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BALTIMORE (AP) — Squatting in the grass and squinting in the sun, 25-year-old Song takes in the scene: a greenhouse, a farm, rows of heirloom tomatoes, clusters of herbs and flowering zucchini, squash and cucumber plants.
A year ago and less than a mile away, she was working the streets of West Baltimore, trading sex for money.
That she now tends a vegetable garden is thanks to the Samaritan Women, a residential program that is among the relatively few in the nation dedicated to long-term help for the surging numbers of victims of human trafficking.
For most of her adult life, Song was homeless, addicted and caught in a cycle of violence and emotional manipulation that began when she was a child and until just recently, she herself didn't even recognize.
When she was arrested for the last time almost a year ago, she begged the judge to send her to a long-term, residential shelter rather than back onto the streets. As her 30-day stay at a short-term shelter was almost up, she met a man at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting who gave her the number to the Samaritan Women house. A bed was open.
Local and federal law enforcement agencies are trying to do more to combat sex trafficking. But with an ever-increasing volume of survivors being collected, the patchwork of governmental, nonprofit and faith-based organizations that provide care are scrambling to keep up.
The faith-based Samaritan Women relies on grants and donations and does not accept government funding. Its 23 acres includes two restored mansions with the capacity to house, clothe and feed 14 women for up to two years.
The AP generally does not identify victims of sexual violence. Instead, the following women are identified by nicknames that were given to them at the house. Samaritan founder and executive director Jeanne Allert confirmed many of the details of the accounts published here.
For seven years, 27-year-old Button had been sold up and down the West Coast by a host of violent pimps, one of whom once drove her into the desert, dragged her out of the car and broke her nose and both of her eye sockets. Button says he bruised her ribs so badly that doctors told her they could identify the type of boot he'd been wearing. The reason: She asked to leave a strip club because she was feeling sick.
It wasn't always that way. Button grew up in a wealthy household on Long Island, with parents she says were always loving and supportive. Still, after dropping out of college and becoming addicted to what she describes as "risky behavior," Button's parents sent her to a rehabilitation facility in California, where she met a man who would become her first trafficker.
"That opened up a gate to a long, dark life," Button said.
When Button first came to Samaritan Women over a year ago, she said she was afraid of the ghosts she thought might inhabit the mansion hallways, and afraid to leave her parents, with whom Button had reconnected after years of estrangement.
Now she spends her time working on legislative issues surrounding human trafficking, and is earning a certification to become a counselor for at-risk youth.
"There are still some days that are a struggle," Button said. "The process of piecing things together that I don't want to remember is hard for me. But the longer I'm here, the more my mind is being put back together, the more I'm at peace."
Now 32, Genesis was offered her first hit of crack cocaine by her mother when she was 13. By 18, she had a criminal record. She spent her teenage years in and out of strip clubs before becoming the property of a violent pimp. By 21, Genesis had lost a baby and become addicted to drugs.
For years under a violent trafficker, Genesis said she was never allowed to leave his house. The rooms were bugged, the bathroom had no doors. She said her pimp used to tie her and other women he trafficked to a weight bench, beat them and starve them.
The legal system sent Genesis to Samaritan Women, where she's been living for six months. After three months, Genesis said she had only just begun to remember some of the trauma she suffered.
"I didn't know I was in hell," she said. "I thought it was just life. Over those years I was held hostage, shot at, beaten with a pistol. And somewhere in my sick mind I thought this is how life is supposed to be."
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