Abell Salutes: TurnAround

April 2012 / Salutes / Criminal Justice and Addiction, Health and Human Services

For providing victims of sex trafficking with a new life.

“This is my new family. This is where I was reborn.”

The telephone jars Roz Branson awake at about 2:30 in the morning. She is not surprised at the call nor to hear the caller say, “This is Paul Smith (not his real name) of the FBI– and we have a 17-year-old girl we picked up in a raid for sex trafficking. She wants out. We are at (name of hotel withheld), come get her.” That explanation is all too familiar to Ms. Branson; she is the executive director of TurnAround, whose mission is to provide outreach support services for Baltimore City’s victims of sex trafficking.

The call starts a chain of events that leads the girl out of the sex trafficking ring and into the welcoming arms of TurnAround. Six months later, Denise (not her real name) is able to tell a visitor that she is now attending school and dreams of being an attorney one day. She is studying math, shopping, enjoying the company of newly-acquired friends, and appears personable, confident and even, joyful—she is actually now a cheerleader at her new high school. What happened in those six months? What took Denise from the place in life she was in, sold as a sex worker, to the place in life she is now–in a mood light enough to inspire her to become a student in high school and even a cheerleader for its teams? She has an answer: “TurnAround became my family, and this is where I was reborn.”

TurnAround is a non-profit organization that has been providing counseling for victims of domestic violence and sexual assault since 1978. In fiscal year 2010, with a budget of nearly $1.3 million, the agency provided direct services to 1,100 adult and child victims, including 122 adults and children who were sheltered, representing approximately 5,000 overnight stays. Responding to human trafficking calls is also the business of TurnAround; with Abell Foundation funding, TurnAround is now providing emergency shelter and support services for Baltimore City’s victims of sex trafficking.

Sex trafficking is a form of modern day slavery where women and young girls are forced to engage in the commercial sex trade. By definition, a sex trafficking victim is anyone who engages in commercial sex as the result of force, fraud or coercion, or who is under the age of 18 (anyone underage cannot give consent to engage in prostitution).

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“When we get these calls,” Ms. Branson, says, “our anti-trafficking team quickly arranges for a ‘handoff’—that is, a safe place where the girl can be transferred from FBI custody to our program. It’s usually a hotel, or police headquarters, or a parking lot—a McDonald’s parking lot, for example.

“We find the victim has the clothes on her back and nothing else. We keep jogging suits in the trunk of the car, we get her dressed and then we get her fed and then—remember she is one scared girl now!—we take her to a safe hotel room and let her get a good night’s rest. A staff member stays with her, and in the morning sees that she gets breakfast. Then, from there on out, well— every case is different. It depends on the victim’s needs, and we are prepared to address all of them.

“But the key component to our programming is the treatment of the trauma that follows sexual violence. If you are raped a thousand times you have a very high level of violence to deal with—and we do. We find short term housing. We provide talk therapy. We assist with job training. We work on individual educational needs—some of these girls have not been in school since they were 13 years old. We do job placement and permanent shelter—sometimes in a foster home. We develop a life plan.”

The TurnAround program now serves around 40 girls—all victims of sexual trafficking in Maryland. Abell Salutes Rosalyn Branson, executive director of TurnAround– and also, “Denise,” for making the long journey from sex victim to engaged student, and into a spirit of well-being that led her to become a cheerleader for her school. She does indeed have much to cheer about.