First long-term home for teenage sex-trafficked survivors to open in Oakland

Oakland, CA-  Leah Kimble-Price, program director of Claire's House—a long-term housing facility for sex-trafficked youth—stands outside her office at Catholic Charities of the East Bay. Photo by Lisa Hornak

Oakland, CA- Leah Kimble-Price, program director of Claire's House—a long-term housing facility for sex-trafficked youth—stands outside her office at Catholic Charities of the East Bay. Photo by Lisa Hornak

In a few months, Leah Kimble-Price will open the house she has been planning with her team—a home in Oakland that will serve sex-trafficked teenagers. As Kimble-Price sits in her office, she talks about her vision for the home. It will be a safe and loving place where girls can heal from trauma. It will address their physical and emotional needs with a staff trained in serving commercially sexually exploited children (CSEC). It will be different from other shelters because girls will be able to stay long-term in a place that has most of the services they will need. It will be called Claire’s House, and it will be the first of its kind in the Bay Area.

Kimble-Price wants to make sure that the home is “youth led,” meaning that teenagers will be able to choose their educational setting, sit in on the program council and run the resident advisory board. “I don’t want to replicate their experience with their trafficker, which often happens in recovery programs,” says Kimble-Price. Many trafficked teens come from situations in which their trafficker controlled every moment and every decision, from what their favorite color was and how they like their eggs cooked, to who they would sleep with and when and if they could go home. Kimble-Price wants to give these young people agency, even if it means that they decide to leave. “I am expecting to have girls climbing out the window and running down the hill. It just comes with the territory, and they are welcome to come back,” she says.

While Oakland has many service providers for children recovering from sexual exploitation, few offer them a safe place to sleep at night if they are able to leave their trafficker. Currently, there are 12 beds for all homeless youth in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. None of those beds are exclusively for CSEC, and none of them are for long-term placement. “At Claire’s House, they can stay as long as they need to,” says Kimble-Price.

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley first envisioned the house several years ago, and after buy-in from the Diocese of Oakland, the project was handed over to Catholic Charities of the East Bay. That organization brought in Kimble-Price to direct Claire’s House and CESC services program last March. Builders began renovation of an existing building in September, and are currently “fully in construction” according to Kimble-Price. The facility, which she hopes will open in mid-January, will house a dozen teenagers.

Technically, Claire’s House will be labeled a “short-term residential therapeutic program,” or STRTP, which is the new licensing term for all group homes since January. “So in the name it says ‘short-term,’ but short-term is relative. Every six months a child needs to be re-evaluated by the county to see whether they continue to need this high level of care that we’ll be providing. The thing about CSEC youth is that they always meet medical necessity,” says Kimble-Price. She is hoping to work with girls at the house for at least nine to 18 months, depending on the person’s individual goals. “Potentially, a youth could be with us for a couple of years,” says Kimble-Price.

In the past, child trafficking victims picked up on the streets by law enforcement officers were brought to Juvenile Hall and prosecuted. Most would eventually end up back in their original situation: a foster home, group home or with their biological families. But soon after their return, they would often run away or be lured back onto the streets by their exploiters. Some would end up homeless, living with their exploiters, or couch-surfing, which sometimes comes with its own problems when teens feel pressure to exchange sex or labor for a place to stay.

“Sometimes kids are running away from something that seems more dangerous. So they don’t intend to engage in sex work, but they are running away from abuse or neglect at home or just a lack of resources,” says Kimble-Price. “Trafficking comes out of that. Someone says I can offer you resources, I can offer you shelter, clothes that kind of thing.” Other times, Kimble-Price says, the trafficker manipulates a teenager with attention and affection. They may say they want to take care of her, or initiate a romantic relationship. “Then it goes into, ‘If you really loved me you would do this thing for me,’” says Kimble-Price. The person the teen thought was her boyfriend or caretaker has become her trafficker, but by then the psychological bonds are strong.

Kimble-Price has even seen youth trafficked by their family members: their uncle, their older brother, a cousin. A lot of traffickers are young boys who would have otherwise sold drugs to make money, but, she says, “gangs don’t really sell drugs anymore. They sell people.”

In September, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown signed Senate Bill 1322, which prevents law enforcement officers from arresting youth for sex work. The law went into effect in January. Now minors who police find in sexually exploitive situations are brought to agencies resourced to help them.

“The Bay Area and Oakland specifically are a national hub for human trafficking, specifically minors, specifically exploited children,” says Kimble-Price. Human trafficking, as defined by the Department of Homeland Security, is modern-day slavery and involves the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit a person for labor or commercial sex. Under federal law, any person under the age of 18 who is induced to perform commercial sex acts is a victim of human trafficking, regardless of whether he or she is forced or coerced.

