Pure intentions, muddy policy

Religious do-gooders and grant whores flock to human-trafficking causes, subjected to spotty oversight

Courage Worldwide, based in Rocklin, opened this property 18 months ago to house victims of human trafficking. So far, 28 women have been helped at this location, and another in Africa—but with little oversight over how federal grant money is spent.

Courage Worldwide, based in Rocklin, opened this property 18 months ago to house victims of human trafficking. So far, 28 women have been helped at this location, and another in Africa—but with little oversight over how federal grant money is spent.

Photo COURTESY of <a href="http://courageworldwide.org/">COURAGEWORLDWIDE.ORG</a>

The Response, a conference on sex trafficking, takes place on Friday, February 22, and Saturday, February 23, at William Jessup University, 333 Sunset Boulevard in Rocklin. Find more information at www.courageworldwide.org.

John Sydow has a long, uncertain journey ahead of him.

The Sacramento County sheriff's detective, who heads up the department's human-trafficking investigations in coordination with an FBI task force, is spending the next eight-plus hours tracing down the California coast to interview a girl-turned-prostitute, who rabbited from a group home for foster youth in Sacramento and caught a probation violation. The girl, who made her escape along with two other rescued trafficking victims, was transported back to her originating county of Santa Barbara before Sydow had a chance to speak with her. Which is why his cruiser is now throttling down Highway 101's desolate expanse toward Lompoc.

But that's not the uncertain journey we're talking about.

Sydow works in a subfield of criminal justice that's marked by how little is empirically known about it.

Ever since “human trafficking” caught fire as a tear-jerking buzz term about five years ago, it's swept up people's imaginations with images of Third World inhabitants crammed in cargo containers and non-English speakers chained up in garment factories.

But the legal definition casts a broader net; transporting a prostitute across county lines, for instance, is considered a form of trafficking.

“This is not the movie Taken at all,” said Jenny Williamson, founder of Courage Worldwide, which provides safe houses for recovered child prostitutes both locally and in Tanzania.

That may be one reason those trying to define the scope of the problem can toss out such diverging numbers. Sydow said he's heard figures ranging from 100,000 to 300,000 victims nationwide.

“I don't know where those numbers come from, frankly. There's some serious extrapolation going on,” he said. “We really are not sure how many victims of human trafficking there are.”

The local FBI task force says more than 250 children have been recovered in the Sacramento area over the past seven years. More than 90 percent of these kids were in some form of foster care.

Still, the dizzying guesswork has proven effective in whipping up a frenzy of interest and financial investment, especially for well-meaning community groups that aren't always subject to formal monitoring.

“I'm sure there is some oversight to these groups,” Sydow said, before adding, “I hope there's some oversight.”

Williamson is frantically getting her “courage house” in order.

The Courage Worldwide founder and cheerleader (the group terms its safe houses “courage houses”) is busy prepping for a huge two-day summit on global sex trafficking that kicks off on Friday, February 22, at William Jessup University, a Christian college in Rocklin.

It's set to feature dozens of speakers and panelists from the worlds of law enforcement, mental health, documentary filmmaking, community and religion. There will be expo booths, workshops on how to brand and market social justice, a seminar on the convergence of faith and policy, and a CD-release party headlined by alternative Christian group Jars of Clay.

But none of this would be happening without Williamson, a dynamo who could lead a marketing class of her own. Five years ago, no one outside of law enforcement was really talking about trafficking. Then, Williamson came across the subject, started researching it online and reached out to law enforcement.

“Maybe I talk a lot. I don't know,” she laughed. “[I have] a passion for the issue.”

That's an understatement.

In the few short years that her organization has been around, Courage Worldwide has rocketed to the forefront of the end-trafficking miniboom. The small, Rocklin-based nonprofit went from raising $570,000 in donations and grants in 2010 to $1.15 million the following year, according to Courage Worldwide's 2011 income-tax returns (2012 figures weren't available). Most of that money has come in private donations from the faith-based community, Williamson said.

