AUSTIN (KXAN) — Applause and confetti rang out on a sunny afternoon as visitors celebrated the soft opening of a haven for children who’ve been victims of sex trafficking.
It’s called “Nicole’s Place,” and so far consists of one cabin at an undisclosed location in Austin, though the people behind this effort are hoping to have many more cabins on the site soon.
The fundraising was started by Austin 20, a local nonprofit when they identified a gap in how victims of sex trafficking were being supported in Austin. Upbring, a nonprofit devoted to child welfare, plans to operate the haven using the prior experience they have working in social services.
Lisa Knapp, the founder of Austin 20 said the goal is to have the building ready for children between the ages of 11 and 17 to stay at Nicole’s Place soon. Upbring tells KXAN that they are aiming to have Nicole’s Place by the spring of 2020.
- Correction: This article has been updated to reflect corrected information about when Nicole’s Place will open.
Knapp hopes to have a second cabin on-site by the end of the month.
She and her husband watched a documentary about sex trafficking, which she said opened her eyes to how significantly people across the county and in the Austin community are impacted by it. She then started doing research about the topic.
“The biggest gap in the continuum of care for children in Austin, Texas [who have been sex trafficked] is that there is no immediate assessment center, emergency center for them to go to,” Knapp said.
Which is why, she says, “we decided to fund a house and build it.”
The name for Nicole’s place came from a woman named Nicole who was the birth mother of Knapp’s daughter, who died at the age of 21 after a life full of abuse and neglect.
“This is the very first home like this in Austin, Texas,” Knapp said. “We can serve Central Texas, but we will be serving the kids right here in Austin.”
Knapp explained that from the land that the cabins are on, to the well on the property, to the appliances in the cabin, many of the tools they need were either donated or offered at a low cost.
Knapp said that Nicole’s Place will need staff to operate, so she encourages anyone who is interested in working as paid staff or as a volunteer to get in touch.
Austin Police Chief Brian Manley was at the event celebrating Nicole’s Place on Wednesday. He explained that there is such a need in the community to address trafficking that Austin Police has an entire unit devoted to addressing both labor and sex trafficking. He said that currently when Austin police officers come across children who are victims of sex trafficking, they don’t have a place to bring those children.
“So for us, the first step that we would take would be contacting [state] protective services and having them respond to the scene, we have opportunities obviously for the state to come in and to take these children into their protective custody, but oftentimes, it’s not going to be at a facility such as Nicole’s Place,” Manley said.
Speaking about Nicole’s Place, Manley continued, “This offers something in the Austin community that I think is somewhat unique. And that I think is probably the way that we need to go in the future, in that this is a place where the victims of child sex trafficking can come, a safe environment, a supportive environment with wrap-around services to begin that difficult and lengthy process of recovering from a life of victimization.”
Child victims of sex trafficking, Manley explained, are some of the most vulnerable individuals in the Austin community.
“As a police department, we will do everything within our power and within our resources to put a stop to that,” Manley continued. “It’s important to be there to recognize that so many other people play a role because this is not just something that can be done by the city or by the department, it needs the support of the community and the resources that were brought to bear to make Nicole’s Place a reality is an example of that.”
Cecilia Abbott, the First Lady of Texas, spoke at the event Wednesday as well, noting that the child sex trafficking team in the office of Governor Greg Abbott is working address the same types of issues Nicole’s Place is.
“But we can’t do it alone, I ask all Texans to join us in the fight,” Abbott told the audience.
“In the face of such evil,” she said. “We may feel too small or too weak to make a difference, but I have no doubt that in joining together that we can help these children escape the violence and despair, because nothing on this earth is more powerful than Texans helping Texans.”
Also present was Linda McCaul, the wife of Texas Congressman Michael McCaul.
She explained that putting a stop to sex trafficking is an issue that’s very important to her and her husband.
She believes that efforts to better support victims of sex trafficking like Nicole’s Place are something both Democrats and Republicans can work together on.
“It is wonderful when you get to work in a bipartisan way and you’ve got the [Democrats] and the [Republicans], you’ve got the federal, the state the local, this is an issue that everybody is concerned about and everybody wants to chip in and help,” McCaul said. “These victims need an advocate.”