Non-Profit Accused of Exploiting Sex Trafficking Victims It Was Meant to Help
Courage House was built to serve underage victims of sex trafficking. But former employees say the organization exploited the young women it was established to support, pushing its religious agenda at the expense of their privacy and denying them...
Illustration by Katherine Killeffer
Jenny Williamson sees herself as a savior for underage sex trafficking victims. On her website, she boasts of creating a multi-million dollar group home for survivors from scratch and highlights the accolades she's received from the FBI as well as being a L'Oreal of Paris "Women of Worth" honoree. Amid photos of her posing alongside Julianne Moore and Eva Longoria, she lists a quote from Mira Sorvino calling her "a courageous advocate for the vulnerable and the voiceless."
But if you ask former employees what it was like working at Williamson's highly-touted group home, built on the rolling hills outside of Sacramento, they describe an exploitative organization that cared more about promoting its cause than caring for the teen runaways it claimed to be saving.
State inspectors back up the assertions three former employees made to Broadly: Williamson's Courage House was cited 16 times in the first six months of this year for violations, including inadequate staffing, confidentiality breaches, and infringements on the personal rights of residents. Of the 16 citations issued to Courage House by Community Care Licensing, 10 were classified as Type A, or serious enough to have an immediate impact on clients' health, safety, or rights.
While Courage House has been empty of residents since June of 2016, the organization neglected to alert donors of this fact until after a wide-ranging exposé on the house was published in the Sacramento Bee last month. (Bill Halldin, currently acting as a media advisor for the Courage House, told me the house closed because a staff member went on a leave of absence, not because of citations issued by the state.)
Despite sponsors like the Rotary Club of Sacramento holding back on planned donations to the organization, Courage Worldwide's website still lists an announcement that the Club's pledge will go towards a huge expansion plan, including 10 new cottages with capacity for 60 more sex trafficking victims.
Why in God's name would you put their voice on the radio if you wanted to protect their identity?
Integral to running a home for exploited sex trafficking victims is protecting the anonymity of residents, but interviews with former employees reveal that Courage House failed to do so. Arlicia Lorentty, a social worker and case manager who worked at the house in 2015, told Broadly she quit the organization shortly after a resident was interviewed by a radio station and her former teacher recognized her voice. "Why in God's name would you put their voice on the radio if you wanted to protect their identity?" Lorentty said.
She and Lauren Conklin, another former employee, say residents were also forced on hour-and-a-half long trips to a predominately white church where they were known as victims being served by the house. "As nonwhite girls in a predominately white church, they stuck out like sore thumbs—it was very obvious that they were the 'courage girls,'" Lorentty said.
"They didn't want to be labeled as 'courage girls' for the rest of their lives and didn't want to be constantly seen as victims of trafficking," Lorentty continued. She said Williamson would often barter with the girls, offering them trips to Six Flags in return for making an appearance at the congregation where many of the donors belonged.
In an emailed statement to Broadly, Courage House refuted the claim that they violated residents' rights to attend a religious service of their own choosing—an allegation that was also made by the Community Care Licensing Board. "Courage House respects religious freedom and works to ensure that every girl has access to opportunities to attend religious services," they wrote. The statement indicated that the house only refused to allow religious freedom to a resident who practiced Satanism.
Former employees, as well as the state of California, also cited Courage House for uploading photos to their social media account that revealed residents' identifying features. Conklin told Broadly she was uncomfortable with how blasé the organization was about using the residents' likeness for promotional purposes. "To me, looking at it, you don't use these victims of this horrific crime to promote your business," she said.
Courage House said in the same email that they never posted photos of girls' faces in any media but that they "agreed not to post photos that have any identifying marks" in the future. The organization also rejected an allegation from the state that they revealed information disclosed in therapy sessions in front of other residents as "unsubstantiated."
Former employees also expressed concern over the fact that donors were made aware of the location of the house when Williamson invited them to tour the facility. Conklin said that Williamson would bring donors to the house at least once a month for tours, forcing staff to uproot the girls for entire days and exposing the house's location to individuals who hadn't been properly vetted.