The sweet, savvy Williamson worked her fundraising magic in numerous television interviews, conveying her dream of a perfect home on a bucolic swath of land for recovered child prostitutes. Eighteen months ago, Williamson opened the doors to that rural dream house and welcomed her first six charges. She's had a waiting list ever since.

Williamson, who speaks in a gentle, honey-dripping twang, is a believer who has a knack for making others believers as well.

One official at the Sacramento County District Attorney's office referred questions on child sex trafficking to Williamson, and Courage Worldwide is currently partnered with the sheriff's department on a $200,000 grant from the California Emergency Management Agency.

The grant is basically a re-up from 2010, when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act carved out a chunk of government funds for human-trafficking proposals. Law-enforcement agencies who wanted to apply needed a community-based partner to split the funds with, Sydow explained. The sheriff's department went with Courage Worldwide because it was one of the only victim-service providers that offered housing.

“Law enforcement was doing their job rescuing these kids, but the community didn't realize we needed a home, so I just started talking about it,” Williamson recalled.

The approach worked. The sheriff's department received $500,000 from the federal government, $125,000 of which went to Williamson's organization. By the time the Recovery Act funds dried up in September 2012, Cal EMA was doling out another $200,000.

“When it comes to the new grant, we didn't have to go with Courage [Worldwide],” Sydow affirmed, but the department was “happy to continue on the same track.”

The $50,000 that Courage Worldwide received from this grant is paying the salary of a group-home administrator, Williamson said. It's been a mostly hands-off partnership.

“How they run their program inside, I don't know for sure,” Sydow said.

That's not unusual.

Shortly after Recovery Act money first went out to the nation, the U.S. Government Accountability Office audited each state to see how that money was being spent. Though “audit” might be too strong a term for what actually happened.

Jenny Williamson, founder of local organization Courage Worldwide, has raised millions of private and public funds to help victims of human trafficking in just five years.

Photo courtesy of <a href="http://courageworldwide.org/">COURAGEWORLDWIDE.ORG</a>

“Although we interviewed Cal EMA, we did not conduct any audit work at the agency,” GAO spokesman Chuck Young said.

Indeed, what concerns are listed in that May 2010 “audit” are cribbed from a California State Auditor's office report from the same month. The latter knocks Cal EMA for not having policies or procedures in place to monitor the subgroups that were ending up with a piece of Recovery Act capital, groups like Courage Worldwide.

“As soon as possible, Cal EMA should execute subgrant agreements with subrecipients so California can more fully realize the benefits of Recovery Act funds,” the report recommended.

Almost three years later, it's unclear whether this actually happened.

Margarita Fernández, public-affairs director at the auditor's office, said the Legislature hasn't asked for another audit of Cal EMA since then. The latter is required to respond in 60-day, six-month and one-year increments, however. And according to Cal EMA's last update in March 2012, it only partially implemented monitoring activities to make sure subrecipients administer its grants appropriately.

The State Auditor's office maintained that Cal EMA needed to “better evaluate” use of remaining Recovery Act funds. But even that finding was more concerned with making sure all federal funds were spent before the upcoming February 28 expiration of the grant, and not with how the funds are spent.

Cal EMA media officials didn't respond to multiple requests for information. But in a brief phone interview, the agency's Grants Monitoring Division chief put the onus for overseeing how funds are spent on “pass-through entities,” like the sheriff's department.

“It's the sheriff's department that's responsible for monitoring,” said Catherine Lewis, the Cal EMA division chief.

She also called the state audit that dinged her agency for not monitoring sub-recipients “inaccurate.”

Despite her title, Lewis isn't responsible for evaluating the grant application that resulted in money for the sheriff's department. That would be the Children's Justice Act Task Force, which is under the auspices of Cal EMA. According to the CJA Task Force's meeting minutes from July 2011 (the last available)—as well as funding guidelines and progress reports—it's up to law-enforcement agencies to self-report any issues.

