When Katie Rhoades founded Healing Action, she made a commitment: every peer counselor she hires has worked in the commercial sex trade, and gotten out. Including herself.
“They have walked that path," Rhoades said. "They have, through help, and sometimes not so much help, have been able to come out and do something different with their lives. And that creates a sense of hope and possibility for the women that we serve.”
Healing Action is the latest addition to a regional effort to stop sex trafficking and exploitation in St. Louis.
Rhoades, a graduate of Washington University’s Brown School of Social Work, moved the organization into a permanent location in February. Counselors lead group therapy sessions and one-on-one counseling for more than a dozen women who are living in shelters after leaving the sex industry. In July, the agency will expand to a day program three times a week.
“One of the needs that we identified is that the women need more structured, group-based programming so they can begin to learn the skills to survive and to operate day-to-day,” Rhoades said.
There is little research on the best way to help people who have experienced the violence, abuse and trauma that is often a part of the commercial sex industry. Rhoades and her colleagues have pulled together curriculums by drawing on practices that have worked for people who have been sexually assaulted, domestic violence victims and veterans.
“It is virtually impossible to recognize the difference between forced prostitution and voluntary prostitution,” Rhoades wrote in the organization’s mission statement. “All individuals who want out deserve a hand, regardless of how they got there.”
St. Louis and Kansas City are hot spots for sex trafficking circuits in the Midwest, according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute on behalf of the Department of Justice. Since 2011, several agencies have been established in the St. Louis region to serve women and children escaping the sex trade. So far, there are no similar shelters for men. Covering House shelters children and teens, while Magdalene St. Louis serves women.
Healing Action also has begun a series of monthly public information sessions called Need2Know.
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