The Refuge for DMST (Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking) is an Austin nonprofit organization with a very specific mission: to provide trauma-informed, long-term restoration shelter and services for girls, minors through age 19, who have been exploited through sex trafficking. Through strategic partnerships with law enforcement, churches, and community, The Refuge for DMST has been an instrumental force in tackling Texas’ growing problem of human trafficking. One of their core beliefs is that every survivor of sex trafficking has the potential to be a change agent in this world, and to become a leader in her generation and a champion in the fight to eradicate the insidious crime of sexual exploitation of children.

We had the opportunity to meet with the founder and CEO of The Refuge for DMST, Brooke Crowder, at their office in Austin to discuss the role faith plays in the organization’s mission and how she came to find her calling.

All Things Faithful Awareness of sex trafficking is finally being recognized in the United States, especially in Texas. Can you share your thoughts about where we stand today on this horrific human tragedy?

Brooke Crowder I would say there has been a lot more information in the public sphere about sex trafficking. That’s encouraging but, having been in this work for a long time, you tend to see some stories exploiting the issue in and of itself. These are children and minors that are being exploited and then, sometimes, double exploited through the information that is put out to the public. It’s usually good to bring awareness no matter what, however it’s better to portray it in a way that is honest to the victims. We’ve been very mindful of that. Overall though, I think that in the newspapers, radio, and film, people are putting information out there today that’s more accurate than it was five years ago. It’s really encouraging to see child sex trafficking being portrayed as the reality and the evil it is to our children and how they get sucked into it.

It’s really encouraging to see child sex trafficking being portrayed as the reality and the evil it is to our children and how they get sucked into it.

Before, no one was talking about it in our country. It’s just been in the last few years that people are really thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is happening in our country to our children.” The misconception I think most people have had for a long time was that these are children from other countries, brought across the border and sold in the States. Not that that’s not horrific, of course, but people are really realizing now, “Wait a second…this is my daughter’s friend, this is my next door neighbor, this is my daughter.” No child in our country today is immune from this happening to them, and I mean that. Because of social media, and because of how lucrative it has become, we find the numbers are growing and it is hitting all races, backgrounds, and neighborhoods everywhere. The crime is increasing but, thankfully, the awareness is increasing as well.

ATF Brooke, give us some insight into the mission and purpose of The Refuge.

BC The Refuge for DMST’s sole mission is to build long-term therapeutic facilities, or healing communities as we call them, for children up through the age of 19 who have been trafficked for sex. Our first healing community is in Bastrop and we’re working on another one outside of Houston. Also, we just started conversations with folks in Dallas. The goal has always been to create a model that is community based, that catalyzes communities to come together, and surround these children with the resources that we have in every community. We want to help them rebuild their lives through love, relationship, and the right services for healing.

Unfortunately, the need is so great that we will have to build a bunch of refuges. We believe we have a wonderful model. It has brought together the Austin and Bastrop communities in a way that we’re very encouraged by, and we’re hoping to continue to replicate it throughout the state and throughout the country.

Drone footage of the first Refuge Ranch in Bastrop as it is being built

ATF When did The Refuge come upon your heart?

BC It was truly a calling. When I was in seminary working on a master’s degree, I was in chapel service where they presented a video of little girls being rescued out of a brothel. At the time, my daughter was 6 years old and I saw these little girls that were 5, 6, and 7 years old being rescued. They were held in a hole during the day underneath the brothel and then they were sold at night inside that same brothel where they lived during the day. It broke my heart. I could not imagine any child in which that would be their life, much less a 6 year old girl. I couldn’t stop weeping and I sat in the pew, stuck there weeping until the place cleared out. An hour later, my advisor found me, sat down next to me, and he said, “Brooke, I just want you to look around. There’s nobody else here weeping like this. I think this is the calling of your life.” It was a prophetic word that I knew immediately was true.

‘Brooke, I just want you to look around. There’s nobody else here weeping like this. I think this is the calling of your life.’ It was a prophetic word that I knew immediately was true.

So, I spent the next three years, while I was in seminary, doing as much research as I could on this issue. There was very little information out there around this time, about 2003-2006. After seminary, our family moved to Costa Rica to go to a language school and, while there, I began hearing that Costa Rica was one of the top spots in the western hemisphere for sex tourism and exploitation of children.

That’s where the concept for The Refuge began to take shape. I remember very vividly when I was just starting the work in Costa Rica, I was reading a book called A Crime So Monstrous and it was very explicit in the stories it told about the children. I just got furious and threw the book across the room. I said to myself, “I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do this.”

I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can do this.

I told God that if I can pick up that book, then I will do this for the rest of my life, but He’s going to have to make me go pick up that book. And it sat there for a couple of days. I did go back to pick up the book and knew that was what I was supposed to do.