The Human Trafficking Hotline, which is run by the non-profit Polaris, has reported steadily increasing cases of youth sex trafficking in California: from 352 cases in 2012 to 1,052 cases in 2016. One advocacy group in Oakland called MISSSEY (which stands for Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), reports on their website that of the people they serve, 78 percent of their clients are African American. They also report they have seen an increase in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) clients as well as an increase in clients with mental health and substance abuse issues. Of the children they see, 82 percent have a history of running away, over 65 percent have been in foster care, and 73 percent have been involved in the juvenile justice system.

But there are not many safe places for these young people to stay, either if they try to leave their trafficker, or are sent to social services by law enforcement officials. Dream Catcher Youth Services in Oakland is currently the only youth shelter in two counties. Recently, after 18 years in their original location, they moved into a new building and expanded from eight to 12 beds. Within six months, they will be opening another shelter, Nika’s Place, which will have eight more beds exclusively reserved for sexually-exploited girls. But the longest they can house an individual is 21 consecutive days. After that, the residents have to leave due to regulations and licensing laws governing shelters.

Kimble-Price says that other housing situations—like group homes, foster homes, or sending children back to their biological parents—may have people who are well-intentioned, but are usually not equipped to handle challenges sexually-exploited teenagers face. They are often dealing with complicated emotional trauma, and possibly also drug addiction or mental health issues. “Many children who experienced exploitation or who were trafficked are trafficked out of foster care, so placing them in foster care is not the solution. In fact, it’s often part of the problem,” adds Kimble-Price. “A lot of times you’ll see traffickers and pimps sitting outside of group homes waiting for kids to run away for other reasons.”

Running away and homelessness make minors vulnerable to exploitation, she says. “Homelessness is the highest risk factor for trafficking. Within the first 72 hours of a child being on the street, they are approached by their first trafficker,” she says.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, one in six of 18,500 reported runaway children in the United States in 2016 were likely sex trafficking victims. Of those, 86 percent were in the care of social services or foster care when they went missing.

Another aspect of Kimble-Price’s work involves training foster parents, “so that when kids are placed with them they actually know what they are getting into and it insures a more stable placement, so they are not freaking out the minute a kid misses curfew or acts out sexually or brings a trafficker home. Those sorts of things would usually blow up a foster placement.” The trainings, which last from seven to eight months, teach foster parents which behaviors to expect.

Catholic Charities is also embedding mentors in 82 parishes across Alameda and Contra Costa counties that make up the Diocese of Oakland to educate parishioners and church leaders. In this way they are also getting male parishioners involved, in an effort to address the demand for commercial sex. “Within faith-based organizations, [the statistics] say 65 percent of congregations and parishioners are buying sex, are consumers of sex work,” says Kimble-Price.

Amba Johnson, director of Dream Catcher Youth Services, estimates conservatively that at any given time there are 1,500 homeless youth in need of housing and services in Alameda County. Of the girls she sees, she estimates that 80 to 90 percent have been directly affected by sex trafficking. While she does not have the numbers for boys, she says, “national research is suggesting there are almost as many boys being trafficked as girls. And I haven’t met a trans girl yet that was homeless and wasn’t being exploited.”

Johnson says that there are excellent daytime service providers for sexually-exploited youth in Oakland who help with counseling services, mentorship programs, legal services, after school-activity programs, and places to hang out, get cleaned up and eat a meal. But “the problem with a lot of wrap services is that they don’t have the beds. So they get the kids in the daytime but they don’t have the beds at night, and that’s when the kids are the most at risk,” says Johnson. “The night a girl says, ‘I want off the street,’ there needs to be a bed, and that has always been a huge barrier. You would work with a girl in the daytime and she is still staying with her exploiter at night because you don’t have a place for her.”

For that reason, she said, “We are really excited about Claire’s House. Claire’s House is the opportunity that is missing in Oakland.” Johnson describes Dream Catcher as a “first response,” as they are able to provide short-term services. “We are the ones when the girls are first exploring the idea of exiting the streets,” says Johnson. “But Claire’s House is that next step when they’re really getting to the point where they want a change. Claire’s House has the capacity to work with them in a very intensive basis for a long period of time.”

Other advocates working with trafficked youth are also looking forward to the arrival of long-term housing. “What makes it really exciting is that they are going to offer a lot of wrap-around services,” says Holly Joshi, who formerly worked undercover investigating human trafficking operations for the Oakland Police Department and is now a senior advisor at MISSSEY. “You can have beds and a program model, but if the people don’t actually understand the population and really have a trauma-informed approach and an approach that is committed to survivors, then it’s probably not going to work. So far everything I have seen about Claire’s House looks like it is going to be a really amazing asset.”

“As we try to work for stability and to get girls on pathways to healing, a lot of times housing becomes a huge issue,” continues Joshi. “For vulnerable youth and for girls who are being trafficked, who are under 18, it is beyond critical.”