Courage House netted $1.7 million in revenue last year and Williamson took home $115,000, but Lorentty—who worked as a social worker at the house—said the money didn't filter down to basic necessities like clothes, psychiatry appointments, and nutritious meals. She said she was only allowed to take two girls per month to appointments with psychologists because, she was told, that was all the organization could afford. The house had six beds but was often home to fewer than six girls, according to Lydia Leanos, another former staff member.
Lorentty said functional desks for schooling were also neglected. "Their desks were falling apart and their teacher didn't have her own computer to work off in the classroom but they'd always say, 'Oh, we have all this money coming in.'"
There was an undertone that this was Jenny's vision and Jenny's dream and anyone opposing it was opposing God.
Leanos, a former rodeo queen who worked with horses at the house from its founding in 2011 to 2014, described Williamson's management as dictatorial. "There was an undertone that this was Jenny's vision and Jenny's dream and anyone opposing it was opposing God." Leanos said that anyone who failed to uphold the house's values—which included "unity, health, and laughter"—were fired or reprimanded.
Despite the stressful working environment, Leanos stuck it out for years, even going without pay for three months. "They were always running out of money and then at work you were constantly made to feel like you were crazy if you challenged or questioned prevailing orthodoxy."
She says she was fired after refusing to let Williamson pet a horse before a scheduled ride. "At my exit interview, I was told I'd lost my sparkle," Leanos said.
Sex trafficking has become a "cause celebre" in the evangelical community. According to the paper "Not in My 'Backyard Abolitionism'" by Elena Shih, a professor at Brown University, a growing number of American evangelical Christian organizations see the anti-trafficking movement as a way to promote the sexual politics of "new abolition," thus "framing their long-standing moral objection to sex work and prostitution within the newer lens of human trafficking."
Shih writes that the "moral panic" around sex work contributes to the false idea that it's of a more pressing concern than labor trafficking. Far more US human trafficking visas are provided to victims of sex trafficking than labor trafficking, even though the latter outweighs the former in sheer number of cases. T Visas, for all trafficking victims, are capped at 5,000, while U visas, in which victims must prove substantial abuse, are capped at 10,000. U Visa holders must also assist law enforcement in the investigation and prosecution of crimes committed against them.
On its website, Courage House claims that between 100,000 to 300,000 children are sex trafficked annually. However, according to the Washington Post, this number is grossly inflated. While Courage House doesn't cite the figure's source, it was originally submitted in congressional testimony by Ernie Allen, at the time president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC).
Allen acknowledges now that "there was no scientific empirical data" about the number of children in the sex trade. He took the figure from a report suggesting 300,000 children were "at risk for commercial sexual exploitation," but figures today from the NCMEC suggest that the number is closer to 2,360. Meanwhile, backpage.com—an escort site—says it reports at least 300 ads a month that it believes involves minors.
Some former Courage House employees expressed doubts as to whether or not a group home environment actually kept kids away from sex trafficking long-term. "We can't put them in these little boxes and then expect them to thrive once we take the walls away," Lorrenty said. "When you expose them to the real world, you're essentially setting them up for failure." She added that placements after the program were largely unsuccessful. "Either the kid ran away or they went back to the lifestyle. Courage Worldwide claimed to provide support for those families, but they didn't actually offer anything."
It is not surprising that opportunists leap on the bandwagon, with or without good intentions.
Some feminist academics are against the idea of group homes for sex trafficking victims altogether. Dr. Laura Agustín, an anthropologist and expert in sex trafficking, compares them to prisons in her book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry.
"The numbers of [houses] have surged because the issue has for ten-plus years been promoted by entities like the US federal government, which provides significant funding for rescue efforts," she said in an email to Broadly. "It is not surprising that opportunists leap on the bandwagon, with or without good intentions."
Despite the negative publicity generated by the Sacramento Bee article, Williamson is continuing to press ahead with plans to open Courage Houses across the country. A triathlon event that took place a few days after the publication of Sacramento Bee's article netted the organization over ten thousand dollars and an off-branch of the organization in Tanzania is on the search for victims to help. A recent tweet from Courage Worldwide reads "This is Tanzania. We have a Courage House for 12 girls and we have open beds. We are interviewing girls—please pray," above a picture of a rainbow rising from a verdant field.