Hope House to be first LA safe house for trafficking victims
BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - It's called modern slavery and human sex trafficking and it strikes closer to home than you may think.
Baton Rouge was ranked among the top 10 cities for human trafficking in 2006 by Shared Hope International, a group dedicated to helping victims. It's an overwhelming problem that is hard to face. But one local group is doing just that.
Set deep in Louisiana woods is a place of serene solitude with cabins, ponds and trails meant to ease the suffering of victims of modern day slavery.
"When you see it, it just makes you want to do something about it," said Lee Domingue, co-founder of Trafficking Hope.
"Most people's reaction is there's no way that could possibly be happening here," said his wife, Laura. "That's people's disbelief and shock. Then, sadness when they realize it's happening here in our city to our children."
Rolling down the long gravel driveway, Lee and Laura Domingue never dreamed that a trip to Europe would lead to establishing the first safe house for the rehabilitation of trafficking victims in Louisiana.
Several years ago, the Domingues traveled to Greece to help out with the A21 Campaign, a European group working to eliminate trafficking. As parents of five, they were moved by the situation that seemed to overwhelm the country so far away.
However, when the couple returned home to Baton Rouge, they were shocked to realize that the crisis was in their back yard. In 2006, Shared Hope International ranked Baton Rouge among the top 10 cities in the U.S. for human trafficking based on records of incidents.
Shortly after that study was released, the couple founded Trafficking Hope.
"We were very happy and comfortable helping it in other countries, but when we found out it was happening here, we couldn't do that. We couldn't accept that with our children living here in what we thought was a really safe environment. So, we felt we needed to do something," said Laura.
The couple began by buying books and handing them out to friends, spreading awareness of human trafficking to anyone who would listen.
Initially, the couple says people were shocked by their message, but their group quickly grew to include partnerships with social workers, other advocates and law enforcement. It was a collective effort developed to create and enforce stronger laws against trafficking and to educate the public on the signs and facts about the sex trade.
However, over the years, the advocates say there was always a key element missing: housing for victims.
"Finally, one day we said if no one is going to do anything, we'll make a go at this," said Laura.
After years of fundraising, the perfect property came up for sale. Trafficking Hope purchased a 32-acre campground in South Louisiana in April.
Hope House of Louisiana will open in January.
The campus itself is a gorgeous and peaceful setting of green woods. Seven cabins will house two girls each and additional buildings will serve as offices, kitchens, lounge and learning areas.
Safety is of the utmost concern. In addition to the remote location, additional security is being designed by former military members.
"The goal is not just to get somebody help, but really renewed, restored and equipped and back into society and being able to realize those dreams they had when they were a child," said Lee.
Volunteers are working nonstop to restore and refurbish the buildings which haven't been occupied in years. The Domingues say they have been overwhelmed at the support they've gotten from the community.
The advocates say every day people come out to paint, hang dry wall or lend their skills with a hammer. Some have even offered to donate art and homemade quilts to make the girls feel at home.
"While they're out there we want to state that we love you and that we are here for you and we value you," said Lee.
The rehabilitation program itself was written by social workers and experts. The program will last anywhere from 13 to 18 months and will include counseling and vocational training. Any girl in the program will also be expected to follow rules and a strict zero tolerance policy when it comes to drugs and alcohol.
"Everyone is pioneering this at the moment. Everyone is gathering data figuring out what works and what doesn't. Basically, it's just staying at it and working to see what is really helping these victims," said Laura.
Looking around at the slow and steady progress of Hope House, pride is evident on the faces of Lee and Laura. They hope that this facility will eventually be the model for other safe houses around the country.
"If we've impacted one girl, that we were able to rescue and restore one girl out of all of it, then it was worth it and our legacy will state that," said Lee.
The success of Trafficking Hope is based on the belief that anyone can help. Whether it's donating time, talents or resources and materials the group is always looking for volunteers.
Anyone interested in helping can contact the group through their website. All volunteers are vetted and back ground searches are conducted for safety reasons.
Trafficking Hope also has a hotline where anyone can report suspicious activity or signs of human trafficking.
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