Voice of Hope works to counter sex trafficking

by MATT MOLINAR//Associate Editor

For victims of human trafficking, and those who are struggling to leave the lifestyle of prostitution, help can be difficult to come by.

Voice of Hope in Lubbock is a social services organization that offers assistance to those affected by sexual crimes and violence. The aide provided is free and confidential.

Katherine Arrington says she, along with Jaime Wheeler, has been working with Voice of Hope for one year as case managers for sex trafficking victims. Arrington says that before the two began working with Voice of Hope, the organization was lacking in services for sex trafficking victims.

“There were different needs,” Arrington said in a recent interview with the Plainsman Press. “They realized these needs were different from those of rape victims. That’s when they hired on Jaime Wheeler, who offered me my position.”

Arrington says that the main focus of their work is victims of sex trafficking. She describes herself as a social worker for sex trafficking victims.

The organization offers many services to those affected, including a 24-hour crisis hotline, medical accompaniment, 24-hour SANE services (or Sexual Assault Nurse Examinations), counseling services, law enforcement accompaniment, case follow-up and referral, judicial accompaniment, and community education.

“We work with them directly,” Arrington explained. “We provide as many services as we can give them to help them out. We also want to make sure we get them signed up for crime victim’s compensation paperwork. We provide an on-sight counselor who works directly with the victim for free.”

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In 2016, Voice of Hope Lubbock worked with 55 cases involving human trafficking. Arrington says 21 percent of those cases involved children.

“Human trafficking is the second largest growing crime,” Arrington explained. “What we see so often is that drug dealers find that they can sell a drug only one time. But with sex trafficking, victims are able to be sold more than once to make more money, and that plays into why it is such a growing crime.”

Arrington says that our society thinks the women involved in prostitution are in it for fun. When she started working with victims, she soon realized the real issues at hand.

“The biggest mind shift for me has been seeing these women as victims,” Arrington said. “It’s astounding how these men can prey on vulnerable women. Seeing how manipulative these men are really changed the way I look at the situation.”

Arrington says she has worked with people from many different backgrounds, including some who have been sold into prostitution by their own parents. Other victims, Arrington says, have gone through a process she calls the “grooming process” from a pimp.

“They like to look for vulnerable people living in poverty,” she explained. “The pimp will shower the victim with gifts and show them a better life. They don’t know that it’s really dangerous, so they latch on to them. By the time a month passes, the guys turn on them and they’re stuck, and it’s hard to get out.”

Some of the girls who receive help from the organization can be transported to safe houses around Texas. These safe houses can provide recovery programs for the victims.

“We’ve sent many girls to different programs,” Arrington said. “That’s huge for them. While they’re being trafficked, the victims don’t have access to their basic needs. These programs offer a safe place, food, clothing, and access to a doctor.”

According to Arrington, the Human Resource Coalition is working toward raising money to help establish a shelter for trafficking victims in Lubbock.

“It would be a really great opportunity for them,” Arrington said. “The Human Resource Coalition aims to educate the public about what’s going on and get as many people on board as possible.”

Arrington says that because traffickers and pimps are involved in the situations, the victims could be in danger if they try leaving their lifestyles. They can also pose a danger for the on-site counselor.

“They are not safe at all,” she added. “That’s why it is important to have a great task force. We work with law enforcement, doctors and anyone else they might see when they come into contact with this kind of stuff.”

Every month, the organization holds a START meeting (or Sex Trafficking Allied Response Team) when the task force is gathered into one room to discuss cases and further educate each other on the issue. Arrington says this way, law enforcement can approach a situation with the victim in mind.

“Everyone is working together to keep the girls from falling into gaps,” Arrington said. “It’s such a tricky situation, because they’re lied to and develop trust issues. If I were in that position, I would have trust issues. Voice of Hope wants to come in and make them feel safe.”

When a victim is first encountered, Arrington says she compiles a care package with basic hygiene products, snacks, and even socks.

“We’ve found that the girls are most excited about the socks they receive,” Arrington said. “All of the stuff they had in their possession is taken away from them by their pimp. It empowers them to have their own stuff,”

Arrington, along with Wheeler, makes weekly visits to the Lubbock County Jail, where they are able to meet with women who have been jailed on prostitution charges. Even if the individual is in jail, the police take a victim-centered approach,  the same process they would go through with a trafficking victim, although resources are limited for inmates.

“We can get things going for them to prepare for their release,” Arrington explained. “When they get out of jail, we want them to have the same resources. That’s one of the main things we do.”

Arrington says that a victim is met through many different ways. She says one way they meet victims is through law enforcement. When the victim is assumed to be involved in a crime, the police will call and ask Arrington or Wheeler to develop a relationship with them. They offer the care package in a bag and introduce themselves.

“We let them know who we are and what we’re about,” Arrington explained. “We let her know what’s going to happen and give her a good idea so she can feel more comfortable. If they comply, we take them in and suggest they get a SANE exam from a nurse specifically trained to work with victims. We do this to make sure they are healthy – mentally and physically.”

Arrington explained that, many times, victims return to their lives of prostitution after being “brainwashed” by their pimps and traffickers.

“No matter what resources we offer, they still might go back,” she said. “We don’t want that, but we still stay in contact with them as much as possible. We need them to know that we are present for them, and they can always reach out and receive help.”

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