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Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News

Human trafficking victims need recovery centers — this group plans to build first of its kind in West

SHARE Human trafficking victims need recovery centers — this group plans to build first of its kind in West
SHARE Human trafficking victims need recovery centers — this group plans to build first of its kind in West

Despite increased awareness about the prevalence of human trafficking in the U.S. and beyond, Julie Whitehead struggled to find comprehensive treatment to respond to her trauma after escaping from her trafficker.

“I started by searching the state of Utah and California and came up empty-handed. I then made it to Tennessee where I stayed in a program for 13 months only to realize they weren't specialists in trauma — especially my level of trauma — and they were doing more harm than good,” she said.

For those in situations like Whitehead's, anti-human trafficking nonprofit Malouf Foundation announced Tuesday it plans to build one of the first recovery centers for survivors in Utah and the Intermountain West.

The mom who lived and taught preschool in Utah fell victim to her trafficker — the father of one her students — soon after escaping an abusive marriage. Eventually, someone noticed that something was wrong and helped her get away, Whitehead said.

While she was being trafficked, her focus was survival, she said. But Whitehead described recovery as even more difficult. After searching for treatment, she eventually found a center in Boston, where she has remained for six years.

“When I left, my daughter was 18 months old, and when I returned, she was 6 years old. I say all this to stress how important aftercare centers are, especially that are tailored to trafficking survivors — to have all of these different resources under one roof in one place, a safe place that survivors can live with other survivors who understand things in ways no one else can,” Whitehead said.

The new center in the Salt Lake City area will likely be around 10,000 square feet and include beds for between 20 and 50 survivors at a time. The largest existing aftercare center for human trafficking victims in the U.S. has 50 beds, said Sam Malouf, co-founder and president of the Malouf Foundation.

There’s a need for 100,000 beds for those survivors around the country, but only 650 exist, he said, with none in the Intermountain West that provide residential services.

“Throughout the years, we've collaborated with aftercare centers throughout the world providing bedding and mattresses to those in need. Throughout those experiences, we recognized the need to have aftercare services here in Utah for survivors of sexual exploitation,” Malouf said when announcing the foundation's plan to build an aftercare center during the annual Golf for Freedom charity event in Park City.

The $200,000 raised during the event will go toward the center's creation, he said.

Kacie Malouf, co-founder and board chairwoman of the Malouf Foundation, said the center will give female survivors between ages 11 and 18 housing, medical care, clinical therapy, education, life skills training, support groups and legal assistance for 18 months. A specific location has not been finalized.

The center will carry an estimated cost of $10 million for its construction and operation, of which the Malouf Foundation has already raised 10%, Sam Malouf said.

The foundation plans to hold ongoing fundraisers for the remaining costs and anticipates breaking ground on the project in 2022. Kacie Malouf said the treatment likely won't carry a cost for the survivors, and instead will be paid for by the Malouf Foundation and the government through a private-public partnership.

“We'll continue to work with aftercare experts to make sure we can accommodate the needs of every survivor in our area,” Sam Malouf said, explaining that the foundation hopes to address the needs of male survivors in the future.

Gov. Spencer Cox noted that the issue holds a special importance in Utah, which prioritizes the well-being of children.

“We focus often on the trafficking piece of this, then too often don't focus on what comes afterward, the healing that is necessary, the trauma-informed care that must be provided, especially to these young women that have had these traumatic experiences. This aftercare center is going to be a game changer. It's going to help save lives, to heal lives, to improve lives, to help these young women get their lives back, to reclaim their place, to overcome the trauma that they have faced,” Cox said.

He thanked the Maloufs for the work they're doing to combat human trafficking, including their $1 million donation to the cause last year.

Cox noted the Utah Legislature will likely support the center as the work continues.