Child victims of sex trafficking: A wake up call for the church
Anne Reed
AFA Journal staff writer

Photo above, The Refuge Ranch

March 2020“Brooke, I think you need to look around! You’re the only one sitting here weeping. This is clearly the call on your life,” said Brooke Crowder’s seminary advisor.

It was 2004. Crowder (photo, right), a young mother pursuing intercultural studies and world missions at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, sat in a chapel pew deeply grieved, unable to regain her composure for over an hour after watching a video presentation about little girls rescued out of brothels.

“I knew when he said those words to me, he was exactly right,” Crowder told AFA Journal. “But at that time, I knew nothing about the issue of trafficking. Nobody was talking about it going on in our country.”

Crowder began immersing herself in the study of human trafficking, researching and writing on the subject whenever possible. When she graduated in 2006, she moved to Costa Rica to learn Spanish. Once there, she learned the country had one of the highest rates of child exploitation and sex tourism.

“One thing led to another,” she said of her four years in Costa Rica. “I began working with girls being trafficked. Because I was outside my home country, I began to see things more clearly – from a different vantage point.” She realized that if she could help as a guest in a foreign country, certainly she could do something to help in her own country.

Boots on the ground
When she returned to the U.S. in 2010, she settled in the large, capital city of Austin, Texas. She began asking questions, intending to find those already helping child victims of trafficking. She soon discovered most people were completely unaware of the issue.

Crowder began reaching out to domestic violence safehouses, youth homeless shelters, and street outreaches in hopes of helping to identify and rescue trafficking victims.

The responses were always the same: “We really don’t want to start something new.” “That’s not part of our mission.” and “Why don’t you start something?”

She knew from many hours of research that most organizations failed or faltered within a year of getting involved with this type of work. Though her passion continued to increase, and her vision grew more vivid, it wasn’t something she felt qualified to do. It was far too big an undertaking.

“And then I got a call from a man who said, ‘I hear you’re trying to help child sex trafficking victims. I’d like to meet you.’”

They met, and Crowder shared her grandiose vision for helping children severely traumatized by such cruel physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual abuse. At the end of a two-hour conversation, he asked a surprising question:

“So, do you want 50 acres to build that?”

Just say yes
“That was God basically saying, ‘I’m going to build it,’” explained Crowder. “‘Just say yes.’ And, so I did.”

Years later, positioned among the pines of that 50-acre property in Bastrop County, Texas, is The Refuge Ranch, the restorative community Crowder had envisioned, a safe home for child survivors of sex trafficking.

Equipped to serve up to 48 girls through age 19, The Refuge is the largest long-term, live-in rehabilitation facility of its kind in the U.S. Without question, the beautiful $7.5 million property with 23 total buildings is made of miracles.

Community partnerships are in place for provision of medical care for physically abused children, specialized charter school education, and trauma-informed therapy uniquely designed for the development of a child survivor.

The neatly manicured property includes pasture and state-of-the-art equine therapy facilities with horses professionally trained to interact with the girls for therapeutic purposes – all providing a peaceful environment for the long, hard path of healing for each rescued girl.

Each of the 10 residential, five-bedroom cottages is led by a thoroughly trained house mom, providing a warm and contemporary setting where every girl has her own bedroom and bathroom and is encircled with unconditional love, safety, and care.

How it happened
It took four years of work within the hearts of the community before the physical foundations were laid.

“We knew from the get-go,” said Crowder, “that, in order to make this a reality, the community needed to own it – to support, sustain, give us the right tools to do the hard work of helping these girls.”

She knew awareness was key.

“For me, the whole catalyst for getting into this work,” she explained, “was knowledge – really understanding what was going on.”

In 2014, she began asking friends and acquaintances to host “home gatherings” – to simply open their homes and invite those in their sphere of influence: neighbors, coworkers, Bible study groups, etc.

“We kept them super simple,” Crowder explained. “We didn’t want them to feel like productions. And we never asked for money. We made that clear. I would educate on the issue and share the vision for The Refuge. Then we always left time for people to ask hard questions.”

They learned that sex trafficking was the fastest growing crime in the world, that nearly 80,000 young adults and minors had been sex trafficked in their own state of Texas. And they were assured it was happening in their own communities. They were informed that while the U.S. has over 13,000 community animal shelters, it has less than 600 beds for children who have been sex trafficked.

And that’s when people began to care – to care deeply. The home gatherings began to snowball, each one begetting another.

“I always wanted people’s hearts to be moved by the issue,” said Crowder. “And, typically when people’s hearts get involved with something, their resources follow.”

By 2015, many were asking how they could help, which led to ever increasing community partnerships. Monthly meetings with area contractors led to the official groundbreaking ceremony in the fall of 2016. The Refuge officially opened its doors in August 2018.

Captured hearts
Crowder was right. God built it by capturing the heart of a community. And in the same manner, He is sustaining it.

At The Refuge, girls once traumatized by severe abuse are learning to live again, each growing into her God-ordained person and purpose

Crowder said it best: “Our story is the story of a community reaching out to the broken-hearted, the weak and weary, and the one who feels forgotten, in order to bring hope for a new life free from violence and exploitation.

“The story of The Refuge reflects God’s story to all of us: God rescues us from darkness, restores our hearts through His healing love, and brings redemption to our lives for purpose and freedom, rather than captivity and despair.”   

AFA aids trafficking victims
AFA’s partner ministry Eight Days of Hope (EDOH), has added a new outreach to serve faith-based groups such as The Refuge. EDOH has set a goal to help build or expand a faith-based safe house or long-term care facility once each month. A team of 35 skilled workers will travel to the ministry and donate 14 days of labor.

In late 2019, AFAJ writer Anne Reed joined EDOH’s volunteer team and traveled to Texas for a few days to assist The Refuge toward completion of its state-of-the-art equine therapy facilities.

Learn more at therefugeaustin.org and eightdaysofhope.com.

— Randall Murphree