It didn’t make sense what was going on in Costa Rica because we weren’t able to get these girls out of the situation. They were trapped in extreme poverty controlled by gangs in their neighborhoods. At the end of the day, we always knew when they left the center where I was working that they were going back to be sold that night or rounded up on the weekend and taken to a resort.

It was there that The Refuge started taking shape because I began to say to myself, “if I lived in the United States…” The U.S. had all the resources, we could bring in the right psychologists and therapists if only we were in the United States. There was not much we had available to us to help them in Costa Rica..we could feed them a hot lunch, do some counseling, and tutor to help them get the equivalent of the GED there, but it really was so little compared to what they needed.

I really had to come to the place, after working there for four years, that if we could just help one girl, if I just helped one girl, then that would be enough to fulfill the call of my life. That’s really where you have to stay focused. The idea of making a difference for one was a gift to me because I struggled so much with just the sheer numbers and the overwhelming systemic evil that was going on with children. I intrinsically knew it was just going on all over the world.

ATF After being Costa Rica for so long, what led to the founding of The Refuge in Austin, Texas?

BC I moved back to the United States in 2010 to Austin, a place we have never lived before, and took some time to heal. The Word brought us here. I didn’t know why we were coming to Austin. Frankly, looking back, it seems that’s where the Lord was leading us. I started asking around town in 2012 about who’s doing what to help these children. I wondered why I was not reading about organizations that are helping these children? Why wasn’t I hearing about different programs? I talked to everyone I could, but there was no one. There was nothing going on. There was no programs or coordinated effort. I thought that’s crazy. I can’t believe that we’re not doing something in 2012. So then I began asking people to let me come in and create a program underneath their umbrella. I thought, “You’re already working with homeless youth, you’re already working with the youth that are dealing with substance abuse, many of whom have a trafficking experience. Let me identify and create a program for them.” I didn’t want to start anything. And everyone said no, no one wanted to do that. Usually the reason was it was too complicated and too costly.

Further still, there was a misperception that a lot of people thought these are street kids that are doing drugs and they’re selling their bodies. But I knew that wasn’t true. Long story short, I realized this is going on in my home country and I have influence in my country to do something. I had been a guest in Costa Rica, so why am I not doing something in my country where we have the resources to do so?

I began realizing I might have to start something myself in order to create a place for these children. Then, one day, I got a phone call from a man who said he had a mutual friend and had heard I was trying to find out how to help trafficked children. He wanted to meet with me. We met for coffee and, during that time, I learned about why he was passionate to help child trafficking victims. He asked me, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” So, I described The Refuge, which the Lord had just been downloading in my mind and developing in my heart for all those years in Costa Rica and back home in the United States. Then the man asked me if I wanted 50 acres of land to build that.

That’s when I knew God was going to build it and I could be a part of it. So, I said yes. That was at the very end of 2013. I began doing the work of establishing a nonprofit, recruiting a board of directors, and doing all of the different relationship building that you need to do among the people like the attorney general’s office, the judges, law enforcement, other nonprofits, and churches. We would need to have a solid foundation in those relationships in order to do this very hard work.

Then, in 2015, we began designing The Refuge and designing the buildings, including all of the different components specifically made for a child who has had this severe trauma. We broke ground in late 2016 and have been rapidly expanding since that time as we build a healing community on those donated 50 acres to house and care for 48 girls, ages 11 to 19 that have been trafficked. They’ll have all the services there on site, including a University of Texas charter school on the property just for the girls as well as a medical clinic. All these different community partnerships are coming to The Refuge just to serve the girls. It’s only been a short amount of time, but God has granted us extreme favor. What I have seen so clearly is that God is using The Refuge to stir hearts to raise up people to say this is not going to happen anymore.

ATF For the girls at The Refuge who have suffered so much, how would you describe their hearts and thoughts?

BC Well, just from the survivors that have shared their stories with me, the theme that you hear most often is that they feel shame. They feel forgotten, unseen, unloved, and they can’t trust – and that’s understandable. It’s very understandable. That’s the biggest hurdle to get over with children that have been trafficked for sex. They’ve been abused and exploited and traumatized through relationship. We believe that it’s in relationship where the healing process has to take place. Our model is to bring them to a safe and secure place where they can at least see, “OK, I’m physically safe,” and then we begin to build that relationship with them, loving them unconditionally.

They feel forgotten, unseen, unloved, and they can’t trust. They’ve been abused and exploited and traumatized through relationship.

The relationships we’ve formed with the girls is the key. You see, all the services are great and important and they’re intentional, but, at the end of the day, it’s about the relationships they form. To learn to be loved and to love… that’s where the healing takes place.

To learn to be loved and to love… that’s where the healing takes place.

As believers, we know that we’re empowered by the Holy Spirit and God is giving us the opportunity to just show up with His spirit and let that healing power flow. It’s really the miracle of the Holy Spirit that is our counselor and our healer. We’re just showing up in relationship to bring that to them.

