There was a time when Harriett’s House founder Julie Crain might have considered the distance between India, Cambodia, and Cambridge an unfathomable chasm. But her perspective became forever changed beginning in 2008.
The chance viewing of a film documenting how women became trapped within a life of exploitation within India’s brothels “opened my eyes,” Crain recalled. As caring souls set up safe spaces and provided skills, the women got help finding their way out of the human trafficking system.
After what she’d seen, it became impossible for her to look away again. Having worked as an advocate at a rape crisis center, she was equally inspired to help other women ensnared through sex exploitation. In 2009 she began preparing for foreign missionary work, believing that the problem primarily existed “out there,” in other lands.
Crain eventually spent time in Cambodia and India, where many girls are sold and forced into sex work. There she met and worked with women undergoing long term restorative care programs, designed to help them transition and begin laying the foundation for life outside of it.
As time passed, however, Crain became increasingly aware of how pervasive and complex the problem really was, far more widespread than many recognize, occurring even here, in her own backyard.
While the term ‘human trafficking’ may conjure images of kidnapping and street prostitution, the reality is more widespread and insidious. According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline website, it “occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or soliciting labor or services against his/her will. Force, fraud, or coercion need not be present if the individual engaging in commercial sex is under 18 years of age.”
The coercion factor often involves psychological manipulation and the grooming of victims. The anonymity of social media also helps foster what’s referred to as the ‘Romeo’ effect, when exploiters portray themselves as someone other than who they really are, she noted.
Crain explained that though the exploitation process may be less highly visible, it can be facilitated through “the touch of a button” by sending pornographic images through social media and operating under the guise of so called ‘escort’ services.
Trading sex for anything of value, be it drugs, rent, or food, means is also tantamount to exploitation, she added.
Just as it did in 2008, knowledge not only opened her eyes, but inspired her to take action. Her husband Jim joined in her efforts to lay the foundation for a local non-profit organization to help victims of human trafficking. After visiting the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center, the Crains decided that it had to be called Harriett’s House.
“Harriet was a strong woman of God who looked to God for guidance and direction as she worked to set slaves free. In the same way, we are looking to God to guide and direct us, as we fight to set captives free from modern day slavery, human trafficking,” the group’s website affirmed.
The organization has strived to base its efforts on a foundation of Christian principles recognizing human dignity, equality, and respect. It is, however, open to all women needing help, regardless of religion or race.
Starting simply through word-of-mouth fundraising efforts and by applying for grants, in 2019 the group was able to open a drop-in and resource center staffed by trained volunteers at 409 Muir Street in downtown Cambridge. Within the coming year the group’s dream of opening a residential safe house will be realized, as well.
“It’s been incredible to watch this year,” Crain said, commenting on the generous outpouring of support, including a house donated by local resident Derek Wanex. Other groups have generously pitched in to supply furniture, new appliances, and a van which will eventually supply transportation to appointments. “It’s been an amazing snowball effect,” she noted.
With Spring 2022 in sight as a goal, the older three-bedroom home is in the process of being completely renovated to serve as a safe house, providing long- and short-term residential space for up to 5 women, staffed 24/7 by those with specialized training. While there are other local residential havens for domestic violence victims, the Harriett’s House safe home will be the first on the Eastern Shore for those coping with sexual exploitation and human trafficking.
In a vision statement, the group hopes to make available additional daytime community drop in and resource centers where women can be supplied with emergency food, toiletries, and clothing, get referrals, have computer access, and attend classes teaching basic job search, parenting and budgeting skills.
It’s hoped that trained outreach teams can begin building bridges of communication with those engaged in sex work, in an effort to let them know that there are viable ways out of that life, providing support once they decide to leave.
Several phases of residential support are planned, including a 24-hour immediate respite care home, a safe house providing long term care up to two years, and transitional care consisting of ongoing follow up support which can last a year.
In efforts to enlist the community, the Crains have spoken to area church groups as well as the Dorchester County Health Department, the Rotary Club, and Mid-Shore Behavioral Health. Currently the Robin Hood Shop is on call to help out women in need of clothing and other items on an emergency basis.
Julie Crain particularly cited the Samaritan Women of Baltimore, who have helped human trafficking victims for 12 years, for providing exceptional mentoring and training to her volunteer staff and hosting them for weeklong in person visits and zoom sessions in order to learn close up about the hard work involved and realities of what to expect.
“They’ve shared so many helpful resources with us, not only involving care for the women directly, but with practical organizational matters such as forming a board of directors, and sharing customizable forms, so that we don’t have to start from scratch,” she noted. In 2019 Harriett’s House was one of the first four groups selected to participate in the Samaritan Women’s pilot outreach program.
While the organization’s limited resources have necessarily focused on women, Crain is aware that boys and men, too, have been victims of human trafficking. She’s hopeful that raised community awareness regarding females afflicted will help blaze a path towards assisting male victims as well. She’s also looking forward to engaging with the schools to foster awareness and prevention.
In January, Harriett’s House will once again observe National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention with a march from Great Marsh to the downtown Cambridge courthouse. (Initially proclaimed by President Obama in 2010, the monthly designation expanded the Congressionally declared January 11th date, to help raise awareness and prevention of the issue).
For more information about Harriett’s House House and to donate and volunteer, visit www.harriettshouse.org, call 443-786-1843, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Harriett’s House Inc., P.O. Box 586, Cambridge MD 21613.
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.