On May 30, the Magdalene St. Louis held its opening ceremony in the city’s Old North neighborhood. The ceremony took place just one day after President Obama signed The Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act of 2015 (JVTA). The newly renovated home serves as a residential program for women who have been victims of sex trafficking. On June 8, the first three women accepted into the two-year program moved into the residence. Magdalene will eventually cater to 11 women total.
On Monday, Tricia Roland-Roland-Hamilton, executive director of Magdalene St. Louis, and Katie Rhoades, a sex trafficking survivor who leads group sessions at Magdalene St. Louis, joined “St. Louis on the Air” host Don Marsh to discuss the first few weeks of the program.
Rhoades was trafficked as an adult, at age 18. At the time, she was homeless and had been working at a strip club with the notion that she would be able to make money quickly and then leave the lifestyle. Instead, Rhoades said that after being approached by a pimp, she was soon forced into prostitution.
“For myself, I was mostly sold online and through strip clubs, so I was not somebody who walked on the streets,” Rhoades explained. “When I got out, it took many years of rehab, therapy and really focusing on healing. I’ve been out about 13 years now.”
Roland-Hamilton said that Rhoades’ story is typical for many other victims of trafficking. “This is a very common story. There’s no [young girl] that I know that grows up saying ‘I want to be a prostitute,’” Roland-Hamilton stated. “So, when you look at it in that context and you look at pages like Backpage.com that do nothing but promote the objectification of women, girls, and to a lesser extent, boys and young men, it’s something we have to end.”
The Magdalene St. Louis offers its residents a number of services for the duration of the two-year program, including food, housing, health care, therapy sessions and life skills training.
“Many of these women, if they’ve entered into this life at an early age, don’t know how to balance a check book [or] cook a meal,” Roland-Hamilton explained. “Very simple things that we all take for granted are things that [Magdalene staff] are instructing them on.”
Rhoades is responsible for counseling the victims at Magdalene St. Louis. She said that providing open, respectful dialogue through peer sessions allows the women to share their experiences comfortably in order to heal. “These women have their own stories, their own journeys,” Rhoades explained. “There are some themes across the board, but what they haven’t gotten before and what I think they deserve now is that really radical respect to be where they’re at right now.”
As for the recent launch of the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act of 2015 (JVTA), Roland-Hamilton is unsure of whether or not it will be enough to combat the issue. She explained that because of the lifestyle, many of the women whom she encounters have criminal records with multiple arrests, including felony convictions. However, Roland-Hamilton does see the JVTA as a helpful start.
“I don’t know that (JVTA) will go far enough, but I think it’s going to be helpful,” Roland-Hamilton expressed. “I think that providing law enforcement better tools to attack this problem is going to be very helpful. Something that I talk about all the time is that we treat these girls and women like they are criminals, when in fact, they are victims.”
St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.