By Jamie Manirakiza, Executive Director, PEHT
Nina Gustin, Board of Directors, PEHT
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month so it is an appropriate time to draw attention to the very real crimes of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Trafficking is the buying and selling of human beings by means of force, fraud, or coercion. Wherever sex is bought or sold there is trafficking – far from a victimless crime or a “life choice,” sex trafficking is gender-based violence, most often perpetuated against the most vulnerable and marginalized members of our community. High profile perpetrators such as Jeffrey Epstein, R. Kelly, Robert Craft, and the father in the Sarah Lawrence University case have raised our awareness of this issue as a problem in all areas of the United States. The insidious and secretive nature of these crimes make hard numbers of victims difficult to come by as these crimes have typically been both grossly underreported and under prosecuted, but in 2020, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline reported contact with cases involving almost 17,000 victims. Most victims are recruited, bought, and sold online through websites or apps and are no longer visible on the street. Covid has only exacerbated the underground nature of these criminal enterprises, while concomitantly increasing the demand. Trauma bonding and coercive control remove any sense that the victim has the choice or power to leave. Unless there is a way out, with real resources on the other side, the calculus will continue to favor the abusers, traffickers and buyers.
The scope and severity of the issue, and the complex trauma and damage done to the survivor make this a very daunting problem. Survivors are many and resources are scarce. But, there is hope! Programs across the nation are working to address this scourge. Enter The Partnership to End Human Trafficking, launched in 2016, by Elizabeth Koldyke Boolbol and a passionate board of directors with the goal of changing the trajectory of commercial sexual exploitation in Fairfield County and beyond by providing survivors with a pathway to healing and independence. We provide: safe, trauma-informed treatment in a home environment; economic empowerment through job skills training, employment in our PEHT social enterprise business, and access to higher education; and community outreach and education by way of seminars, speaking engagements, and training sessions for law enforcement, adjunctive providers, and volunteers.
In late 2020, PEHT purchased its first residence in Bridgeport for survivors of sex trafficking. Currently, PEHT is the only anti-human trafficking residence in the Fairfield County/New Haven region and only one of two in the state. Our two-year residential program provides safe, trauma informed housing which serves as the foundation from which recovery, growth, and healing can occur. In this immersive home setting, we provide a host of holistic trauma and substance use recovery programs and comprehensive supportive services. Within two months of opening our doors our beds were full. We work collaboratively with our community partners to secure safe short-term housing for appropriate referrals for whom we do not provide housing. To address this need we have developed a mobile community case management program to provide therapeutic support, and coordination of services to community partner agencies including; dental, medical, psychiatric, substance use treatment, identification assistance, and reinstatement of health and other government benefits to women who do not live in the PEHT Home. In 2021 we served 23 survivors, provided over 1500 nights of housing, hundreds of meals, numerous crisis intervention services, and support for survivors seven days a week, 365 days a year. We know that safe, secure housing and meaningful employment are crucial in creating sustainable exit ramps out of exploitation, and we remain committed to this fight.
If you would like to learn more about human trafficking and/or get involved, we would love to connect! To learn more through documentaries and film we recommend: Very Young Girls, I am Jane Doe, Frontline’s Sex trafficking in America, and The LifeStory short video series. To connect with us at PEHT, follow us on Instagram. Shop our PEHT Shop products, which directly support survivor employment opportunities and global efforts. This month we are making a signature dog leash to support anti trafficking efforts in Europe in response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. To make a donation, or volunteer visit us at www.peht.org to learn more! Everyone has a part to play and we hope you will join us.