More data needed to identify treatments for child sex trafficking survivors in Texas, experts say

Local News

AUSTIN (Nexstar) — When Brooke Crowder thinks about what’s been provided to survivors of child sex trafficking over the last year at The Refuge Ranch, she feels hope. 

“Our goal was that if we could just help one child, it would be worth it,” she said. 

The Refuge Ranch, which covers 50 acres of land in Texas, is a long-term, residential and therapeutic community for children ages 11 through 19 who have been identified as trafficking victims. It opened its doors in 2018 and has helped more than 20 survivors so far. The community can currently house 48 girls. 

Inside The Refuge Ranch. (Wes Rapaport/Nexstar Media Group)

In collaboration with the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Psychiatry and the Institute for Early Life Adversity Research, the child survivors receive psychiatric services. There are various therapeutic programs available as well, including equine therapy, art and yoga. Education is provided through the UT Charter School SystemThe Refuge Ranch’s first impact report says three girls have graduated from the charter school and are now taking college classes. 

“What we’re seeing are tremendous results,” Crowder, the founder and executive director of The Refuge Ranch, said. “We’re seeing girls who are willing to do the hard work to work through their trauma experiences in a loving environment with our team of medical and psychotherapists. What we’re seeing is a lot of hope. We are watching girls transform before our eyes and learning to live again.” 

According to the Polaris Project, a non-profit dedicated to combating human trafficking, in 2017, an estimated one out of seven endangered runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children were likely child sex trafficking victims. 

The Texas Attorney General’s website states at any given time, there are 79,000 victims of youth and minor sex trafficking in the state.

Private donor funding is critical to The Refuge Ranch’s operations. The impact report says 77 percent of the girls living at the ranch are funded through scholarships created by donor funding. Of the remaining 23 percent places by the state, state funding only covers 65 percent of their care. 

“Frankly, the psychotherapy services have been game-changers in regards to watching the girls really get to the heart of their trauma and rewire their brains with those neurotransmitters that were once responding to trauma,” Crowder said. “Now they’re healing and they’re able to think about the future.” 

Dr. Charles Nemeroff, acting chair and professor of the Department of Psychiatry and director of the Institute for Early Life Adversity Research, says child sex trafficking is the most extreme form of childhood maltreatment. 

Adverse Childhood Experiences, also known as ACES, have been connected to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, early deaths, suicide, alcohol and drug use and other negative outcomes, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

“The problem of childhood maltreatment is a humongous public health problem,” he said.  

In addition to providing psychiatric care to residents at The Refuge Ranch, Dr. Nemeroff says researchers at Dell Med hope to conduct research in the future to get a better understanding of the treatments that work for individuals who are survivors of child sex trafficking. 

“No one has ever focused on this most severe form of childhood maltreatment, so there’s a real opportunity here not only to help the girls but to also learn about what’s going on in their brain and in their bodies,” Nemeroff said. 

The hope is that researchers can follow the survivors at The Refuge Ranch from the time they’re admitted to when they leave, as well as their transition from the community to wherever they live next.  

“We simply need to understand what the best treatments are for these victims, not just these victims, but for all victims of childhood maltreatment, including physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse and neglect,” Nemeroff said. 

Leaders at The Refuge hope that if data and evidence are produced, it can highlight models that are working so legislators can use it to guide their policy decisions. 

“Currently, there’s very little, if any data, on what are the best therapeutic and psychotherapy modalities for children,” Crowder said. “What we’re hoping is to provide that over the course of the next few years so that we can make changes statewide.” 

“We’re in it for the long haul to be part of that change,” she added. 

While no research has been performed yet, the hope is that this collaboration can produce data to inform future treatments for childhood survivors of sex trafficking.

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