The ranch sits just outside Houston, down a farm-to-market road and off a winding path.
Like most ranches, the entrance is guarded by an unmarked gate. You press a button, explain your business, and the gate opens onto a narrow road flanked by horses munching on grass. Birds chirp as they wind among the loblolly pines that blanket the 110-acre expanse before you. A rooster crows in the distance. Paddle boats and canoes are lined up at the dock on the ranch’s small lake. It feels like a summer camp here; in fact, it once was.
The main building resembles a large log cabin, with rustic wood rocking chairs on the porch and a makeshift soccer field out back. Inside are long corridors of typical teen-girl bedrooms—walls painted in soft colors, piles of clothes—in two separate wings, with a spacious kitchen and living room in between.
You see girls taping up homemade posters on the walls, written in purple and pink and decorated with photos and decals. “Vote Destiny for President,” one says. “Your voice, your choice” reads the cursive script beneath it.
“They are learning about women’s rights,” says Shandra Carter, who runs the ranch. Its name, Freedom Place, cannot be found on any map, which is no accident. The ranch exists for the tranquility, privacy and protection of its residents, underage Texas girls who are victims of sex trafficking.
For Destiny*, it all started one day in 2014 after she missed the bus to school. Normally, the boys in her Northline neighborhood would walk with her to the bus, but she was running late and they didn’t wait. Destiny, who was 15 at the time, dreaded waking up her stepmom and telling her that she’d missed the bus again. Instead, she decided to catch a Metro bus. On her way to that corner, she noticed a truck circling the block—once, twice, several times. The driver looked familiar. He’d asked her before if she wanted a ride.
Destiny turned around and broke into a run, racing back to her subdivision. The truck soon pulled up behind and the man jumped out, grabbing her. She froze.
“I didn’t fight or nothing, you know?” she says now. “I didn’t know what he would do to me, and I didn’t know what to do.”
Her attacker took her to a warehouse filled with lots of other young girls like her, and many men as well. After three or four of them raped her, she recalls, the man who’d abducted her forced Destiny to solicit johns on the street.
“At the time, I didn’t know anything about trafficking, I didn’t know what it was. I really didn’t know what he was going to do to me,” she says. “So I kind of went into survival mode and did whatever I had to do to get out of that situation I was in.”
After she told one of the men on the street what was happening to her, he offered to drive her to a hotel to clean up, and then take her home. “But when we got to the hotel and I got out of the shower and stuff, it’s like his whole demeanor changed,” Destiny recalls.
The man, it turned out, was a pimp who forced her to prostitute herself for several more days, until at last she was saved in an undercover police sting. The police reunited Destiny with her family, who had been searching for her frantically.
When Destiny returned home, her father, Charles, noticed a clear change. “She was always a people person,” he says, noting that his daughter was active in her high school’s debate team. “But we noticed that she was kind of subdued, reserved. Like she didn’t have a trust for mankind.”
It took a week before Destiny could bring herself to tell her parents what had happened. They were horrified. She stayed home from school for three months, and then the family moved, seeking a fresh start for Destiny in a new school. It wasn’t a good fit. She started getting picked on and bullied by other girls. Her father saw her withdraw more and more with each passing day.
“I didn’t like myself, I hated myself,” Destiny recalls. “My self esteem was, like, really, really, really low.” And so she looked online for consolation. “When I first got on the Internet, I started getting attention from men,” she says. “I thought it was because they thought I was pretty or whatever. I didn’t think it was because they wanted sex from me or, you know, they were pimps or anything like that.”
One day last June, she asked one of the men she’d been chatting with to pick her up from school. The man took her to a mall, and then dropped her at what he said was his mother’s house while he went on an errand. Hours later, Destiny was still alone in the unfamiliar house, calling and calling the man’s phone and getting no answer. Suddenly, he burst through the door, grabbed Destiny, dragged her down the stairs and out of the house. He hit her, forced her into the car, and drove her to a hotel to have sex with a john. Once again, she was saved by a sting operation—the john turned out to be an undercover police officer—but HPD was skeptical. They interrogated her for hours at the hotel, Destiny says, not believing her when she said she was 16. Ultimately, she was placed in juvenile detention for three days, and then sent to a psychiatric hospital after she tried to kill herself.
Her father, meanwhile, contacted a lawyer and started looking for a residential treatment center for Destiny. There were county-run facilities, of course, but Charles disliked their strict lock-down policies—he didn’t want Destiny to feel like she was being punished. Then he discovered Freedom Place, where his daughter would be treated not as a criminal but what she was—the victim of multiple crimes.
