When a teenage girl staying in a safe house for sex-trafficking victims recently ran from a yoga studio, another girl went after her.
Both girls returned to the studio and to the safe house that is intended as a refuge for Northeast Ohio teens who often are prone to running.
“No one wants to be here,” Leah Clancy, director of Rebecca’s Place, said during a recent tour of the juvenile safe house near Summit County. “They want to be in their lives. If you’ve got to be somewhere, this is where you want to be.”
Rebecca’s Place opened its doors in February, as the latest endeavor by the Akron-based Reaching Above Hopelessness and Brokenness (RAHAB) Ministries. The safe house is named for Rebecca “Becky” Moreland, the recently retired founder of RAHAB.
So far, 14 girls have stayed at the 5,000-square-foot safe house, with the exact location kept under wraps for safety reasons.
Rebecca’s Place is one of only two juvenile safe houses for trafficking victims in Ohio, with the other six-bed facility in Columbus. Both facilities assist teenage girls who have been targeted — often through social media — and forced to sell their bodies.
RAHAB hopes its safe house, which was built and furnished with about $1 million in donations, can serve as a model for other locations across the country. The agency’s efforts will be featured at an Ohio attorney general conference in January.
RAHAB, though, is facing funding challenges that are limiting the number of girls who can be housed at the safe house. Like victim agencies across Ohio, RAHAB recently had its federal Victim of Crime Act (VOCA) funding cut by about 7%.
As a result, RAHAB only has enough funding to welcome six girls at Rebecca’s Place, though the facility can house up to 14 — and about 50 girls have been turned away.
RAHAB is pushing for additional support from the community and area churches.
“People need to understand: This is real, and it’s life and death,” said Suzanne Lewis-Johnson, RAHAB’s new CEO and a former Canton FBI agent who worked on a Child Exploitation Task Force. “They truly can save a life.”
When a girl steps into Rebecca’s Place, the first thing she sees is a “Welcome Home” sign with her name written on it.
“It’s always really scary for them to come here,” Clancy said on a recent tour she provided the Beacon Journal while the residents were at equine or horse therapy.
The next stop was a great room with a long, wooden table where the teens and RAHAB staff share meals and a large kitchen where they cook together. The great room featured a tall Christmas tree donated to the agency and decorated by the girls who have asked where the presents are.
The second floor has six bedrooms for the girls — most with multiple beds — and three bathrooms. The teens can decorate their rooms and most wrapped their doors with Christmas paper, bows and ribbons.
One girl had a line of wrapped presents on her bed, each with a tag and a card. The girls make crafts and can earn small prizes — like nail kits and squishy balls — that they often give as presents.
“Knock and keep knocking till I answer not till you answer,” one teen said on a hand-written sign posted on her decorated door. “P.S. Unless you Jesus come right in.”
The basement of the house is still unfinished, with plans in the coming year for walls to separate the large open space into rooms for schoolwork, exercise, yoga, crafts and a sensory area.
RAHAB has a volunteer who will supervise the refinishing and will seek others to help.
“Everything at Rebecca’s Place someone donated or put in,” Clancy said. “It blows me away.”
The day starts for the girls with a morning meeting with the staff.
The agenda normally includes online school and some type of therapy, such as art, music or yoga.
Each girl has a plan for her time at the safe house that is coordinated by social workers and caseworkers.
The girls are required to cook, clean and do their own laundry.
When a teen gets frustrated or upset, she might be encouraged to punch or kick a dummy in the workout area, spend time in the sensory area or throw an egg at the basketball hoop outside.
“Our focus is not on discipline,” Clancy said. “It is on changing behavior.”
In the summer, the girls visited a farm and went swimming. As the weather grew colder, they’ve had pizza parties and — in honor of Christmas — will watch the movie “The Polar Express” and have a cocoa bar.
“We try to make them feel special,” Clancy said.
Clancy said she has seen improvement with every girl who’s stayed at the safe house, who have ranged in age from 14 to 17.
She said one teen told her, “I have a lot of work to do but I know how to do it. I can do it when I leave here.”
The ideal time for a girl to stay at the house is about six months, though some stay less and some more, Clancy said.
Summit County Juvenile Court Judge Linda Tucci Teodosio, who has sent trafficking victims from Restore Court to the safe house, said she’s pleased to have this as a resource.
“They just want to help pick girls up and move them forward,” she said.
After girls leave, RAHAB continues to keep tabs on them for at least six months. A few girls have been permitted to return for another stay when space was available.
The safe house routinely has a wait list with three to four girls and gets several calls each week about available beds. The inquiries come from county agencies, children services, hospitals, courts and parents.
The agency provides more staffing than is required under licensing rules, with at least three employees in the house around the clock. If more girls were admitted, additional staff would be needed to maintain this ratio.
Lewis-Johnson said the agency is primarily relying on VOCA funds to cover staff costs at the safe house. She said other funding sources will be needed to maintain and, ideally, increase staffing.
To achieve this, RAHAB leaders are hoping to form new partnerships like the one they have with RiverTree church in Jackson Township. The church plans to donate its Christmas Eve offerings to RAHAB, with the funds dedicated to new drop-in centers the agency plans to open next year in Jackson Township and Canton.
“I’d love to see people of faith putting that faith into action,” Lewis-Johnson said.
Lewis-Johnson said there’s no easy fix to this problem.
“Our goal is to eradicate slavery and sex trafficking,” Clancy said.
“Who will you be in that story?” Lewis-Johnson asked.
Stephanie Warsmith can be reached at 330-996-3705, email@example.com and on Twitter: @swarsmithabj.