“I knew about trafficking, but I didn’t really want to know about trafficking,” admits Grace Williams — before she started learning the facts about modern slavery.
That learning changed her life and the lives of many others.
Williams, 29, founded the anti-human-trafficking apostolate Children of the Immaculate Heart (CIH) in 2013 and is hoping later this year to open the first CIH residential-treatment facility for juvenile trafficking victims.
A resident of San Diego, she recently spoke with the Register about the modern slave trade and how her faith supports her work.
How did the idea for an anti-trafficking organization first come to you?
I entered the Church in Denver and was discerning with a Benedictine monastery, and something didn’t quite fit. I finally had to accept I had to do something in the world.
During the time I was discerning, I went on a pilgrimage, Bikes for the Unborn — you go from Mission San Gabriel up to the Santa Barbara Mission and back on bikes — and the priest chaplain was reading a book about trafficking.
I knew about trafficking, but I didn’t really want to know about trafficking. In fact, I have a friend who had gone to Kosovo and spent time doing anti-trafficking work there, and she said, “You never even asked me about it.” I said, “Yeah, I guess I didn’t really want to know.”
[That priest] inspired me to look at it, and that was the beginning. That was the summer of 2012.
When you began looking at human trafficking, what was the most startling thing you learned?
The first thing that kind of surprised me was the amount of children who were trafficked — and who were trafficked in the United States. Worldwide, the average age of trafficked girls is 12-14.
Those were the kind of things that shocked me.
Is that why you decided to focus your organization on helping juvenile trafficking victims?
That wasn’t really my original intent. It was based on the need, really.
The average age of entry into prostitution in the U.S. is 12 to 14. (Any prostitution of a minor is legally considered human trafficking because the minor doesn’t have the ability to consent.) Sixty percent of trafficked minors are runaways from foster care.
It’s a whole cycle of the breakdown of the family, the totally off-the-wall human sexuality culture and girls who have never, never been loved, never had a family. They’re very easy to convince: “Oh, yeah, I’ll be your boyfriend. Oh, yeah, I needed money for my car; will you sell yourself for me?”
There’s so much brokenness. It’s true [about] their whole lives.
How big is the problem of human trafficking?
According to the 2014 U.S. State Department’s “Trafficking in Persons” report, there are 20 million victims of human trafficking globally. The number of human beings trafficked will soon rival the numbers of the slave trade in the 1700s. Most trafficking now is clandestine, whereas, before, it was an accepted institution; it was seen. But now that it’s not seen, it’s considered amazing that there could actually be that many.
Why did you think San Diego was a good place for an anti-trafficking outreach?
The U.S. is one of the top three destination points for trafficking victims globally. (I think that’s because there’s more money here. If you’re going to sell somebody, you can get more money in the U.S.)
California’s one of the top four destination states within the country. Locally, the most important thing to know is that the FBI has identified [San Diego] as a high-density trafficking area. The district attorney of San Diego says that human trafficking has, in some cases, replaced drug dealing locally.
It’s the ninth-worst city in the country for child trafficking, and there’s not a single home for trafficked minors in the entire county. It became apparent ... that this is what we needed to do.
You’re planning to open Casa Immaculata, your residential-treatment center for juvenile trafficking survivors, late this year or early next year — more than two years after Children of the Immaculate Heart incorporated.
This is not a work for somebody who needs to see immediate results! This is our Lord’s work. These things take time; you have to trust a lot.
Anybody who has ever been a foster parent or adopted a child knows how lengthy and expensive that process is. It’s very similar [to what we’re doing now]. You have to do a 40-hour class just to get certified to try to get a license.
I told my spiritual director at the beginning of this: “The two things I really hate are public speaking and paperwork.” He said, “Yeah, get used to it.”
Where are you in the process of preparing to open the facility?
Right now, we’re focusing on fundraising and internal development, so when we get a place, we can start the process of getting a license. $1.5 million is the fundraising goal to purchase the property; once the property is licensed and it’s open, it’s largely funded through the government. These girls are wards of the state; they’re in juvenile hall or the foster-care system. The money that would be going to take care of them in another location will come to us.
We’re starting from absolute scratch, but we’ve made really good progress. I’m really impressed with the diocese stepping up to help us and the support from different parishes, particularly my parish. I think it’s going really well. It just takes time to get big donors to even trust you.
What will your treatment model look like?
We are modeling it largely after Amy’s House in Colorado. The director of that home shared with me their schedule, and it’s like a little monastery: They wake up, and there’s 30 minutes of meditation. There’s time for exercise every day. The idea is to keep them busy. If they have too much time to sit around, they get lost inside.
It’s a three-pronged program that we’ve planned: residential, therapeutic and educational — and, obviously, spiritual [care] goes into all of those. There’ll be a licensed psychologist who would meet with each girl on an individual basis and also specialty therapy sessions. My favorite one, in terms of effectiveness, is equine therapy. Our long-term goal is to have horses on site, but for the time being, there’s an equine therapy place in the county where we’d like to take the girls on a field trip once a week. It builds a sense of responsibility for somebody other than yourself.
Your joyfulness in the work really shines through — but it must be difficult to stay upbeat in the face of this very dark reality. How do you do it?
I really think it’s the grace of God — daily Mass, daily Holy Hour. There are other people in the anti-trafficking field who have a lot of anger, but if we have any anger in our hearts at all, we really ruin the whole thing. That’s really not an option for a Christian.
You have to go into it realizing you’re not doing this for you: You’re not doing this to feel good; you’re doing it for the love of God and so these people knows that they’re loved. They’re not necessarily going to be grateful for what you’re doing. You see progress, little by little — and that’s very encouraging, very exciting. And you go forward.
Elisabeth Deffner writes from Orange, California.