But advocates say housing sexually trafficked youth is difficult, which is one of the reasons they don’t often stay in foster care or group home placements.

“Claire’s House is aware of the risk of housing girls, and just because they say, break a window, they will not be kicked out. Actually, I think we don’t even have any rules for girls getting kicked out, because we understand that every child will be different, every girl will be different, every young person that identifies as female will be different and you never know what may trigger that person,” says La Toya Gix. Gix is a survivor of sex trafficking and now works in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in the HEAT division and as a case manager for CSEC youth at Juvenile Hall.

“You may make them noodles and you know, their parent only gave them noodles growing up and now they’re triggered all of a sudden. And you’re thinking, ‘We just made spaghetti. What is going on?’ But the spaghetti and the red sauce may have reminded them of a murder. You never know with this population because they have so much trauma,” says Gix. “They have been through so much that it is really hard to diagnosis them let alone facilitate a safe space for them. But I believe Claire’s House will succeed because I believe they understand, every staff member understands, that they all have to be supportive.”

Claire’s House will have approximately 34 full-time staff on board when they are fully operational, making the ratio of staff to residents nearly three to one. A large part of the project will be the services offered on site. These include mental health and educational services, like home-schooling. “So many of these girls aren’t physically able to attend school. The schedule is just impossible to keep. Their circadian rhythms are inverted so they are awake at night and they sleep during the day,” says Kimble-Price. “That is not something you can change in a month. So the homeschool option allows them to continue to get their education and re-engage with their educational goals.”

Mindfulness and meditation services will also be offered. Although Catholic Charities is a faith-based organization, Kimble-Price highlights that the program at Claire’s House will be secular. They will also offer sports and self-defense classes, “giving girls the skills to feel powerful and also in control of their bodies,” says Kimble-Price.

They will teach classes about wellness, including the reproductive cycle. “A lot of these girls hit puberty while they were being trafficked, so they never actually understood what the point was of their period or what menstruation is,” says Kimble-Price. The goal is to “really help them to understand that their reproductive systems belong to them and not a trafficker and not to a buyer. But that these things actually belong to you and you get to decide what happens with them.”

Kimble-Price also wants to bring in an aspect of what she calls “cross-generational healing” to the staffing, meaning she is looking to hire women of all ages, and particularly women who have varied life experiences and a different kind of wisdom than an eager but fresh-out-of-grad-school candidate. “I really am looking for folks who maybe haven’t been working in institutions for most of their career. Or maybe they are survivors of domestic violence, or they are survivors of trafficking, or they have immigrated, or they are refugees or they speak more than one language,” she said. She envisions building a family atmosphere where the girls can socialize with these women and “actually have an opportunity to sit with a grandma and watch T.V.”

“I’m looking for grandmas and aunties, your abuela, your titi, these are people you remember, that treat you the way that your family treats you,” she says.

Those grandmothers and aunties will also fill a cultural gap for girls who have had transient and traumatic childhoods, she says. “We’ll be doing indigenous cooking classes. Because it is cool to be able to make a salad, but if you come out of foster care and you don’t know how to make your grandma’s mac and cheese, when you re-enter your community they are like, ‘What can you do? Where did you come from? What is your identity?’” says Kimble-Price.

Claire’s House will offer 12 beds in single occupancy rooms, which is unique. “Most places, children are sharing bedrooms,” says Kimble-Price. “It is very rare that any child in foster care gets their own room, ever. And it also allows us to serve trans children because we won’t have any licensing issues with children of different biological sexes sharing a bedroom.”

Kimble-Price was hired by Catholic Charities after working in child crisis intervention for over a decade. She graduated from San Francisco State University in 2006 with her masters in clinical psychology, then interned at San Francisco Child Crisis and Suicide Hotline. She went on to work at West Coast Children’s Clinic where she helped develop their CSEC program, and eventually to Bay Area Youth Center where she ran their pregnant teen parenting program. Kimble-Price has also run a private practice as a marriage and family therapist since 2014.

“Being a third generation Oaklander, being the child of a public-school teacher and from a family of educators, being Black Panther-raised, those are all values that are incredibly important to me, the liberation of children is incredibly important to me. And so that is how I always designed my career,” says Kimble-Price.

Catholic Charities has historically offered services in refugee resettlement and support, immigration, crisis response to those experiencing trauma or grief, housing support for families undergoing crisis, case management for at-risk children, mental health programs, and even literacy programs. But Claire’s House is their first foray into the world of housing sexually exploited youth.

“Hearing about what Catholic Charities wanted to do I was like, ‘Oh this is hard. OK, you guys are diving into the deep-end,’” says Kimble-Price. But she says she saw it as a unique opportunity, and leaned into the challenge. “This is also an opportunity to give back to a population that has either been harmed or been ignored by the church and so that is important to me,” she says.

