Brittney Garcia thought she’d met the man of her dreams — and for a while he was. He did everything for her and she soon fell deeply in love. Then things started to change. He introduced her to drugs. That made it easier when he began sex trafficking her.
Garcia, 44, clawed her way out of that life nine years ago with the help of law enforcement and others, after two years of being trapped by fear of what her trafficker would do if she tried to walk away.
Her younger sister, Brandy Funk, 42, has a story that is remarkably similar, though she got free differently from the man she once trusted and loved by going to one of the few places she was allowed to go unaccompanied. Once there, she contacted domestic violence experts and was whisked away to safety eight years ago.
Friday, the two sat on the couch in the family room of a spacious home in Salt Lake County, looked squarely into television and still cameras, and talked about the hope they believe that home will soon offer other women who’ve been trafficked.
Though funds are still being raised to make it a reality, Aspen Magdalene House is in the near-culmination stage of five years of planning by a group of dedicated Utahns who want to provide shelter, therapy and case management to sex trafficking survivors. The women who will be able to stay there for up to two years will go through trauma-based therapy, life skills training, financial planning and receive other services like preemployment coaching to help them rebuild their lives.
Perhaps as important, they will have a sisterhood of fellow survivors who understand and can support them as they move forward, said Terry Palmer, co-chair of the Aspen House SLC board that’s been working to make the home a reality.
The Aspen House Board of Directors includes community activist Pamela Atkinson, a community activist and advisor to Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah Rep. Sandra Hollins, sex trafficking survivors including Funk and Garcia, as well as community and industry leaders and other advocates for exploited women.
In the five years since they started working on the issue, the board and supporters have created a leadership and governing structure, raised community awareness and some money — the capital campaign is very much ongoing — crafted a business plan and launched a survivor support group, along with other programming. They’ve involved local groups willing to provide services and guidance. And they found the house, which they plan to close on at the end of January if they can raise the rest of the cash.
A model program
The need is not theoretical. Utah is in the top 10 per capita for calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, according to data provided by the board. In background material, the group quotes law enforcement officials, who note that recent trafficking arrests are “the tip of the iceberg” of the problem in Utah.
According to officials, human trafficking is second only to the drug trade in criminal activity — a $150 billion industry worldwide “that uses force, fraud and coercion to sexually exploit individuals.”
Aspen Magdalene House is patterned after the Thistle Farms model, which includes 57 established houses nationwide and 35 in various planning or startup stages, including Utah’s. Thistle Farms boasts a 75% success rate helping women who have been exploited reclaim their lives and financial independence.
During an open house Friday, board members — including Funk and Garcia, who also serve on the board — talked about the devastation wrought by sex trafficking, including personal trauma, addiction, legal woes, mental illness and barriers that make it hard to escape, to find housing and to get jobs.
“Sisterhood and bonding” are really crucial, Palmer said. She noted that women who have been trafficked often feel judged. Most often, challenges sometimes going back many years made them vulnerable to being trafficked initially, including adverse childhood events like abuse or neglect and substance use issues, among others. So there can be layers of trauma involved.
Though the individuals and issues they each have faced are different, the sisterhood understands that, said Palmer.
Among the greatest gifts the haven will provide, Atkinson told Deseret News, are love and acceptance. She said that survivors sometimes are sent to homeless shelters, where they are bullied. They may face that in other situations, too. Harsh judgments don’t promote healing.
“We can restore their self-esteem,” said Atkinson. “Love and acceptance are two of the greatest things we can do.”
The efforts are backed by local businesses and experts the board calls benevolent partners who have agreed to provide services:
- Collective Recovery is offering substance abuse counseling, therapy and drug testing.
- St. Mark’s Family Medicine is providing medical services.
- University of Utah School of Dentistry is giving dental services.
- Fit to Recover will deliver fitness, nutrition and art classes.
- Dahlia’s Hope will make referrals and offer counseling services and activities.
- Volunteers Of America will provide detox services and outreach.
- Soap to Hope is furnishing referrals and outreach.
A helping hand
Garcia will serve as a resident manager when the house formally opens. Initially, there will be room for seven women, but as it gears up, the number is expected to double. It’s a good start on changing trajectories, but the need is far greater.
Asked what she’d like people to know about the challenges she’d faced and about trafficking, Garcia said people need to realize “it can happen to anyone: your sister, your best friend, your neighbor’s kid.”
She and Palmer both said people may think of kidnapped children trafficked for sex when the topic arises, but those are not the usual victims. Most who are trafficked are preyed upon by people they know, sometimes even family. And something in their lifetime experiences to that point makes them vulnerable.
“It happens way more often than people think,” Garcia said.
Funk said she and her sister share a passion for helping those who are trying to break free and they hope to help them on that journey.
“We had to do it on our own,” she said. “There weren’t these kinds of resources.”
You can learn more about Aspen Magdalene House at aspenhouseslc.org.
Correction: A previous version of the story spelled Brittney Garcia’s name as Brittany Garcia. Sex trafficking is a $150 billion industry worldwide. An earlier version gave an incorrect number.