Raising awareness of human trafficking through prevention education and helping victims heal
By Sonia Duggan
A journey of self-discovery and faith empowered a Rockwall mom of four to educate the public and raise awareness about the second largest and fasting growing criminal industry in the world; human trafficking. The Poiema Foundation, founded by Rebecca Jowers, works to shed light on this modern form of slavery that ensnares over 100,000 children in the sex trade in the U.S. each year.
Twelve years ago, human trafficking wasn’t top of mind for Jowers. Her youngest daughter started first grade, and for the first time in years she had a break. She envisioned her days filled with catching up on household chores, grocery shopping and carpools when her husband Raymond asked, “What are you going to do now?”
While some women might take that question the wrong way, Jowers appreciated the challenge. Her husband knew she needed more. The birth of four children in six years put her aspirations on the back burner. She began praying about it, saying, “Ok God, I’m in this new season, what do you want me to do?” After college she taught math, then when her children were in school she tutored students. Now continuing her abandoned master’s program in developmental mathematics didn’t interest her anymore. “I wanted to have an impact on eternity and where people would be spending the rest of their life,” she said.
She enrolled at Dallas Theological Seminary in 2006 as a part-time student with a goal of getting a master’s degree in Christian Education so she could teach God’s word. As a survivor of abuse, Jowers said she started healing while studying there. Though she felt called to serve in many areas, ultimately, she knew it would be a mercy ministry such as homeless outreach, conflict resolution, helping survivors of abuse, etc. After watching a documentary at DTS about children being sold into sex slavery one day, she knew she had found her mission.
After graduation in 2012, Jowers shared her vision of helping victims of human trafficking with a pastor at her home church, Lake Pointe Church in Rockwall. Coincidentally, the pastor said Lake Pointe wanted to start an anti-human trafficking ministry and asked her to be a part of the team. While technically there really wasn’t a team except for Jowers, she began educating herself extensively on the issue of human trafficking by researching, visiting different organizations across the U.S., and then educating the public about the problem. After a year she was overwhelmed but discovered a need that was not being met by other nonprofits; housing the survivors of sex trafficking. “It’s a huge problem,” she said. “There is no way only one church can support a safe house.”
The Poiema Foundation was formed by Jowers with hopes of partnering with other churches to bring awareness to the issue of trafficking and to raise funds for a home for the victims. In October 2013, the foundation earned its nonprofit status. Since then, Jowers and her team have worked to educate the public and raise awareness through Prevention Education, Advocacy and Outreach, and Victim Care.
Human trafficking is defined as controlling a person through force, fraud, or coercion to exploit the victim for forced labor, sexual exploitation or both. Texas is ranked second behind California in reported cases of trafficking. Domestic minor sex trafficking occurs when children, under the age of 18, are commercially sexually exploited through prostitution, pornography, and/or erotic entertainment.
The key to bringing awareness to a problem as big as human trafficking is prevention education. Jowers and her staff are passionate about educating the public about this subject, a necessity to ending this form of modern-day slavery. They welcome opportunities to speak at schools, churches, and any interested organizations, often presenting their Human Trafficking 101 classes. “I made my daughters go to HT (Human Trafficking) 101,” she said. Attendees are taught how to report suspicious activity, how perpetrators recruit children, how to identify human trafficking victims, sexual abuse prevention and education and how to talk to children about sex and human trafficking. “I love doing the education trainings,” she said. “Your teenager can’t think like you. They can’t problem solve like you. That’s why they do high risk things – make dumb mistakes.”
The average age a child is recruited is 12 or 13 years old for a girl, a little older for a boy, says Jowers. “It’s not really a socio-economic problem. It’s the vulnerability factors that put the person at risk.” Two upper middle-class girls in Frisco were trafficked. Factors such as age, history of abuse, divorce, death, parents doing drugs, etc. can all make a child more vulnerable. Kids in foster care are exceptionally vulnerable. “While we all have some type of dysfunction, the perpetrator finds the dysfunction and they step in to try and fill that void,” she said. “We’ve had several girls (5) who were victims of satanic ritual abuse. It’s happening in our community more than we know and it is happening by people in higher authorities; educated people, doctors, attorneys, police officers, judges. It’s not just bad guys.”
