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Shelter in San Antonio serves young sex trafficking victims

Shelter in San Antonio serves young sex trafficking victims

February 25th, 2019 by Associated Press in Texas News

SAN ANTONIO—The underage victims of sex trafficking in San Antonio now have a new place to heal and overcome their trauma, thanks to a partnership between Roy Maas Youth Alternatives and a number of local donors.

The San Antonio Express-News reports La Puerta Emergency Shelter—puerta means door in Spanish—has opened on a busy street on the North Side, adding to RYMA's existing complex of shelters and services for homeless, runaway and abused or neglected youths.

La Puerta, which encompasses 8,000 square feet, has 16 beds and a host of services for people ages 5 to 17 who've either been sex-trafficked, are suspected of being trafficked or are at risk of being bought and sold for sex, said Julie Strentzsch, RYMA's chief program officer.

They can stay up to 90 days at the state-licensed facility while the staff works to either safely reunify them with families or have them placed in long-term care through Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

"These kids need time to re-acclimate to the idea of rejoining humanity," she said. "They've been so traumatized that they just need some structure and some time to just be a kid again."

La Puerta has a family room, a common room with couches and chairs, a spacious dining room and an onsite charter school, where young clients can catch up.

"Many of these youth have fallen way behind in their education," said Lisa Brothers, RYMA spokeswoman.

In Texas, at any one time an estimated 79,000 youths are being exploited for sex, a study conducted by the University of Texas at Austin found. Many never are rescued because so few cry out to police or other authorities for help.

An evolving approach in Bexar County and elsewhere in Texas treats minors caught up in sex trafficking as victims, not prostitutes. Facilities like La Puerta and Centro Seguro—a 24-hour drop-in center run by RMYA and located next to the new shelter—are aimed at keeping them out of the criminal juvenile justice system.

Debbie Solcher, who works on a special child sex trafficking team created by Gov. Greg Abbott, said the state recently approved $18 million that will go to local and state initiatives to address underage sexual exploitation.

The Kronkosky Charitable Foundation and Impact San Antonio are among the local nonprofits that contributed to the new facility, which Strentzsch estimated would fill up quickly upon opening. A final inspection by the state will take place soon, said RYMA CEO Bill Wilkinson.

Centro Seguro, which offers runaway and homeless youth food, showers, counseling and other services, has served almost 300 young clients since opening in October 2017.

Various officials spoke on a recent Wednesday, but perhaps the most poignant words came from Allison Franklin, an adult survivor of child sex trafficking who drove from her home in Kyle.

Franklin, 34, who ran away from home at age 11, ended up being kidnapped by gang members in Houston and trafficked for sex for decades. She became a drug addict and spent multiple stints in prison for various crimes.

Today, she's working toward a bachelor's degree at UT-Austin and is a policy fellow with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, a nonprofit that works on justice policies.

"If I'd had a place like this, my life would have been different," she said. La Puerta "gives kids an amazing opportunity to start identifying with their futures, rather than the past. They can get at the root causes of their trauma."

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