By Kayla Williamson and Hannah Shimanek
It started with a girl her son brought home. It should have ended with a Facebook post. But that was not what God had planned for Michelle Cochran.
When Cochran first saw the mLive surveillance photo of a girl at a gas station, she kept scrolling. It was not until her son came home and asked her if she had seen the Facebook post that she realized it was her son’s girlfriend, Danielle. Danielle was addicted to heroin. She had been caught on camera robbing a gas station attendant at gunpoint.
“Sadly, my first reaction was, ‘okay, at least she’ll be away from my son,'” Cochran said.
But the next day brought a different outlook. That morning, Cochran listened to Adele’s “All I Ask” on her mp3 player when the lyrics, “there is thought to my role,” made her pause. Then, “it matters how this ends.”
“All I could see was her face,” Cochran said. “And it just broke my heart. I cried over that girl for three days, and then I went to the jail.”
Cochran asked Danielle if she could walk with her through the trial. From then on, Cochran never missed a court date and visited her every week. Danielle could have been sentenced to at least seven years of prison, but instead made it out with three and a half.
“For that,” Danielle said in a blog post, “God is good.”
Danielle’s story is not over. But many girls are not given a second chance like Danielle. They do not have someone willing to build a relationship with them or guide them post-addiction or trafficking or incarceration, so they go back to their unhealthy environments or addictions. They start the process over again.
When fighting addiction, patients have a 40 to 60 percent chance of relapsing, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A 2013 national study by the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority on residential programs for victims of human trafficking found 37 operational residential programs in the U.S. specifically for human trafficking victims. That brings a total of 682 beds for an industry with an estimated 1.5 million victims in North America alone.
The freedom to choose their ending is a luxury that not many people have. While the issue may be broad and reach across the globe, Jackson county and Spring Arbor University (SAU) students and staff are working to stop the cycle.
A year before Cochran met Danielle, she heard about Thistle Farms in Nashville, Tenn. where girls with similar yet varying backgrounds to Danielle attended a two-year residential program of healing and support. Cochran fell in love with it, but it was put on the backburner until November 2016 when she brought it up to Danielle by mere happenstance.
While in prison, Danielle met women stuck there because they did not have a home in which to live out parole. Or once they were released, the women would go back to their unhealthy environment.
“It gets me down, knowing these women long to do better and get stuck in this cycle,” Danielle said in a blog post. “They get out and end up somewhere that’s unhealthy for them. They feel unwanted and unloved.”
That is where Cochran’s idea of a restorative home for survivors of addiction, trafficking, incarceration and exploitation would grow and come to fruition.
Cochran is the founder and president of SOAR Café and Farms, Jackson’s first home for women trying to escape “the bondages of slavery to addiction, emotional wounds, addiction and poverty,” as their vision statement states. The residency will provide mental and physical medical attention, education and personal/spiritual development to all the girls. Eventually the Café attached to the residency will be a place for the residents at SOAR to work, build their resume and gain new skills in a guided environment.
The land for the program has already been identified, but until its official opening in the next year or so, SOAR is spreading the word and raising money by hosting a “mobile” café. They host house parties where guests are paired together to create a meal, and at the end all the guests and a SOAR representative share food and SOAR’s mission. SOAR representatives are also spreading the word and raising money by selling healing products and a cookbook with “items by inmates.”
Girls must apply to the program and will be evaluated by social workers to determine if they are capable of completing the program. If so, they will be entered into the program, and if not SOAR will work with community partners to make sure they are cared for.
The community of Jackson is working on all sides to fight the underground slavery in their backyards. SOAR is just one of many groups to be working on this issue.
“I think [God] wants captives free,” Cochran said. “To be a part of that is humbling. I think that as we work together as a community, each person or group or organization doing their part, at the very least we can make it highly uncomfortable for trafficking to exist in Jackson.”
Cochran was not the only one looking at buildings for potential rescue homes. When the anti-human trafficking movement at Spring Arbor Free Methodist Church (SAFMC) called Set Free started to hone their sights on certain areas to tackle, the leader, Amber McKee, thought they were going to open a home for survivors. In fact, she was already searching for buildings.
But before she could go any further, a community assessment of Jackson’s needs closed that door of helping survivors and opened it to working with kids most vulnerable to recruitment into human trafficking.
