When Marquita Clardy walks through the doors of a new shelter for girls who have been the victims of sex trafficking, she is hopeful that it will be a helpful refuge.
But she is still numb from the circumstances that inspired its name.
Brittany's Place: The Safe and Sound Shelter, which opens today, is named after her daughter, 18-year-old Brittany Clardy, who was found dead in the trunk of a car last year. Investigators suspect she was a victim of sex trafficking.
The man charged with her murder will go on trial in September.
Clardy, of St. Paul, said during a tour of the shelter that she doesn't understand how Brittany fell into such tragic circumstances.
"She was a normal kid growing up," Clardy said. "She was into activities and things in the community. We knew the whole community and the schools and parents and families. So I'm still somewhat in shock about her not being here today."
Each month, more than 200 girls are victims of sex trafficking in Minnesota, according to a study done by the Women's Foundation of Minnesota. The shelter aims to give a helping hand to those who try to escape that life.
Run by 180 Degrees, a Twin Cities non-profit that helps adults and children turn their lives around, the $3 million shelter will provide rehabilitation services from counseling to drug treatment for up to 14 girls, ages 10 to 17. The shelter, which also has a classroom, aims to work with a local school district to allow the girls to re-enter school.
Each month, more than 200 girls are victims of sex trafficking in Minnesota.Women's Foundation of Minnesota
CEO Richard Gardell said the shelter will provide girls more than a place to stay. It also will be a place where they can heal.
"Our staff really said to us, 'look, we really need a place here where we can keep them safe, help them break the bonds and then as they recreate and reemerge help them make those connections for jobs and safe housing and things they're going to need in order to be successful members of our community,'" Gardell said.
The organization has raised nearly half of the shelter's hefty price tag, but is still looking for grants, donations and loans. Despite the gap, Gardell said it was important to open the shelter by today, when the state's new Safe Harbor Law goes into effect.
Under the new law, trafficked girls will no longer be treated as criminals, Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said.
"Instead, what we would do is look at those children as victims of crime and also that they really should be treated as children in need of protection," Choi said.
There was nothing out there that I could go to and address this without being judged, without being labelled and without being viewed as a criminal.Joy Friedman
The law is a first step toward changing the public's perception of girls involved in sex trafficking, said Joy Friedman programming director of Breaking Free, an organization that helps victims of sex trafficking.
A lack of education on the issue and judgmental attitudes of others sometimes can prevent girls from breaking free of sexual exploitation, said Friedman, a survivor who first became exploited at 15 and by 30 was on the streets.
Breaking Free helped design the new shelter based on suggestions from survivors of sex trafficking. Friedman said the refuge was sorely needed.
"There was nothing out there that I could go to and address this without being judged, without being labelled and without being viewed as a criminal," she said.
With the shelter up and running and the Safe Harbor Law in effect, stories like Brittany's could have a different ending, said Antoinette Lurks, who speaks publicly about sex trafficking as part of the group Silent No More 4 Change.
Lurks, who also survived sex trafficking, has a message for those girls looking to escape.
"No matter what you've been through, or you know, you came into the lifestyle, there is a way out," she said. "You are somebody. The first day you look up you're free from it, just remember you're free. Keep flying. Just keep going. Don't look back."