Coronavirus in Austin: SAFE Alliance finds new ways to reach trafficking survivors
Every day, Allison Franklin works with people who are just like who she was, teens and young adults who have been sexually exploited and trafficked.
Franklin, 44, survived 30 years of abuse, finally escaping in 2011. Now, as the director of the SAFE Alliance’s CARES program, which provides support to survivors of sexual exploitation, Franklin sees something very familiar in the people ages 12 to 24 she serves. Working with this population required creativity before the coronavirus stay at home order, and it’s required even more since.
“Our whole program has transformed overnight in response to the COVID,” she says.
The number of calls, texts and inquiries to the SAFE helpline related to human or sex trafficking were up almost 40% in the six weeks from March 1 to April 15 in 2020 compared with 2019.
It’s not safe for anyone right now, Franklin says, but it’s especially unsafe for those being trafficked or abused.
To continue operating during the coronavirus crisis, CARES program staff have turned the drop-in center into a virtual drop-in center. They’re doing all case management and group therapy virtually, and they’re making discrete, drive-by porch deliveries twice a week to clients. They’re getting people into shelters when necessary, but that’s becoming increasingly difficult.
“We were at capacity, and it’s even worse now,” Franklin says.
“A lot of clients are feeling the brunt of isolation,” she says. “They are not in a safe situation.”
For the people Franklin serves and for herself, being told to isolate can flare up post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health and substance abuse issues.
“One of my triggers is high stress,” she says. “It does raise up all the old trauma experiences.”
She’s not sleeping much. Walking into a grocery store and seeing empty shelves brings up her experiences of having to be in survival mode. She says she’s had to be hypervigilant around managing those triggers.
And, she says, “feeling so powerless is triggering.”
‘I didn’t have a safe place’
Franklin’s childhood included years of being powerless. She grew up in Houston in what she calls a “middle class, rather privileged family.”
Her mother met her father at age 16 and gave birth to Franklin at age 17. Franklin’s father, who had been a heroin addict, was shot and killed when she was 3. Her mother, who worked in her family’s wholesale flower business, wasn’t able to manage the loss of her husband, Franklin said.
Franklin and her mom went to live with her father’s grandparents, her great-grandparents. That’s when the sexual abuse by her great-grandfather began, Franklin says.
“He preyed on me and my mom,” she says. “My mom was very vulnerable. She shut down with the death of my father.”
On the surface, it looked fine. “They put me in private schools,” she says.
But for the next seven years, she endured regular sexual abuse, often in a bed she shared with both her great-grandparents. She describes the abuse as having an out-of-body experience.
“I had to die inside,” she says.
There were signs everywhere of what was happening to her. She began cutting herself when she was 4 or 5 years old. She regularly went to the doctor’s office for urinary tract infections. She drew pictures of her great-grandfather’s body parts. And she was hypersexualized. That was the way she knew to express love.
She was also exhausted. She would stay up all night, and when he would go to work during the day, she would sleep. He wasn’t her only abuser. In first grade, she also was abused at school.
“I didn’t have a safe place,” she says. “I wasn’t safe at school, I wasn’t safe at home.”
She says she was a moving target. That’s how a lot of kids she works with find themselves: being victimized again and again as kids who are trafficked.
The abuse ended when her great-grandfather died when she was 10, the same year she began family therapy. Her family did everything they could to get her help, but, she says, “I couldn’t talk about it. ... I stuffed it deep down within me.”
Soon after, she started to run away from home, she says, because that gave her the feeling of having a choice.
At first she ran to a friend’s house, but then she ran to the streets of Houston. Within the first hour of running, she was picked up by a predator, a man she believes was about 30 years old. He showed concern: “You’re so pretty. What are you doing out here?”
He was going to take care of her. As a 12 year old, she was selling drugs for him. He beat her up one night, and she ran, right into some gang members.
Again it was, “You’re too young to be out here. We can protect you,” she says.