But besides approving that grant-related salary invoice, Sydow said the department doesn't track what Courage Worldwide does with the money it raises separately.

If all this buck-passing sounds confusing, Sandi Snelgrove tries to offer some clarity.

“We're governed, usually, specifically by our funding sources,” explained Snelgrove, executive director or Another Choice, Another Chance, which has provided substance-abuse and mental-health services to juveniles in Sacramento since 1987.

For community groups like ACAC, which is almost entirely funded by federal grants, that monitoring can be pretty robust. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which recently awarded ACAC a $400,000 trafficking-related grant covering a four-year period ending in 2016, performs regular site visits and requires multiple quarterly reports and status updates to an online database. There are also client measurements, financial and program audits, independent formative evaluations, and the like. Snelgrove characterizes her job as 40 percent people work, 60 percent paperwork.

While most of ACAC's money comes from federal sources, the group has gotten smaller grants and private donations that come with no strings attached or with only a small bit of self-reporting required.

Since a whopping 81 percent of California voters (more than 10 million people) approved Proposition 35, the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation Act, this past November, there's potentially more money to come after.

The harsher sentencing law has been tied up in federal court on grounds that it violates registered sex offenders' First Amendment rights, which is based on the initiative's provision that all registered sex offenders turn over every Internet account, username and password to law enforcement. At a joint legislative public-safety committee hearing in August 2012, state lawmakers, civil-liberty advocates and legal experts criticized the well-meaning legislation for unintended consequences, like making victimized sex workers less likely to report crimes to law enforcement and adding expenses to a depleted general fund.

Lia Moore was the Legislative Analyst's Office analyst tasked with the unenviable job of explaining to lawmakers that much was unknowable about the law's fiscal impacts.

While Prop. 35 directs 70 percent of the money from increased offender fines to public agencies and service organizations, it doesn't say how that money should be allocated or tracked.

“The initiative definitely doesn't go into that detail,” Moore told SN&R.

Courage Worldwide is 75 percent privately funded. But Williamson, a mother of three boys who claims no expertise on the subject of sexually trafficked girls, doesn’t duck the question of oversight.

“We made the decision as an organization to be a state-licensed home,” with all the regulatory requirements and surprise audits that comes with, she said. Then there are the compliance requirements of the various counties and states from which the girls originate. It adds up to a ton of paperwork, but Williamson calls all the regulation “a good thing.”

Sure, going the private route would have given her the latitude to preach her faith, but that would have been a bad choice, she said.

“What that would mean is there would be no accountability. I just didn't think that's smart,” Williamson told SN&R. “We model what I call Christian behavior, but we don't teach religion.”

That's not to say there aren't references to religion on the organization's website and elsewhere. There are. And it's controversial evangelical leader, the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, who will be opening the summit's closing seminar on Saturday.

Then again, Williamson did build her dream using what she knows.

Since opening 18 months ago, Courage Worldwide's undisclosed safe houses in greater Sacramento and Tanzania have housed 28 girls. Williamson's about to break ground on a second cottage, which will double the local home's six-bed capacity and has plans for 60 beds total. Girls who have come in unable to read or with no educational records whatsoever have gotten their GED certificates and gone on to college, she said. The business community is starting to notice.

“The faith-based community gives [money] to a dream, businesses need to see … a success story,” she said.

It's been quite a story. When I bring up the inordinate amount of attention and financial resources child sex trafficking is getting compared to homelessness, poverty, hunger or any other stale social issue, Williamson is quick to agree.

“I can't even imagine what it's like to be working on something for 20 years and not being able to capture the community's imagination like we have. I cannot explain it, except out of the favor of God,” she said.

“We are riding the wave of the soupe du jour, if you will, of social issues,” she added, noting that Halle Berry and Ashton Kutcher have embraced trafficking like Bono once embraced AIDS in Africa. “In five years, it'll be something else.”