Not only had Destiny never heard of the ranch, she’d never even heard the phrase "sex trafficking." Researching the term online, she says, was the first step in her recovery.
“When I was at the psych hospital, girls were asking me what I’m there for. And even though I wouldn’t want to tell them, I would just say, like, prostitution or something like that. And they would look at me, like, eww, why were you out there? But if I say ‘sex trafficking,’ people will want to ask you more about it,” she says. “I started using it instead of ‘prostitution.’ I see sex trafficking more as like being forced or not wanting to do it.”
Charles thought that the soothing atmosphere of Freedom Place was just what his daughter needed to jumpstart the healing process. “I was just trying to find the best care that we could for her,” he says. “So I just reached out.”
Freedom Place started as a kernel of an idea in Nikki Richnow’s mind. The wife of an Episcopal pastor and former head of the White House gifts office under George H.W. Bush, Richnow is a tiny, blond woman who looks much younger than her 72 years. People who know her describe her as a force of nature. In the ’70s, she rose through the ranks as an industrial salesperson, selling wire rope and steel in what was then a virtually all-male industry.
In 2010, after traveling to Thailand with a church group to learn about sex trafficking, Richnow says she was surprised to find that the problem existed right here at home. Accurate numbers are notoriously difficult to come by, but a report by the Texas Attorney General’s Office tallied 764 children who were likely victims of sex trafficking in the state between 2007 and 2014.
Richnow realized that, while there were treatment facilities for adult sex-trafficking victims and for foreign victims, there weren’t any residential treatment centers in Texas for American-born children. She began trying to raise funds and to search for somewhere to build such a center—a long and sometimes discouraging process, she says—until she happened to sit at a luncheon next to Mark Tennant, the founder of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, a Christian nonprofit that’s one of the state’s largest private providers of foster care and adoption services. Today, Richnow sees that chance meeting as a sign from God. When she told Tennant of her plans, he mentioned that he just happened to own a 110-acre ranch outside of town that sat idle most of the year. Richnow took a drive out there the following week.
“The moment I drove in, I knew it was where it was supposed to be,” Richnow says. The ranch already had several buildings on it, having previously been used as a summer camp for foster children, and Tennant had been looking for a year-round use for the land. Richnow’s idea seemed a natural fit, especially because foster kids are much more likely than other children to become sex-trafficking victims. Among the nearly 12,000 runaways reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2015, it is estimated that one in five was likely sex-trafficked. Of those, nearly 75 percent come from the foster care or social services system.
Tennant’s 110 acres—complete with a small lake, a corral for horses, and forests of pine—was just what Richnow had imagined. “The vision God gave for me was always big, it was just big,” she remembers. “Not grandiose, but it wasn’t going to be a little three-bedroom safe house; I knew it was supposed to be more. When we drove in the gate, it matched my vision, and it was just thrilling.”
When Freedom Place opened its doors in 2012, it was Texas’s first residential treatment center for domestic children who are victims of sex trafficking. With space for up to 30 residents, the center accepts girls as young as 9 and as old as 18, although most are between 13 and 17. A staff of 30, employed by Arrow, leads the girls—around 12 are in residence at any given time—through weekly therapy sessions, guiding them through the healing process and helping them catch up on academic work (Freedom Place is partnering with a local school district so girls can earn a high school diploma instead of a GED). Although it’s a Christian place run by a Christian organization, Shandra Carter stresses that religion is never forced on the girls. “Our job is to walk with them on their journey, wherever they are at with it right now,” Carter says.
Though still a member of Freedom Place’s advisory council, Richnow says that she prefers spending time with the girls to raising money. She still organizes the annual luncheon at the River Oaks Country Club, however, which typically raises $250,000, and she says she’s still ready to rally her fundraising troops whenever the need arises, as it did with Destiny.
After Charles initially reached out to Freedom Place, the staff met with his daughter and decided that she’d be a great fit for the program. Unfortunately, without help, the family couldn’t afford it. It costs $300 a day to provide the staff, food and resources for one girl at Freedom Place (a cost that adds up to an annual budget of $2.1 million), and while there are state funds available to help offset that cost if a girl comes through the Department of Family and Protective Services or the juvenile justice system, privately referred families like Destiny’s have fewer options.
For a time, Destiny was able to receive a limited amount of funding through the Texas Crime Victims Compensation Program, but that ran out within a few months. Seeing the progress she was making, and knowing how close she was to getting her high school diploma, Richnow and her team sprang into action, finding the money needed to keep Destiny at Freedom Place until graduation. “She needed more time there for schooling, and so I raised funds for her,” Richnow says. “If there’s a need, I’ll raise it.”