She would go to middle school by day, where she sold drugs to her classmates, she says. Selling drugs was how she ate, how she could get drugs for free so she could continue to push down what had happened to her.
Her mom was actively looking for her all the time, Franklin says. Her mom would find her and try to get her help.
When she was 14, she was put in a mental health institution. She says that if she had not been a white kid from a middle-class family, she would have been sent to juvenile detention instead of mental health centers.
Her mom, she says, “tried to save me from myself,” but it was hard to be saved when Franklin had convinced herself that the abuse did not happen.
For her, it was all about choice, and she didn’t feel like she had a choice when her family, and later as an adult, Harris County, put her in mental health institutions. There was no buy-in from her.
“Even though family did what they could, it was all about me,” she says.
She would couch-hop between friends’ houses. Her mom would call her friends’ parents and tell them: “Do not let your daughter hang out with my daughter.”
‘I thought I could start over’
Franklin graduated high school and went to college. She even moved to California to go to school.
“I thought I could get my life together at last,” she says. “I thought I could start over, I could change geography, but wherever you go, there you are.”
She says she started cooking meth while in California. She had a tragic experience when her boyfriend was killed accidentally.
So she came back to Texas, this time to Austin.
She met a man who was really into heroin. She tried it with him. “He got clean, I did not,” Franklin says.
She cooked meth and traded it for heroin. She also would solicit sex for money, all while being in and out of college. She even made the dean’s list.
A boyfriend took her back to Houston to try to get her clean. “He cared,” she says, but she went deeper and deeper into that world.
Then she met the man she considered her husband, who was also her trafficker. She realizes now that it was a set up. Multiple gang members would be sent to beat her up, to kidnap her, to force her into prostitution. Another guy was sent to save her with the old line of, “You are too pretty to be out here.”
She would become her pimp’s property for protection. “The grooming process had actively begun,” she says.
Her pimp, she says, also “groomed me to recruit other women” to be trafficked by him, and that’s the part that still sickens her today. She also was used to move guns, drugs and money.
For over a decade, “There was never a day I went out the door when I didn’t know if I was going to be raped, beaten or hauled out to jail.”
She had eight felonies, mostly drug charges. She went to prison five times.
“I was either going to die or go to prison,” she says.
While in jail and prison she would stay up all night drawing, then she’d sleep during the day. Art was a commodity she could sell for commissary. Later, after she got out of that life, she used art as therapy to explore how she felt about the sexual abuse and trafficking.
Journey to advocacy
Her life began to change when she was picked up for a ninth felony in 2011. She could have given up her pimp, but she didn’t. She was going to take another drug charge for him even though she was facing 10 to 25 years in prison.
She was lucky in that she was given probation and sent to a domestic violence shelter by her parole officer.
At the shelter, it was hard to admit she’d been trafficked. “You try to make it seem like some kind of love thing to make it bearable,” she says.
There, she began to realize that something in her life had to change, she says, and that the life she led with her pimp wasn’t about love.
“It was all a lie,” she says. “Everything was a lie,” including that they weren’t actually married because he had never filed the papers.
She began the slow crawl out of that life and into becoming an advocate for people who have been trafficked.
She was 35 and hadn’t worked in almost 20 years. First she worked as a waitress, but got fired for cussing out a customer.
She worked at another restaurant, mostly when it wasn’t busy. She would work eight to 10 hours a day for $9 a hour.
In her former life, “I could make that much money in five minutes,” she says, but she knew, “I didn’t want to be in this life again.”
She says she was tired of being used and abused. “I was tired of allowing other people, my addiction, my past and systems to define me.”
People from her old life were coming after her, but her grandmother gave her a place to stay. She hid out there for a year.
“I couldn’t leave her home to go to the grocery store,” she says.
On top of that, her grandmother’s home didn’t feel safe. She kept feeling like someone was breaking into the house to get her.
She did a lot of therapy and got clean. “I did anything to change the way I felt,” she says.