The idea for Claire’s House came about through conversations between O’Malley and Bishop Michael Barber of the Diocese of Oakland in order to fill the gap in services and provide long term housing for girls ages 12-17 who are transitioning out of a life on the streets.

“I invited the bishop over—he’s a very nice guy—and said ‘Where is the church in all this? What are you guys doing?’ And he said, ‘Well, you know, Catholic school,'” recalls O’Malley.

“Not good enough. Sorry,” she remembers responding.

After that conversation, Barber, who is the president of the board of directors for Catholic Charities of the East Bay agreed to help build a home for young women who are survivors of trafficking. “He didn’t say yes right away, but he did say yes eventually,” says O’Malley.

The hybrid structure of the program, being part county-run and part privately-run, “allows for a lot of creativity and flexibility in the funding and types of programming we can offer,” says Kimble-Price.

The home is named after O’Malley’s mother, Claire O’Malley, who passed away in the early 90’s but who the district attorney remembers as someone for whom “the door was always open. She never judged people. She just was a good person to the core—salt of the earth.”

One of nine children, Nancy O’Malley grew up with parents who advocated for victims of sexual assault as both lawyers and volunteers. She understood early on that she wanted to be part of a solution. Just out of college, she spent time as a rape crisis volunteer. In 1983, after graduating from law school, she went into private practice for one year and joined the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office in 1984.

In the late 90s, while she was working as an attorney, she recalls a case that opened her eyes to sex trafficking. She retells the story of a 12-year-old girl who was being trafficked by a 39-year-old man. He would come to the girl’s house, where she lived with her mother, and take her out at night to be sold for sex. The girl would fight with her mother: She wanted to go with her trafficker. One of the most chilling parts of the story for O’Malley was how “psychologically bonded” the young girl was to her trafficker.

This case stuck with O’Malley and led to many initiatives during her time in the District Attorney’s Office, which she has headed since her appointment in 2009. One of those projects was the creation of the Alameda County Family Justice Center, which opened in 2005. In the last decade, the center has provided thousands of victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, child sexual abuse, elder abuse and human exploitation and trafficking with services ranging from legal help to mental health counseling. In 2005, O’Malley founded the Human Exploitation and Trafficking Unit (H.E.A.T.)  which has worked to prosecute traffickers and buyers. One of H.E.A.T.’s programs is the Alameda County Girl’s Saturday Program which offers education and counseling to at-risk and sexually exploited youth.

“A lot of my work has been around how we are lifting up women, and in particular young women,” she says. Right now, O’Malley says her biggest priority is housing for trafficked youth. “Claire’s house is just the dream that I had,” she says. “The big plan is five houses over the next several years.”

As Claire’s House finishes up construction, Kimble-Price is looking for the right staff. When the house opens its doors, girls who are referred to the program will be admitted two at a time, to allow for the staff and the programs to adjust to their needs. They have been getting weekly requests for months from community partners, resulting in an unofficial waitlist of organizations that are seeking to place girls at Claire’s House.

The demand for safe, long-term housing is high, and Claire’s House will not be able to serve every child that needs this sort of facility, but Kimble-Price believes it is a start. “We are confident that creating an opportunity for healing and emotional abundance will empower young people to reclaim their futures,” says Kimble-Price.

correction:

Holly Joshi recently transitioned from Executive Director of MISSSEY to Senior Advisor.

clarification:

Leah Kimble-Price “helped develop,” and did not “build” as previously published, the CSEC program at West Coast Children’s Clinic.

5 Comments

  1. Susan Tognolini

    I had the pleasure of working with Leah at the elementary school level. None of the staff wanted to see her go, but we knew she was going to do great things…and this is it. Claire’s house will make a huge difference for many girls, and there is no one better to lead it than Leah ! Best wishes to all!!

  2. Shar'ron Johnson-Wilkins

    I commend you for a start but 12 girls? Goal 60? There are so many vacant buildings out there that can house much more. You will do great that I know. I pray for more girls to be helped. The demand is greater and I know, I’m on the outside looking in…But God!

  3. Shar'ron Johnson-Wilkins

    Correction: many more

  4. Florence Davis

    This vision is an answer to prayer! Praise God for all the hard work that everyone has invested to bring this milestone project to fruition! I would be proud to volunteer as one of the “grandmas” with Claire’s House residents. This is the most refreshing, trauma-informed vision for a girls-home that I’ve ever seen during my long career as a rape crisis counselor! I am so excited by the assurance that girls won’t easily get “kicked-out” . . . a major problem with other homes that have tried to accommodate this population. May ur service become a model for many more to come . . . for surely the need is great!

  5. Florence Davis

    Excellent article!

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