In one way, Destiny’s story is atypical. Most girls who are sex-trafficked do not get abducted off the street. Instead, the scenario tends to follow a pattern like the second part of Destiny’s story, in which a girl runs away and ends up in over her head. Traffickers try to solicit young teens online by flirting, complimenting their appearance, and eventually asking to meet. The girls—the average age someone in the U.S. enters trafficking is 12 to 14—often think they have an older boyfriend, someone who cares for them, who buys them clothes and lavishes attention. Sex acts with other paying men will be forced on her bit by bit. Or she might be brutally raped right away, like Destiny was, in an effort to break her spirit and numb her into submission.
The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 defines child sex trafficking as “any commercial sex act if the person is under 18 years of age, regardless of whether any form of coercion is involved.” That last line about coercion is important; often girls who are victims have complicated relationships with their traffickers. Many of the girls, especially those who have suffered physical and/or sexual abuse, view their traffickers as father figures or protectors. Many traffickers target girls who have run away, are in foster care, or are fleeing unsafe homes.
Girls who become trafficking victims are often already involved with the juvenile justice system in one way or another. And until recently, the system thought of them as prostitutes and criminals. That only began to change in 2010, when the Texas Supreme Court ruled that girls under the age of 14 can’t be charged with prostitution. That landmark case, coupled with the 2009 creation of the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force, which mandated training for police officers in how to identify and properly handle cases of sex trafficking involving minors, accelerated a larger cultural shift away from blaming victims, especially when those victims are children.
Before that, “these girls were seen as criminals and they were charged with a crime,” says Debi Tengler, the national relations officer for Arrow Child and Family Ministries. “And when you’re talking about a 13-year-old charged with a crime, immediately, her future’s not very bright.”
“I just don't tell my story to anyone, but I tell it to the people that I feel like I could help,” Destiny says. “I feel like if somebody read my story and what I’ve been through here, my journey and stuff, I can probably motivate them, or get them to tell their children about it.”
She is sitting very straight in her chair as she says this. We are in Shandra Carter’s office, which smells like cookie-scented candles, on a bright sunny day earlier this year. Destiny says that she’s nervous, that she’s never told the story all at once before, much less to a stranger. But she wants to help other girls, she wants her experience to mean something.
She tells her story in its entirety, and then goes back over it again, her voice flat and emotionless. She says afterward that she feels anxious because she hates thinking about her experiences, that she felt disconnected to the words pouring out.
“Just six days,” she says, when asked about the period between her abduction and reunion with her family.
“Let’s try that again,” Carter interrupts, looking directly into her eyes. “It wasn’t just six days; it was six long, serious days.”
Destiny nods. It’s clear that she’s still processing the experience, still trying to deal with the shame she feels whenever someone says why didn’t you just run? Or you could’ve fought, or tried to escape.
“I didn’t know how to explain that, you know, to my parents when I got back home,” she says. “I’ve never been put in a situation like that, so it was better for me to just stand there in shock than run or fight or something, because I was so scared. I’m not used to, like, fighting for myself or sticking up for myself.”
“People don’t choose whether they have a fight, flight or freeze response,” Carter tells her. “That’s not a choice that you get to make.”
“Yeah, but my family doesn’t know nothing about it,” Destiny replies. “That’s the first thing that they said, like, ‘you could have ran, you could have fought, you could’—”
“Your brain didn’t give you the choice,” Carter says. “So right now, when the part of your brain that makes good decisions is completely functioning and online, that’s your frontal lobe here.” Carter uses her hand to show Destiny where on the brain she means. “And this makes great choices, because everything is safe. When you’re not safe, this part of your brain—”
“The limbic system?” Destiny offers.
“That’s right!” Carter says. “The limbic system makes the choices. So in the moment this is all about what do I need to do to survive? And your brain said, ‘I’m gonna freeze.’ That’s what you had to do to survive.”
For Shandra Carter, who became Freedom Place’s executive director in March of last year, explaining how the brain operates is an important part of reducing the shame the girls feel about their trafficking experiences. Before that, Carter spent nearly a decade working for the Washington State Department of Corrections, where she led a treatment program for adult sex offenders. She’s also worked in programs for teen girls that take a more traditional approach to treatment, one in which girls who have been victimized often end up treated like criminals themselves.
Since joining the team at Freedom Place, she’s doubled down on a model used across Arrow’s programs called Trust-Based Relational Intervention. Developed at Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development in the early 2000s, TBRI is specifically tailored to children who have experienced early trauma, abuse or neglect. As a result, Freedom Place looks different from typical residential treatment centers, Carter says, which rely on techniques that are focused on fixing bad behavior, something Carter sees as merely symptomatic of the larger trauma the girls have experienced.
