How a new home in Utah aims to help heal sex trafficking survivors
Oct 28, 2023, 3:06 PM | Updated: 7:13 pm
(Megan Nielsen, Deseret News)
SALT LAKE CITY — Brittney Garcia thought she’d met the man of her dreams — and for a while he was. He did everything for her and she soon fell deeply in love. Then things started to change. He introduced her to drugs. That made it easier when he began sex trafficking her.
Garcia, 44, clawed her way out of that life nine years ago with the help of law enforcement and others, after two years of being trapped by fear of what her trafficker would do if she tried to walk away.
Her younger sister, Brandy Funk, 42, has a story that is remarkably similar, though she got free differently from the man she once trusted and loved by going to one of the few places she was allowed to go unaccompanied. Once there, she contacted domestic violence experts and was whisked away to safety eight years ago.
Though funds are still being raised to make it a reality, Aspen Magdalene House is in the near-culmination stage of five years of planning by a group of dedicated Utahns who want to provide shelter, therapy and case management to sex trafficking survivors. The women who will be able to stay there for up to two years will go through trauma-based therapy, life skills training, financial planning and receive other services like preemployment coaching to help them rebuild their lives.
The Aspen House Board of Directors includes community activist Pamela Atkinson, a community activist and advisor to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Rep. Sandra Hollins, sex trafficking survivors including Funk and Garcia, as well as community and industry leaders and other advocates for exploited women.
In the five years since they started working on the issue, the board and supporters have created a leadership and governing structure, raised community awareness and some money — the capital campaign is very much ongoing — crafted a business plan and launched a survivor support group, along with other programming. They’ve involved local groups willing to provide services and guidance. And they found the house, which they plan to close on at the end of January if they can raise the rest of the cash.
A model program
The need is not theoretical. Utah is in the top 10 per capita for calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to data provided by the board. In background material, the group quotes law enforcement officials, who note that recent trafficking arrests are “the tip of the iceberg” of the problem in Utah.
Aspen Magdalene House is patterned after the Thistle Farms model, which includes 57 established houses nationwide and 35 in various planning or startup stages, including Utah’s. Thistle Farms boasts a 75% success rate helping women who have been exploited reclaim their lives and financial independence.
During an open house Friday, board members — including Funk and Garcia, who also serve on the board — talked about the devastation wrought by sex trafficking, including personal trauma, addiction, legal woes, mental illness and barriers that make it hard to escape, to find housing and to get jobs.
“Sisterhood and bonding” are really crucial, Palmer said. She noted that women who have been trafficked often feel judged. Most often, challenges sometimes going back many years made them vulnerable to being trafficked initially, including adverse childhood events like abuse or neglect and substance use issues, among others. So there can be layers of trauma involved.
Though the individuals and issues they each have faced are different, the sisterhood understands that, said Palmer.
Among the greatest gifts the haven will provide, Atkinson told Deseret News, are love and acceptance. She said that survivors sometimes are sent to homeless shelters, where they are bullied. They may face that in other situations, too. Harsh judgments don’t promote healing.