We’re writing this story down, compiling it in a form that we wanted to share with the girls. It’s a love letter to them. You know, right now, these girls that are not at The Refuge are wondering why is this happening to them. They’re wondering where God is. They want to take their life. They’re self-medicating. They’re in such survival mode and they keep thinking no one cares and no one sees. To be able to come to a safe place and read how this place came to be, with all the people that made it happen and all the miracles that God performed, that will be healing in and of itself for the girls. We want them to know there were people that they didn’t know who took the time to do all of this for them.

ATF Faith is a big part of The Refuge and its purpose. Can you elaborate more on faith’s role in your organization?

BC It’s interesting that you saw the lens of faith. It’s probably because you look at the world through a lens of faith as well, but we’ve had nonbelievers tell us how much they love our website and how inspirational it’s been. Sometimes, I don’t think they catch on that we are faith-based. That was actually quite purposeful because one of the things that I found in my adult life working in Christian ministry is that people have preconceptions about what a Christian organization does and doesn’t do. All along, I wanted The Refuge to be the go-to resource in our community for whatever is needed to serve child sex trafficking victims. Often times, you’re partnering with the state, the federal government, and with law enforcement. We want to partner with those folks, but in order to get a seat at the table, you have to be above and beyond reproach and as professional as any other organization that they would deal with. You have to earn the right to be heard. We really have been, through God’s favor, very intentional in relationship-building. We’ve earned a seat at the table and we have been considered the resource and the go-to people when it comes to how we are caring for child survivors of sex trafficking. There is no way I could have done this work and tried to take on The Refuge if I hadn’t known that God was going to do this. This is really tough work, and when you stand back and go, “How can I help children in the world today?” this is probably one of the toughest arenas you can enter.

ATF For those who are just now learning about the scope of sex trafficking around the world and in our Texas community, how would you suggest that they get involved with what you guys are doing or another organization tackling the issue?

BC I think it’s really important that people realize this can happen to any child. It’s kind of a scary situation, but we don’t want to be scared. We want to be empowered to be able to recognize and to be able to prevent a child from getting lured into this. When I say any child, I really mean that because of social media and just the way that our children are relating to others in their community. There are traffickers infiltrating our children’s spheres of influence.

What 12 and 13 year old is really able to identify when they’re being manipulated and coerced into something that they could not see? I really want people to understand that this could happen to their child and therefore, as a generation of adults, it’s on our watch. We have to put a stop to this now. It’s something that if everybody is doing just one thing, every adult doing just one thing, it will make a difference in our communities for these children. It can be whatever that one thing is that you do best.

If you’re a teacher, go in and educate children. If you’re a doctor and you want to donate your time to work with these girls who’ve been so badly broken in mind, body, and spirit, get trained to really compassionately care for them. No one organization can do this hard complicated work. That’s why we partnering with everyone in our community to do the work that we’re called to do. This can happen in every community, large or small. Children are being trafficked. If there are organizations in that community that are doing work that you want to plug into, I encourage you to do that. I think if everybody does one thing then you know you make a difference.

If you believe you’re a victim of sex trafficking or know someone who is and need immediate help please dial (888) 373-7888 and the National Human Trafficking Resource Center will find you local assistance. Or you can text “HELP” or “INFO” to the number 233733 for discreet help.

We are thankful for the ability to use our platform to further awareness for the vital calling of the amazing team at The Refuge for DMST. We would also like to recognize all of the faith community of Austin that stepped up to help The Refuge for DMST, from local churches to restaurants to all the individuals volunteering and making it happen. Every girl’s life is precious, and we can all do one thing to help them from a tragic life of sex trafficking.

Ways you can support the Refuge:

Follow on social media for events and to share information to spread awareness

Donate monetarily

Get Involved with the Dove Tile Project

Volunteer with The Refuge for DMST

Update December 28th, 2017: The Refuge For DMST has had an amazing year, which means surviving victims of sex-trafficking have more opportunities for a better future through the work Brooke and her team are doing. The ranch, which will house and nurture girls who have suffered from the horrors of sex trafficking, is advancing. Check out the video below to see the progress being made!

One way to get involved is to help furnish a survivor’s cottage at the ranch. One priority of  The Refuge for DMST is to make The Refuge Ranch a place that is private and secure as well as cozy and inviting. Their hope is that the girls who will soon live on the beautiful 50 acres outside of Austin will feel that The Refuge lives up to its name and is a refuge indeed – a place where they feel safe and comfortable enough to start their healing journey with confidence.  Be the 1 who joins The Refuge in creating, decorating, and furnishing these safe spaces for child survivors of sex trafficking. You can learn more here!

On January 12th, The Refuge will also be hosting a sold-out culinary gala, Hope Apetit, in which celebrity chefs and mixologists from around the area will showdown for a greater cause.