Hit & Run

Courage House Claimed to Save Sex-Trafficked Girls. Instead, It Used Them As Funding Bait While Playing Evangelical Christian Missionary

Courage House received about $9,100 in government support per month per girl it took in.

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Courage Worldwide/Facebook

Once girls arrived at the house, they were expected to hand over their cellphones. Internet access was also strictly limited—Jenny's rules. For "her girls" to stay in good graces, they were expected to do as she said, go where she told them to, and be available when she wanted to show them off in photos or at events.

It's the kind of controlling, exploitative situation police warn us that runaway teens are likely to end up in at the hands of human traffickers. But in this case, control came via the people ostensibly helping—and accepting a lot of private and government money to help—these girls, under the auspices of an organization called Courage Worldwide. Founded in 2011 by Jenny T. Williamson (on direct orders from God, or so she claims), the Sacramento-based organization provided housing and services for formerly sex-trafficked young women at a California group home (Courage House) as well as a sister site in Tanzania.

For her work as CEO of the nonprofit, Williamson paid herself $115,000 in 2015, according to the organization's tax report. The group reported net assets of $1.4 million that year. In addition to accepting donations from numerous local businesses, it received about $9,100 in government support per month per girl it took in. Most of the girls that lived at Courage House were referred by social workers or probation officers.

Once at Courage House, the girls were supposed to be able to heal in comfort and privacy. Instead, they found themselves cut off from the outside world, with services and staff lacking (one former employee said she was told there was only money for two of the six girls per month to see a psychiatrist), while being subjected to the invasive publicity demands of Williamson, according to a Sacramento Bee expose on the group.

"Public documents show that Williamson voluntarily closed the six-bed facility, effective June 14, amid a flurry of state inspections that found numerous violations, including inadequate staffing levels and no current administrator working at the home," the paper reported in August. "Williamson is appealing many of the citations, and is adamant that the closure is only temporary."

So temporary, apparently, that Williamson didn't bother telling her donors about the shutdown until after the Bee contacted them.

A former Courage House employee told the newspaper that the group had been cited by the state 16 times between January and June of 2016, for violations including breaching residents' privacy and inadequate staffing. Last fall, it was cited for giving tours of the group home and holding lunches there, for forcing residents to attend Christian church services every week, and for not respecting residents' freedom of religion.

In interviews with The Bee, six ex-employees and a former business associate described a volatile environment for workers and high turnover among line staff at Courage House. The former workers singled out Williamson as a temperamental leader with no child-development background who micromanaged her trained staff and became so swept up in her own publicity and expansion plans that the core mission began to falter.

The workers described a corporate organization in which staff members were frequently countermanded or abruptly fired for raising questions about "the vision," or for expressing concerns over the corporate office's sharing of clients' confidential information in fundraising or publicity efforts. Several ex-employees said they were upset by the use of identifiable images of Courage House girls on the company's Facebook page.

It sounds like Williamson acted more like the proverbial controlling pimp or madam than someone truly dedicated to helping exploited teenagers. Which would be gross enough for the sheer hypocrisy of it, but imagine how much it could also have further messed up these girls, assuming they did come to her because they had been forced or coerced into prostitution. Now the people who "rescued" them are employing the same sort of isolating and controlling techniques they escaped, treating them more like Courage Worldwide products than people, and publicizing their images and past horror stories to the whole community.

DeAnne Brining, a licensed therapist who had contracted with Courage House, described the situation as "abusive" and said Williamson routinely "paraded the girls around" for marketing purposes. Another former employee told the Bee "everything was a photo op." (Read the whole damning expose here.)

The publicity efforts, at least, worked: Williamson can be seen on the Courage Worldwide website posing alongside people like former San Francisco Giants pitcher Jeremy Affeldt and actresses Julianne Moore and Eva Longoria. She's been honored by the FBI and L'Oreal.

Williamson complained to the Bee that caring for trafficked youth has left her tired. "It is difficult to love someone that does not love themself," she said.

Courage Worldwide's website still touts the organization's expansion plan, which includes opening 10 new cottages for underage sex-trafficking victims, in both the U.S. and Tanzania.

"Sex trafficking has become a 'cause celebre' in the evangelical community," notes Broadly. And as it has, church-backed "abolition" efforts and Christian group-homes for "rescued" girls have proliferated, with many evangelicals seeing the sex-trafficking angle as a new way to attack long-time opposition to prostitution and pornography.

"The numbers of [houses] have surged because the issue has for ten-plus years been promoted by entities like the US federal government, which provides significant funding for rescue efforts," Laura Agustín, anthropologist and author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, told Broadly. "It is not surprising that opportunists leap on the bandwagon, with or without good intentions."

In the past few years, a number of high-profile rescue groups have been exposed for shady behavior. The most well-known was Somaly Mam, whose fraudulent foundation had been celebrated by everyone from Hillary Clinton to Nicholas Kristof to Meg Ryan before it crashed in a haze of half-truths and distortions. Then Chong Kim, the poster-victim for several sex-trafficking rescue groups (and subject of the 2012 film Eden), was also found to be fudging many details about her alleged abuse.

Think things are better in other countries? Anne Elizabeth Moore's excellent comic book Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, and Trafficking, published earlier this year, shows how rescue organizations in places like Cambodia "save" women from the sex trade only to exploit them in garment factories.

A 2015 report from Truthout looked at 50 of the most prominent (and well-funded) anti--human-trafficking organizations in America—groups with a net worth of about $686 million, or $13.7 million per group, per year. "The US anti-trafficking movement seems to be one of the few reliable growth areas in the United States' post-recession economy besides low-wage service work," Truthout reported. Its analysis found many of the groups were secretive about budgets and funding, promoted unsourced or patently false statistics about human trafficking, and offered dubious claims about the services they provide and the impact of their efforts. "All in all," concluded Truthoiut, "the impact numbers presented by anti-trafficking organizations— their justification for existence and, of course, funding—are simply absurd."