“Most residential treatment centers are going to be behavior modification, and so what that means is it’s very traditional. It is juvenile detention programming—it’s the privilege-based, incentive-based, punishment-based system,” she says. “But that’s not a trauma-informed system. And so really what we want to do is get away from the punitive-based model and move toward a healing-based model.”
When a girl acts out at Freedom Place, an immediate punishment doesn’t follow. She gets a one-on-one with the staff member she trusts the most—a “time-in,” Carter calls it, admitting that such a move might seem counterintuitive at first. For instance, if a girl kicks a hole in her door, she’s not sent to her room; a staff member she’s bonded with will wait for her to calm down, and then might take her out for ice cream or a walk by the lake. But this approach makes perfect sense, Carter says, when you think of the outburst as a reaction to the pain and confusion the girl is feeling. A typical punishment would only serve to make the behavior worse.
“All their trauma has occurred in the context of a relationship. Their ability to trust has been absolutely demolished. Well, my goal is to heal, so all this healing has to occur within a relationship, and I can’t do that when I’m isolating them, I can’t do that when I’m punishing them,” she says. “If you slow down and think about this particular girl and why she’s doing what she’s doing, her behaviors that are destructive and are violent or aggressive or sabotaging completely make sense. We have to figure out how to hold all that suffering, and not increase shame.”
She tells the story of one troubled young resident who missed her family’s dog. Carter brought Zoey, her Great Dane, to the ranch and went with the girl to walk the dog. Back in her office, Carter made the girl hot chocolate while she petted Zoey. “The hot chocolate is intentional, because it’s sweet, it’s warm, it’s comforting. My dog is a leaner, my dog is warm, my dog wants to snuggle, so she gets a lot of sensory input in that moment,” Carter says. “I told her, ‘I trust you, I care about you, I want to know’—and all of a sudden I have a therapy session of tremendous value. If I just brought her in my office and sat her in my chair and asked her the questions I needed to know, I’m going to get absolutely nothing out of her.”
TBRI is still fairly new, and is currently under peer review. And Freedom Place itself has been running for just four years, which makes quantifying success difficult, Carter admits. “It’s hard to measure the negative in what we do. It’s hard to measure, who isn’t dead because they came to Freedom Place? Or who’s not an addict?” she asks. “But I know we’ve made a difference in that the intervention has decreased risk in these ways.”
The biggest obstacle for Freedom Place, Carter says, is keeping the girls on the premises long enough to make a connection. “It takes about three months for them to really feel safe enough for them to engage—the desire to run is unbelievably powerful for them,” she says. “So if we can get past three months and get them to engage, we can do some pretty good work.”
Still, residents do run away from time to time. “We have an incredible flight risk with this population,” she says. “They have flight response like I’ve never seen. And so when they come in, it really is about hyper-vigilance.” One girl ran away from Freedom Place and went back to working on the street, only to be picked up a few months later by police. She asked to return to the ranch, and the staff says she did exceptionally well the second time around, graduating high school and obtaining her food-safety license.
Despite the obstacles that could cut short a girl’s stay, the goal is to keep each resident at Freedom Place for one year, and then find her a safe and healthy place to live permanently.
“I’d love a year with every girl to really turn that Titanic of trauma,” Carter says.
Nikki Richnow, who spends time each week with the girls at Freedom Place, said even if a girl isn’t ready to begin the excruciating process of healing from the complex trauma she's experienced, there's still long-term value to staying at the ranch.
“These girls, they all have so much to give, and yet that damage is just so deep,” Richnow says. “But I know we’re planting seeds, and I believe those seeds will grow, and if they don’t get it now, I think they will.”
Destiny, who is now 17, spent eight months at Freedom Place, where she earned enough credits to graduate high school and worked on her self esteem. A highlight of the experience, she says, came when she was elected student council president, a post that involved acting as a liaison between staff and other residents. “I just feel like I’m stronger, like I can stand up for myself now,” she says.
In addition to her personal and group therapy, she’s been in weekly therapy with her father and stepmother, something that Carter said is only available for about half of the girls—the other half don’t have any family members willing or able to participate. Destiny’s father says that group therapy has helped him and his wife maybe as much as Destiny.
“Me being a father, I question myself—what could I have done differently? I was going through all these emotions. You want to protect your family, and I felt like I wasn’t able to do that,” he says. “We as men feel like we can deal with anything, that we’re invincible. I realized I need to talk about it also, to get the pain and anger out of me.”