Because children are so trusting, they are easy prey when it comes to predators says Jowers. Her fear is there are not enough parents who keep their kids accountable on cellphones. Her daughters are now grown at 18, 20, 22, and 24, but when they were younger Jowers said she had their passwords to all their social media accounts and would read their texts, emails and social media posts. “They have to follow me on social media,” she said. When she did find texts or posts by her daughters that did not meet her standards, she took their phone away – and for up to two weeks, she said.
A strict, but not unreasonable, parenting style is best. Jowers suggests parents don’t go to extremes and ban cellphones because that’s how kids communicate today. “You don’t want to isolate them from their peers,” she said. “I think it needs to be done wisely.” The key, said Jowers, is educating your child and holding them accountable. “You want to preserve the relationship and use it as a teaching tool. I want them to learn while they’re under my roof.”
Sex abuse prevention is another tipping point for this educator. “I think one of the biggest problems in our country is we do not educate people on sex abuse prevention,” she said. “1 in 4 girls is sexually abused before age 18 and 90% of the time it is someone you know well and trust. It’s a cousin, uncle, boyfriend, brother or father.” she said.
Adding fuel to the fire is the accessibility of porn on cellphones. “Porn is the portal into human trafficking,” says Jowers. “The average age a kid is introduced to porn is 8 years old. It’s so easy on a smart phone.” Jowers revealed porn addicts are men and women. The book “Your Brain on Porn,” reveals it’s as addicting as heroin or cocaine. “It begins as a moral choice then becomes an addiction, then people don’t ask for help due to the shame. It’s not a group that people are inclined to reach out to,” she said.
The internet is a wealth of information, but it is also a place where danger is just one click away. It is the biggest tool perpetrators use to recruit a girl, but it can also be a way Poiema’s volunteers find missing girls and their perpetrators.
In one instance a girl was recruited out of the Garland area after being friends for a year with a man on Facebook. “She was 14 and he was 21,” Jowers said. “She had been gang-raped at her school at 12 and had a lot of challenges already which is very common. Girls previously abused are often easier to be recruited by a perpetrator. He gained her trust and one day he convinced her to climb out her bedroom window to go meet him.”
Stranger danger is real, and parents must be proactive. Jowers spoke about a case in Florida that could easily happen in any state. A teenage girl befriended a new girl at school. The 17-year-old was asked to go on a sleepover at the new girl’s house. The mom initially said ‘no’ because she did not know the parents, but the daughter talked the mom into meeting the ‘dad’ who appeared to be a very pleasant and articulate man. The mother let her daughter stay, and that night the man posing as the dad raped the girl then sold her to a pimp in Texas for $200,000.
“If you don’t know there’s an enemy – a predator – how are you going to recognize him? Satan is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We need to be able to recognize him – be smart sheep,” Jowers said.
Despite Poiema’s concerted efforts at promoting classes at churches with thousands of members, Jowers said oftentimes very few parents show up. “Some people are just so terrified they don’t want to know,” she said. “Being educated shouldn’t terrify you, it should empower you.”
Community Awareness Outreach
Poiema provides a variety of trainings and currently partners with 15 churches in Rockwall, Denton, Mesquite, Frisco, Dallas and Carrollton. Four volunteers from each of the 15 campuses hold a monthly outreach for three hours to distribute posters of missing girls. “It’s raising awareness in the community,” she said. “It’s not just truck stops. It’s hotels, convenience stores, anywhere we know these kids are being sold or parts of town where they were last seen.”
The foundation has forged a collaborative partnership with 4theONE, a nonprofit dedicated to finding and rescuing missing and exploited teens. The tipline listed on the posters Poiema distributes is monitored by a 4theONE private investigator and team. People can call and report a tip and 4theONE will follow up.
A few years ago at Poiema’s first outreach in the Pleasant Grove area, a lady from a convenience store recognized a girl on the poster and called the tip in. “We called Dennis (the PI) and they got online. They have Google face recognition and all these different methods to locate the ad to see where she is being sold,” reported Jowers. “Well, they could tell that they had already moved her to the Denton area. Our team found her ad online, got on her social media and they were able to contact her. They contacted law enforcement in the area and they set up a meeting and they went in and rescued the girl.”