She reconnected with her mom when she was four years clean and now considers her mom one of her best friends.
They couldn’t reconnect before that. “When we are in survival mode, we put people in survival mode,” she says. “It’s a bit much.”
There are lasting effects from her 30 years of abuse. She cannot sit with her back to the door or be in a place with loud noises.
She has a fear of being locked up, which is why the stay-at-home order has been particularly difficult for her.
Even today, she knows the gang and her former pimp could find her at any moment.
“I feel like someone has to be brave enough,” she says, which is why she tells her story and does the work she does.
She takes what she learned from her 30 years of abuse and 10 years of being trafficked as a guide to try to change how law enforcement deals with people who have been solicited, as well as the kind of support services survivors need.
When she was in Houston, she connected with Jarvis Johnson, who was at the time a city council member and is now a state representative. He gave her the first job out of the life, she says. “He gave me a chance.”
She began training law enforcement in alternatives to putting people in jail for prostitution.
“No one should ever be arrested for it,” she says of prostitution. No one wants to be in this life, she says. “If we could get out of the game, we would have.”
Work with CARES program
Many of the people who come through CARES have an arrest record. Often, they are released from jail or prison, but they have no food, no clothes, no phone, no place to stay. It’s very easy to go right back to their trafficker, she says.
Many of them also grew up in the child welfare system. The barriers continue to be high because of their criminal background. Even today, Franklin would struggle to qualify to rent an apartment with her record.
Her own escape from the life and the continued barriers she faces is “part of why I do what I do,” she says.
Her advocacy work took her to testifying before Congress in Washington, D.C., and then a move to Austin to work on changing state laws.
Last legislative session, she created House Bill 3206 with state Rep. Jessica Gonzalez to create a victim’s fund as well as to prohibit prosecuting people who are younger than 18 for prostitution. The bill didn’t pass.
Then last fall, she was offered the job at SAFE.
The therapy and solutions have to be individualized, she says, and that’s what she’s trying to do through the CARES program. Last year SAFE’s CARES program served 248 people, up from 180 in 2018.
We have to look at this as a community issue, a family issue and a public health issue, she says.
Right now, especially during the stay-at-home order for the coronavirus pandemic, she says, she is encouraging family members and neighbors to “step up and be brave. Be an active bystander and call the crisis line.”
Some of the warning signs of abuse include self harm, having an older boyfriend, a change of friends, having multiple phones, starting to dress differently, having sudden access to money or possessions, and the appearance of substance abuse.
Even though the physical drop-in center is on pause because of the city of Austin’s COVID-19 recommendations, “you can be connected,” she says.
“It’s been very encouraging to see my team step into space they've never navigated,” she says, as the program goes more to virtual platforms.
And yet, this time has been particularly hard to do the work she does. It makes people who were already vulnerable more vulnerable.
So many of their needs are basic: food, clothing, shelter, employment. And then there are deeper needs.
“It's so, so heartbreaking,” she says. “I had a client text me, ‘I wish I could hug you.’ They are so, so in need of human connection. It's not a luxury; it's a need.”
CARES is survivor-led, she says. “They pick what services they want, that is what we build on,” she says.
CARES creates individualized plans that might mean moving someone into shelter if there is an extreme danger, or maybe arranging for a ride and a hotel stay. It also might mean providing someone with groceries or other assistance so they don’t have to engage in risky behavior to pay their rent.
It often includes the kind of therapy that has proven so valuable to Franklin, though she knows it has to come as something they want, not something that’s forced upon them.
The successes are many, including Franklin. “A lot of (people) get out of the life and are on the path of being healthy.”
She has dreams of growing the program, including doing more street outreach once the pandemic ends and creating a leadership team of survivors.
“We want to individually inspire their future,” she says, “not just heal their past.”
To get help for you or someone you know, call 512-267-SAFE (7233), text 737-888-7233, or chat online at safeaustin.org/chat.