It’s a common misperception that human trafficking happens only internationally, but Pelham-based Blanket Fort Hope is working to bring attention to the problem in the U.S. and to its youngest victims.
Alexa James is CEO and founder of Blanket Fort Hope, a ministry focused on bringing the issue of child sex trafficking to light and helping survivors by providing a specialized safe space for them to be restored.
James believes child sex trafficking is one of the fastest-growing crimes in America next to arms and drug trafficking.
Most children do not understand they are being trafficked, she said. They might think they are in love with the person trafficking them, or the situation may be the safest place they have ever known because of previous abuse.
Even for those who are rescued or want out, there is nowhere to go, and often they do not self-identify.
“Right now, when most of these children are rescued, they are put into a group home with a basic care license. What ends up happening is the child’s trauma goes untreated, so 87% of them return to the streets within 24 hours,” James explained. “This trauma they have from being raped, drugged, beaten and burdened with STDs is so severe that it requires specialized services and programs. They need more than just basic care — they need therapeutic restoration.”
These children also need specialized counseling to “rewire” their brains, James noted. They effectively quit growing because of systematic abuse, and on average, they live only seven years after being trafficked.
That’s where Blanket Fort Hope comes in. A blanket fort is a place where children can play and feel safe, a key for child survivors of human trafficking to heal.
“We have a fortress of safety, and its name is hope,” James said.
Blanket Fort Hope is actively working to provide for their specific needs through a “community” they plan in Columbiana.
A dedicated location, called a restoration home, will provide up to three months of health care and trauma-focused therapy to help stabilize survivors, increasing the likelihood that they will remain off the streets. After spending needed time there, the children will move into houses called therapeutic cottages on the property. Each home will have foster parents who provide full-time care for up to five children. Many children will have the opportunity to be adopted, James said, but there also will be a transitional home available through their college years.
During the six years Blanket Fort Hope has been in operation, they have been providing community-focused seminars and preventive foster care training, along with equipping professionals to identify and respond to survivors.
To date, they have trained more than 6,000 foster families, educators, church members and health care professionals, as well as legal and transportation leadership across Alabama, spanning more than nine counties.
“We believe that preventative education, compassionate care and a loving Christian witness are three key ways to help put a deterrent in child trafficking,” James explained.
“We live in a fallen world, a sinful world, so I don’t know that we will ever be able to stop this until Jesus comes back.
“But we can make a dent in it and spread the word of Jesus Christ throughout our communities and throughout Alabama.”
Every time James goes to the group’s newly acquired property, she said she cries with joy. The goal has been a long time coming, and there have been many obstacles to get to the point of building. Many have said they would fail. However, God has been at work.
“We would have loved for this to happen a long time ago,” James said, but admitted the timing would not have been right.
“I see God’s hand. We might not have understood how important the restoration home was. We might have just started with putting homes on the property and working from there. We would’ve seen colossal failure,” she said.
The waiting time has helped James and others with Blanket Fort Hope see the needs more clearly and trust God more, she said.
“I’ve learned to walk in faith,” James said. “Every day I have to rededicate that back to God. It keeps me on my knees. I see miracle after miracle, only because of God’s hand. I love that it’s not because of what I’m doing but it’s all because of what He’s doing.”
James invites individuals and churches to get involved and bring awareness to the issue of child sex trafficking. The main need is prayer, as there are many hurdles to reach the children.
Financial supporters also are needed. But James said the pieces are coming together.
“To watch [God] build this and bring [together] the people that need to be here has simply been amazing.”
Find more information on the ministry and resources for church training and Bible study at blanketforthope.org.