Restoring Trafficking Survivors
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“The Dream Center provides safe housing and spiritual nurture, along with trauma-informed care that helps victims heal and move forward with their lives,” said Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey while visiting the ministry in January. “This is amazing work and Arizona has been blessed by it. It’s also a model that can be replicated in other places around our country.”
Phoenix Dream Center’s Executive Director Brian D. Steele and wife, Skye, CEO of partner organization StreetLight USA, became aware of Phoenix’s human trafficking problem a decade ago when Skye started riding along with local police officers. She saw rescued girls as young as 12 years old taken to juvenile corrections because officers couldn’t find their parents. In response, both ministries created programs to receive rescued girls, but found that “run rates” — the percentage of girls that flee — are high.
“We had a 30 percent turnover rate in the first month,” Brian says. “Some we attributed to addiction, some to trauma bond [with former captors]. There are constantly things pulling them back into that life.”
They also realized that because the Dream Center occupies a hotel in downtown Phoenix, the rooms reminded some girls of places in which they had been victimized. The Steeles decided to experiment by creating “Dream Rooms” — spaces so nice that rescued girls would want to stay. They invited local luxury home contractors and builders to participate in room renovation competitions, spending $100,000 per room to outfit them for rescued women. They have held four competitions in the past seven years.
“We theorized that affecting the environmental factors would help the girls feel more comfortable, and give them a desire to be there,” Steele says.
The Steeles didn’t realize they were pioneering in the new field of trauma-informed care for human trafficking victims. Trauma-informed rooms use specific textures, lighting, layout, and sounds to interrupt traumatic thoughts and give residents a sense of power, comfort, and safety.
“It’s called neuro-sensory modulation,” Steele says. “The philosophy is that the brain is in a loop from trauma, and girls are always thinking about running. We want to interrupt that cycle whenever we can. And we want everything to feel special.”
The Steeles worked with experts in the emerging field to choose everything — artwork, bedding, the feel of the floor and couches, and the lighting — with traumatized brains in mind. One room has a sand garden with sea shells and little rakes with which the girls can play.
“It’s a reminder of childhood and something to do with their hands,” Steele says. “Tactile displacement tools help interrupt the brain activity.”
One major discovery involved former victims appreciating being able to control the level of light in their rooms.
“Some want the lights really low because they are over-stimulated,” Steele says. “Others want it super bright and want to know what’s around every corner.”
After implementing these innovations, the Dream Center’s dropout and recidivism rate fell from 30 percent to 10 percent. The ministry has since built a trauma-informed medical center and trauma-informed high school, which employs a range of methods including weighted lap blankets and low-frequency hums to help the females feel grounded in the moment. All of this has put the Dream Center at the forefront of the national effort to care for trafficked women.
“We are becoming a national example for innovative programming on trauma-informed victim care and prosecution of traffickers,” said Cindy McCain, wife of the late U.S. Sen. John McCain, on a recent visit to the Dream Center. “It’s a place of hope and healing for victims of trafficking. Brian Steele and his wife, Skye, who runs StreetLight USA, are experienced, compassionate leaders in caring for traumatized victims and helping them move forward with their lives in healthy, productive ways. I truly believe what they are doing here is groundbreaking.”
This year, members of President Trump’s National Advisory Committee on the Sex Trafficking of Youth and Children in the U.S. picked Arizona as a best practice state and toured the Dream Center to study its trauma-informed model.
Steele sits on the Arizona Human Trafficking Council and the Phoenix mayor’s commission, and has helped rewrite state and local statues. The Steeles are longtime members of Dream Center Church formerly Phoenix First Assembly), which has had a close partnering relationship with the Phoenix Dream Center since its inception.