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Lindsey Ellis graduated from Bismarck High School in the late '90s and almost immediately went to work with at-risk youth. She worked with children in residential care and also served as a youth pastor after attending College of the Ozarks and seminary in Springfield.

On Tuesday, Ellis will be addressing members of U.S. Congress in Washington D.C. alongside others involved with combating human trafficking. The briefing will highlight the importance of the Trafficking Survivors Relief Act of 2017, which will allow trafficked individuals to clear their records of federal convictions for crimes their traffickers forced them to commit.

Ellis is executive director of The Covering House, a St. Louis-based nonprofit organization dedicated to providing resources and healing to victims of human trafficking.

“I worked with a guy when I was probably 22 or 23,” Ellis said. “He was on the board of The Covering House and they were brand new. They had been around about two years, mostly doing awareness work. He asked if I would come and basically design the program and set up the residential care.”

Ellis said the organization’s founder, Deidre Lhamon basically started the organization from scratch. Lhamon had seen a documentary highlighting the prevalence of sex trafficking overseas, which prompted her to research the domestic problem further. She found that there were very few resources for victims of trafficking in the region, and thus The Covering House was born.

“I started there in 2012,” Ellis said. “I worked with what we call ‘sexually reactive’ kids for most of my career. The terminology has changed — when I started it was ‘juvenile sex offenders,’ then ‘sexually maladaptive’ and now ‘sexually reactive.’”

When she started at The Covering House, Ellis’ position was only part time because the organization was a fairly new nonprofit. While commuting to the organization’s office in St. Louis, she was also substitute teaching in St. Francois County.

“We designed the program from the ground up,” she said. “We worked with survivors, clinicians and experts across the nation. We’re finding that there’s not very many others in the United States as a whole. We were only the third in the Midwest to open and the first in Missouri to open.

“We’re still really small and we can only reach so many kids. But now we have other states that our interested in our program, so I do all the contract negotiation with other states and a lot of consulting across the state and also on a national level.”

Ellis said she had expected to do victim advocacy work when she came to the organization, but never imagined that she would be working on developing matters of public policy and legislation.

“Our mission statement is that we want to provide refuge and restoration for minors that have had some form of commercial sexual exploitation or trafficking,” Ellis said. “It started with a house. That was always Deidre’s mission — to do long-term therapeutic housing.

“Right now, we have the house and only five beds. But our goal in the next few years is to expand to a campus.”

Human trafficking is defined in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as “…sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age; or the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

In addition to working directly and indirectly with victims of trafficking, Ellis said the organization does a lot of outreach into communities to raise awareness and to paint a broader picture of what trafficking can look like.

“We see the type the media portrays, but there are tons of kids out there that are being exploited in different ways,” she said. “They might not need housing. They might be in foster care or with their parents, or even in detention centers.

“We say that it’s hidden in your backyard, because most people don’t know. There are kids that are sitting in class, that interact with adults and their peers all but, and people have no idea so we try to make people aware that it’s more than the ‘Taken’ or ‘Hawaii 5-0’ version.”

At any given time, the organization houses five victims of trafficking at its residential facility, but works with 40 to 50 victims via referral each year.

During Tuesday’s congressional address, Ellis said she and other collaborators from Washington University who are working with Congresswoman Ann Wagner (R-MO) will be speaking about various aspects of how laws need to catch up to the trafficking problem in the United States.

“Our laws as a whole just haven’t really caught up with human trafficking,” Ellis said. “The legislation we’re going to talk about is predominantly working with victims still being seen as criminals. We work with minors, so things are a little bit different.

“Our girls are still being detained, sometimes still being called ‘child prostitutes,’ which is not accurate by definition. We can’t have child prostitutes if they’re under 18. It’s automatically trafficking.”

She said the goal is to get the victims of trafficking to be accurately identified as victims and in some cases to get their criminal records expunged to allow them to re-enter society and to thrive. Ellis and others will speak from the perspective of working directly with victims, while others will speak from law enforcement or research perspectives.

“It’s not easy for us, because we’re working directly with the victims, but it is easy because we have the experience to back it up. I can tell you about this specific person and how these laws affected this person.

“I can tell you about the girl who said, ‘They sent me to detention and I was re-traumatized,’ and here’s why. I’ve also experienced a girl who completed our program, was very successful and had no criminal activity. Everything was off her record. But she was 16 and had nowhere to go and they sent her to DYS (Division of Youth Services). So we watched her shackled out of the courtroom, simply because she had nowhere to go and that’s the policy and procedure.”

With awareness of the problem of trafficking spreading, Ellis said the work of The Covering House is both getting easier and more difficult.

“Part of it is easier, because people are becoming aware,” she said. “I think our big issue is that people are becoming aware, but still not really doing anything. So it’s almost created an indifference or an apathy. And it’s very sensationalized in the media, by and large. If it’s on a TV show, it’s the sensationalized version.

“And that is accurate, but that’s only 10 percent — just by our numbers. If you ask us how many girls were involved with force, we see 10 percent. The other 90 percent is through this very intentional, coercive relationship. Someone in authority, a boyfriend or a friend. So we’re fighting a culture, a society and individuals.”

The Covering House’s main office is in St. Louis, but the organization now has a location in Jefferson County, allowing resources to be made more available outside of the city.

“The big thing for people in this area is to just know that it’s happening,” she said. “We want to think it’s only happening other places, but it’s not. We get referrals from all over the state of Missouri and people would be surprised where some of our referrals come from.”

Ellis and other members of the panel will be speaking to members of Congress at about 3 p.m. on Tuesday. For more information about The Covering House and domestic sex trafficking, visit www.thecoveringhouse.org.

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at jscott@dailyjournalonline.com.

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