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Richmond Region Gets Shelter for Victims of Human Trafficking

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The story of Deena underscored the mission behind the opening of the region’s first shelter dedicated to female victims of human trafficking Wednesday.

When the woman came to Safe Harbor, which helps survivors of sexual and domestic abuse, she was “outraged, brutally beaten and emotionally abused,” said Cheryl Hunt, the nonprofit’s director of safe houses.

“She asked me, ‘How could he do this me?’” Hunt recalled, “as she pointed to her bloody mouth and her missing teeth. Deena told me: ‘I refuse to work the streets for him anymore. After 14 years, I am done.’”

Deena’s experience was among those shared during the opening of the shelter, a project of Safe Harbor and Bon Secours Richmond Health System. Stories were told of women who not only were abused, but also sexually trafficked by people who forced or coerced their labor. This kind of modern-day slavery is on the rise.

The shelter, which officially welcomes residents in January, is unique in its combination of counseling and medical services and their relationship with law enforcement, officials said.

In the past, victims would have been brought to Safe Harbor’s domestic violence shelter, said Cathy Easter, executive director of Safe Harbor.

“When we didn’t have space there,” she said, “the only option would be to house them in a hotel, which is the worst place, because that’s where they were victimized. So that’s like putting them back where they experienced all their trauma.”

Eighty percent of human trafficking involves sexual exploitation, according to law-enforcement statistics, with 50 percent of victims younger than 16.

Women who come to Safe Harbor can come from all over the world, according to the nonprofit, but the majority is from the United States. Putting them in facilities outside the state makes criminal prosecution and testimony against the trafficker more difficult.

“In Henrico County, in the past three or four years, they’ve had 30 victims, and they’ve gone to shelters outside of the state -- Louisiana, Oklahoma,” Easter said -- but they’d have to return to testify, creating a complicated situation logistically.

The shelter is funded partly through a $500,000 grant from Virginia’s Department of Criminal Justice Services. It will have eight beds, and Safe Harbor estimates that there will be 15 residents in 2017. Capacity will increase to 25 in 2018.

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