the scene: a greenhouse, a farm, rows of heirloom tomatoes, clusters of herbs and flowering zucchini, squash and cucumber plants.

A year ago and less than a mile away, she was working the streets of West Baltimore, trading sex for money.

That she now tends a vegetable garden is thanks to the Samaritan Women, a residential program that is among the relatively few in the nation dedicated to long-term help for the surging numbers of victims of human trafficking.

For most of her adult life, Song was homeless, addicted and caught in a cycle of violence and emotional manipulation that began when she was a child and until just recently, she herself didn't even recognize.

When she was 13, Song had to call an ambulance after her mother attempted suicide.

"I remember locking my sister in the room and running to get a towel and slipping and sliding in blood all over the floor and trying to wrap my mom's arms and sitting on her arms until the ambulance came," Song said.

At 18, she moved away from her native New Jersey to Florida, where she met a man who would become both the father of her child and her trafficker. Eventually, he forced her into prostitution to support his drug habit. Soon, Song was addicted, too.

When she was arrested for the last time almost a year ago, she begged the judge to send her to a long-term, residential shelter rather than back onto the streets. As her 30-day stay at a short-term shelter was almost up, she met a man at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting who gave her the number to the Samaritan Women house. A bed was open.

"This place has worked miracles in my life," Song said. "A year ago I was 100 pounds; I had track marks all over me. Now I'm sober and living in a mansion and going to college."


Local and federal law enforcement agencies are trying to do more to combat sex trafficking. But with an ever-increasing volume of survivors being collected, the patchwork of governmental, nonprofit and faith-based organizations that provide care are scrambling to keep up.

The faith-based Samaritan Women relies on grants and donations and does not accept government funding. Its 23 acres includes two restored mansions with the capacity to house, clothe and feed 14 women for up to two years.

Since it opened in 2011, law enforcement agencies have called daily trying to place survivors, said founder and executive director Jeanne Allert. Federal agents and a judge praised the program in comments to The Associated Press.

Allert said that while shelters that protect women for a couple of days or months are important, there is a dearth of long-term facilities designed to help them "move past the trauma" and re-integrate into society.

"When you're sold to a trafficker at 10 years old, you've probably never had a birthday party," Allert said. "Not one of these women had ever gone on a picnic. They hadn't seen a Disney movie. We do that here, to reclaim what they didn't get so that now when they go back into society, they're no longer a disenfranchised person."

Others at the shelter had their own stories. The AP generally does not identify victims of sexual violence. Instead, the following women are identified by nicknames that were given to them at the house. Allert confirmed many of the details of the accounts published here.

Not every woman who comes into the program makes it all the way through; some return to the streets.

"In the first 30 days, her radar is up, she's not looking at herself at all," Allert said. "It's only when she comes here that we can bring the temperature down and start to see the patterns of change."


One crisp late fall afternoon in early November, Button moved into her own room: a tiny suite on the top floor of one of the mansions with a window overlooking the farm and the winding road that leads up to the entrance. When she walked up the stairs and opened the door, Button began to cry.

The 27-year-old had been there for more than a year.

For seven years prior, she had been sold up and down the West Coast by a host of violent pimps, one of whom once drove her into the desert, dragged her out of the car and broke her nose and both of her eye sockets. Button says he bruised her ribs so badly that doctors told her they could identify the type of boot he'd been wearing. The reason: She asked to leave a strip club because she was feeling sick.

It wasn't always that way. Button grew up in a wealthy household on Long Island, with parents she says were always loving and supportive. Still, after dropping out of college and becoming addicted to what she describes as "risky behavior," Button's parents sent her to a rehabilitation facility in California, where she met a man who would become her first trafficker.

"That opened up a gate to a long, dark life," Button said.

Button would move from state to state as she was traded among pimps.

After she was hospitalized, Button said police told her she had only a limited number of options.

"The only thing they could do is put me in a safe house or a shelter for women with abusive husbands. There was nowhere for trafficking victims," Button said.

When Button first came to Samaritan Women, she said she was afraid of the ghosts she thought might inhabit the mansion hallways, and afraid to leave her parents, with whom Button had reconnected after years of estrangement.

Now she spends her time working on legislative issues surrounding human trafficking, and has testified before Congress several times. She is also trying to earn a certification to become a counselor for at-risk youth.

"There are still some days that are a struggle," Button said. "The process of piecing things together that I don't want to remember is hard for me. But the longer I'm here, the more my mind is being put back together, the more I'm at peace."


Now 32, Genesis was offered her first hit of crack cocaine by her mother when she was 13. By 18, she had a criminal record. She spent her teenage years in and out of strip clubs before becoming the property of a violent pimp. By 21, Genesis had lost a baby and become addicted to drugs.

For years under a violent trafficker, Genesis said she was never allowed to leave his house. The rooms were bugged, the bathroom had no doors. She said her pimp used to tie her and other women he trafficked to a weight bench, beat them and starve them. He forced Genesis to get a tattoo of his name on her forearm.

"That was my birthday present," she said.

The legal system sent Genesis to Samaritan Women, where she's been living for six months. After three months, Genesis said she had only just begun to remember some of the trauma she suffered.

"I didn't know I was in hell," she said. "I thought it was just life. Over those years I was held hostage, shot at, beaten with a pistol. And somewhere in my sick mind I thought this is how life is supposed to be."

Genesis says she still has good days and bad days but that she's grateful for even the most devastating moments.

"I love this house," Genesis said. "But I can't say it doesn't get hard. Watching people's grief brings up my own grief. I cry all the time.

"But I guess we have to be survivors. We can forever be victims, but survivors get through it."


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