Survivors of trafficking take their lives backQ&A with Karen Moore: Nonprofit Journal Project

Karen Moore is executive director of Sanctum House, a long-term residential program for women survivors of human trafficking. It’s the first facility of its kind in southeastern Michigan.

How many women live at Sanctum House, and how long do they typically stay?

We have 10 now, but we have space for 12, and we may have two more coming in soon. We say it's a 24-month program, but some women have been here well over two years. And then some women, after six or seven months of getting the support they need—mental health care, physical health care—they say, “I'm ready. I don't need two years.” Every woman's journey is personalized.

When women arrive at Sanctum House, what are some of their initial needs?

They need to feel safe. They lack self-esteem and self-confidence. They’ve been brainwashed to think that their whole value is the transaction. We provide them with clean clothes—new clothes, not hand-me-downs—and we have a welcoming committee that puts together a basket that has a brand-new robe, slippers, pajamas, towels, so that they come in with a warm welcome. It's a fearful process: “Will I be accepted? Will they like me? Will I like them?”

They get into a mental health care routine with the individual therapist, and then we have group therapy in the afternoon. Most of them are dealing with recovery from addiction, so they get into NA or AA meetings to help them on their path to healing.

Are there plans to expand the campus?
We're hoping to. We currently rent, but there are three buildings on this property, and we have three and a half acres—it's a beautiful piece of property. There's a bill in the U.S. Congress right now for the federal government to gift us this property, and then we would almost triple our capacity.

One of the buildings is a small apartment building, so it would be transitional housing when the women get ready to leave here. It’s sometimes a very scary thing to live independently, soberly, productively. So they could rent from us and be one step out, one step in, and they could mentor the women that come behind them.

What misperceptions do people have about human trafficking?

That they're snatched in a white van, or that they're all coming from Asia or from Mexico. The women we serve basically come from the metro Detroit area, some very wealthy, some very educated. We say that the face of trafficking is vulnerability. Whether you're in a very vulnerable stage when you're 13 or 14, and you've come from foster care or families that don't give you the love or support you need—or it could be midlife. We’ve served women up to the age of 62, because they didn't know how to get out or where to go. They could have been successful people, and then something happens in their life. These traffickers can see the vulnerability, and they just slowly bring them in. And addiction can be a means of control, because you will do what you need to do in order to get your next fix. When they come to us, they're pretty broken, but watching them take their life back and find their voice is really rewarding.

How has Sanctum House been working with universities in the area?

We partnered with University of Michigan-Flint to start a vocational program for the residents. That’s been excellent. And we have a few interns from the Michigan School of Psychology and have Wayne State University master’s-level social workers. One intern was here full time for three months, so she became a part of the fabric here in the house, individually helping the women. She'd go for walks with them, and if they're having a hard day, talk with them.

How does that help the residents along in their recovery?

One challenge the residents have when they arrive here is that nobody cared what their opinion was. Their thoughts were discounted, and they were told what to do. And so part of their personal growth is that people respect them and care about what they think. That's one of the greatest strengths of our volunteer program, too. It’s the personal relationships. Volunteers come in and take them to doctor's appointments, school, or meetings. As they graduate and move on, the women say: “The volunteers and the people that cared enough to spend time with me, it really gave me the strength to be a person, to feel important to somebody.”

How are you helping to educate health care providers about signs of trafficking?

At some of the hospitals, we train the nurses and social workers in the emergency department on what to look for, what are the indicators, and what to do. Because they say, “I think I saw a victim of human trafficking, but I didn't know what to do or how to talk to her.”

So many of our women say, “How many times was I at the hospital because I was either beat up or overdosing, and nobody asked if I was safe?” In this work, one of the most important things in how we care for the women who we serve is to be trauma informed.

Have there been any other new programs at Sanctum House in the past year or so?

We started equine therapy at a horse ranch every other week. Horses are incredibly intelligent, and they can just tell when somebody's having a tough day. The women walk around with them, and some of them ride the horses. And we have a sewing class. A woman who has been a seamstress all her life asked if some of the women wanted to learn to sew, and they did. She actually got a sewing machine for each one of them, donated or purchased. They make a skirt, and it's an accomplishment. It's a new skill that they've learned, and they have something to show for it.

What are you looking forward to for Sanctum House in the coming months?

Welcoming new women, giving them opportunities to take their life back. Our graduation ceremony is actually a housewarming party, so the women register at Target. And many of them didn't even know what registering was. They get to, for the first time in their life, choose the color they want for bathroom towels. To see them open up the presents is a very emotional, wonderful event. And then off they go.
But they come back. The ones that graduated earlier this year were here for Thanksgiving dinner. And some of the interns actually stay on as volunteers. You know, they just become a part of the family. And some former residents are now staff members.