Intel data entry is also orchestrated on outreach. Volunteers will take down license plate information of suspicious vehicles and do public data lookup. Once they find the information they turn it over to the private investigator who then researches further and finds out who owns the car, what the VIN number is, who lives in the house etc. “Sometimes we find perpetrators, sometimes we find girls, but then also human trafficking rings can be found by doing that,” Jowers said. “God does pretty amazing things on outreach.”
Safety is a priority in investigative situations for the volunteers and the girl. Sometimes volunteers watch a hotel room and see if they can put eyes on a girl they are looking for, and then if they can, they call the police. “It has to be a minor because for adults you have to prove force, fraud or coercion,” she said. “The way these girls are controlled with violence and threats it’s very unusual for them to turn on their perpetrator because of trauma bonding.”
Since 2013 Jowers had a vision of the body of Christ and the Metroplex coming together to sustain a home for victims of sex trafficking. “It’s hard to find long-term trauma-informed care for this population, and often they have to go to a domestic violence shelter, or in some cases a maternity home, just to have a place to stay,” she said.
Thanks to the generosity of a woman Jowers met through a church friend, a 3-bedroom home was donated, free and clear, in 2015. “She gave us the house and all the furniture inside the house, everything except the pictures of her dogs and cats,” she said.
The first year Jowers had the home she couldn’t open it because she didn’t have the funds for staff. “Making it a home is the staff you bring in to care for survivors,” she said.
After a year of fundraising, she hired staff in 2016, saying to them, “I can pay you for year if God keeps providing.”
In January 2017 the Safe House opened its doors to human trafficking survivors. The address is unpublished, and it’s off the tax rolls because they have girls whose perpetrators are looking for them. “We’re a hidden in plain sight kind of thing,” she said.
The bulk of Poiema’s ministry is dedicated to the Safe House. “This is where survivors come and heal. It’s very individualized trauma informed care,” Jowers said. “We are still learning what that is and how to deal with that. That’s a huge part of our budget and where volunteers help.”
The foundation employs 24/7 staffing at the house and only takes four girls 17 and older, those aging out of foster care, at a time. They have been full ever since opening and it’s not unusual for Jowers to have to turn girls away. “We really need one more bedroom. That way we could help two more girls.”
The staff works with local detectives, Homeland Security and the Department of Public Safety, and at times, the social worker or therapist working with the survivor. The women are taught life skills and traditional education, fitness and nutrition, gardening, art, and Bible studies. They also participate in individual, group counseling and equine or pet therapy.
Because there are many perpetrators on public transportation, Jowers asks the girls to get jobs within walking distance of the home. “Plus they can count it as exercise and that’s really important for mental health,’ she said.
More than 80 percent of the girls in the program were abused by someone in their family (often they were the ones who sold them) says Jowers, so Poiema chooses not to use the word ‘family’ in reference to the group of girls they shelter. Some girls stay months in the program, others stay up to a year. “In Poiema’s program they’ll stay with us as long as they need to. They’ll always be part of our community.”
Former Poiema resident Tiffani has no memories of a healthy family. She was sex trafficked by many of her foster parents and was later adopted and sold into sexual slavery by her adoptive parents. Tiffani lived at the Safe House for about six months before becoming employed as a part-time staffer at the house and she attends University of North Texas. Now 33 years old, she’s healing from a lifetime of abuse. “I still receive support emotionally, tutoring, and financial support for UNT,” she said. “Living in the safe house has allowed me to pour into others and help them with their recovery,” Tiffani said. “Doing this has allowed me to heal.”
Many of the girls have reactive attachment disorder, especially those abused by their family so some can be difficult to deal with says Jowers. One former resident had over 40 foster placements and another girl had over 50. “It’s because of the mental health challenge. It’s because of the abuse,” Jowers said. “One was adopted for the purpose of being abused, the other one her abuse started at age 2.”
Despite all this, healing can happen and so can opportunities to celebrate. “What’s so wonderful is there is a happy ending,” she said. “They both were adopted by awesome families. We think because they’re adults (one was 26) they don’t need to be adopted. For one girl it made all the difference in the world because it was real to her. You can still come alongside and support them.”
This is not an easy ministry to manage, and volunteers and staff can experience burnout. It takes leadership, love and dedication to run a program helping women who have suffered so much in their lives. “It infuriates me,” Jowers said.” That’s what motivates me to do what I do.”