A year ago, when someone asked what Set Free did, the answer would take 10 minutes. Now they have decided to focus on a specific issue within human trafficking. A study of “The Just Church” by Jim Martin said the place where a church can have the most impact on justice work is where God’s will, gifts and talents of the group and a community’s need come together. So they held a community survey. With the help of Spring Arbor University (SAU) alumni Deja Williams, the group contacted schools, law enforcement, churches, nonprofits, government organizations and more to try and identify the gap in the community they could fill.
That gap was with vulnerable youth and teens. A study by the Polaris Project found the most common vulnerabilities in potential victims of human trafficking. Some of those vulnerabilities include kids in the foster care system, juvenile justice system or victims of abuse and neglect. Williams found that 35 percent of youth in Jackson have confirmed cases of neglect or abuse. Twenty-five percent live in poverty.
Out of that research came the idea of the Brave event. Originally sponsored by the Salvation Army in California, Brave events reach and empower teen girls in the foster care system.
“Brave is an opportunity for us to intersect with youth that are hurt and have been neglected,” McKee said, “to come into their life and tell them they are worthy. They’re created in God’s image.”
But they are not only focused on girls. Post-event, the Set Free movement is starting a mentorship program between its members and teens in the Michigan Youth Opportunities Initiative (MYOI). It is a group of foster teens that meet every other week and are trained in “leadership, media and communication skills, including how to strategically share their story and present on panels” according to MYOI’s website.
By starting this new program, McKee hopes the Set Free Movement will help prevent youth from entering human trafficking in the first place. Through partnerships with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Salvation Army, public schools and more, the Set Free Movement has been able to raise awareness and educate students and other members of the community about the risk and vulnerability of those in human trafficking.
“There’s going to church and doing church things, and then there’s being the Church,” McKee said. “We’re outside of the boundaries of the church building, and we’re actually in community. It really feels like being the Church that God wants us to be.”
With a human trafficking conference at SAU, multiple programs and organizations addressing the issue and a dedicated task force connecting individuals from all of those groups, one would think Jackson County is riddled with brothels, girls on street corners and pimps ready to exploit anyone vulnerable.
Yet Jackson County has not prosecuted a single human trafficking case.
According to Jackson County’s Attorney Prosecutor Jerry Jarzynka, building a case against human trafficking requires resources local law enforcement does not have. It is a challenge to gather enough time and resources to build a case against human trafficking or enough officers to mount a surveillance operation.
That is why the county depends on community groups like SOAR, Set Free and others to start the movement. With the support of the Jackson County Human Trafficking Task Force, which connects the people fighting human trafficking in Spring Arbor and Jackson, the community is able to see, support, and fight together to help Jackson become “a community known for freedom,” as Cochran puts it.
The more diverse the backgrounds and talents of the task force, the better. A couple of FBI agents attended the last task force meeting, and Jarzynka sees the potential to start the offensive.
“With FBI agents who just attended our recent task force meeting, we are involved with discussions trying to organize a co-op effort with FBI and local law enforcement,” Jarzynka said. “So that’s encouraging. You need to do that if you want to be able to put a case together.”
Enforcing human trafficking laws by local government is also a challenge because of a lack of training and education, Jarzynka said. The laws are also so new that nobody knows about them.
Associate professor of sociology Jeremy Norwood agrees. He also sees a discrimination and corruption within the criminal justice system that prohibits the full enforcement of laws against human trafficking.
“Prostitutes are seen as perpetrators and not victims. Immigrant farm workers are seen as aliens rather than victims, and are revictimized by the system,” Norwood said.
The United States and other Westernized countries compared to the rest of the world have polarized views on this modern day slavery, Norwood said. Western countries think human trafficking is bad but are ignorant to its presence in their backyard. Other parts of the world see it as normal due to weak criminal justice systems and lack of resources.
That is why awareness and education are some of the first steps to fighting human trafficking. The Set Free Movement, Northwest High School’s Code Orange and counseling services like Flourish have those covered. Set Free is working on preventing vulnerable youth from entering the it. SOAR is the pathway to restoration. And the Jackson County Prosecuting Attorney’s office and task force work with the legal side.
“It’s really quite beautiful to watch the community come together to do something about this issue because it’s just so vial,” Cochran said.
It takes a village to work together to fight slavery in one small part of the United States. But that does not mean the fight starts and ends here. All of these groups would not be where they are today without partnering with each other and connecting with others in the community to share stories, experiences and resources.