Rebecca Bender was 18 and a college freshman when she met the man who would become her trafficker. At the time, she thought of him as her boyfriend. They dated for six months and got serious quickly. When she moved with him to Las Vegas, she was isolated from her friends and family. That’s when he forced her into prostitution. When she tried to escape, she says she was beaten and branded, her face broken in five places. Her young daughter was threatened and she was arrested multiple times for prostitution in the six years she was trafficked. She landed in rehab for a drug addiction.
“There were no services available to me at that time,” she says. “When I got help, I went to rehab for drugs and alcohol. I thought ‘this is my problem.’ When really, that was my coping mechanism, and I didn’t realize that and they didn’t realize that. There just wasn’t a lot of awareness [about sex trafficking], so they treated the leaves on the tree but they didn’t pull the tree out by the root.”
Bender got on her feet and moved with her daughter, who was 8 years old at the time, to the Pacific Northwest. She’s now married with three more children. She went back to college and became the general manager of a local store.
One morning, she woke up early to do some journaling and have some quiet time before work. As the sun started to rise, she felt a cold chill. “What is normally beautiful made my stomach turn,” she says. She felt like she’d been transported back to the days when she’d been under her trafficker’s control, when the early morning meant the end of a long shift. “I heard my trafficker’s voice saying, ‘It’s time to come in.’”
That’s when she realized she needed to do something to help people like her heal. She quit her job at the store, became a Christian minister and started writing a workbook, Roadmap to Redemption, which helps trafficking survivors and their families heal from trauma.
Nikki Richnow leads a group of Freedom Place girls through the workbook each year. Afterward, Bender engages the girls in eight weeks of online mentoring sessions, in which she tries to identify the girls’ goals and dreams for their lives. “Many of these young women have talents and abilities that have been dormant for far too long. Their trafficker was definitely not pulling that out of them,” Bender says. “A lot of them don’t know—do I like to paint, or sew? So this is about giving them an opportunity to explore and find something they are passionate about.”
Being a survivor herself, she understands things about the girls’ experiences that others simply can’t. Girls often have extreme post-traumatic stress disorder, night terrors, or unexpected triggers. Something as simple as negotiating a contract, which Bender does often for her ministry, can instantly take her back to the days when she negotiated prices for sex acts with clients. “I don’t think, unless you’ve been there, you could understand that,” she says.
Bender’s workshops help girls create healthy coping mechanisms for such feelings when they arise. She also focuses on helping rebuild their self-esteem, and getting them to set concrete goals for themselves. They need to be able to see something in their future, she says, to keep them from returning to the dark places they came from.
“Anchoring yourself to a dream is what keeps you holding on when storms come. And I can tell you, living in a group home, storms will come. For them to say, ‘I’m not leaving, I’m not taking myself out, because I have this anchor and this dream’—it keeps their eyes above the circumstance and on the prize.”
On a sunny February day this year, Destiny celebrated her high school graduation in a big conference room at Arrow’s headquarters, which was filled with dozens of supporters. The rest of the girls were there for the ceremony, as were Shandra Carter and her staff. Destiny’s parents sat upright in the front row; Charles wore a suit and tie. Nikki Richnow came, with two women from her fundraising posse in tow.
“Pomp and Circumstance” played through the speakers as Destiny emerged from the doors at the back of the room, beaming, holding a rose. She walked tall, wearing a soft purple eyeshadow to match her bright purple cap and gown. The crowd stood with clasped hands and wet eyes as she walked up the aisle.
After she received her diploma, the principal of the school that Freedom Place partners with said a few words. Then, according to the program, Carter was supposed to move Destiny’s tassel from one side to the other. “You’ve done so much more than just graduate,” Carter said, choking up as she told Destiny that the work that she’d been doing on herself was about empowerment. “So I want you to be the one to move your tassel.”
It was an emotional day; everybody cried. The microphone was opened up so that other Freedom Place residents might congratulate Destiny and say their public goodbyes—she’d be returning home the next day with her parents.
One girl, who looked much younger than Destiny, clasped the microphone with tears in her eyes. “You’ve shown me that no matter what I’ve been through, there’s someone who has been through it and rose above,” she said. “You’re my inspiration to be on this stage one day and to graduate.”
Destiny glowed; she held her head high. She thanked and hugged each girl after they spoke. Then, her father took the stage. He thanked everyone for everything, from the cook who brought the hors d’oeuvres, to Shandra, Nikki, and everyone else in the room. Then he turned to his daughter.
“Daddy loves you, baby. It’s been a long road, but we’re gonna get there, okay?”
*Note: Names of Destiny and her father have been changed to protect the family's privacy. She is not featured in this story's photos of Freedom Place.