Sisters in Shelter assists human trafficking victims — and needs more help

Sister Mary Kuhlman takes a phone call at her desk in her downtown Tiffin office. She speaks to the woman on other end, encouraging her with loving but matter-of-fact advice on how to handle a situation in her life.

The woman on the other end of the phone was a former resident of the Sisters in Shelter program, designed to offer safe, emergency housing for adult female survivors of human trafficking.

SIS also provides education to the public about human trafficking.

“I don’t think many people are aware how many traffickers and how many johns are around in our Tiffin community,” said Kuhlman, the director.

A “john” is defined as “one who buys sex.”

Kuhlman said the stories of women who escape their abusers and go to SIS for help are kept confidential. After they leave the program, their stories sometimes are used in a generic manner without names to help explain how trafficking happens and what people should look for.

“We are very protective of the girls who are with us, their safety and their boundaries of giving out information,” she said. “They sometimes pinpoint their abusers, and that can put their lives in danger.”

The stories of women who have been trafficked for sex or labor are varied, so each case is individual.

“We have had up to 12 in a year, but none of them have stayed the whole time,” Kuhlman said. “There is a very noticeable point for these women. It’s about three months. They feel secure enough to leave. They either go back to their pimp or they think they can make it on their own.”

The women are adults and, therefore, can leave whenever they wish.

“What they know is less frightening than what they don’t know,” Kuhlman said. “Most of the women who have come to us have been trafficked from the age of 5 or 7. It’s all they’ve ever known.”

The reasons they came to be in that situation vary.

Kuhlman said statistics show 90 percent of teenagers who run away from home find themselves a part of the sex trade.

She said sometimes the traffickers are their parents and family members.

“One woman was trafficked by her mom to her uncles,” she said. “For her to heal and to move forward, she would have to leave her family behind.”

To help them deal with these issues, Kuhlman said, the women undergo an individual treatment program.

“The intensive program is a year,” she said. “After that, we hope they will stay in the area, so we can help and support them as they gain independence.”

However, Kuhlman said, many women return to their former lives.

“Part of it is because they know no other life,” she said. “They hate their life, but at least they know what to expect with their pimp.”

For the ones who decide to learn how to live on their own, Kuhlman said it’s a long road.

“It’s always that constant struggle to give them the power, but not too much power because they can’t make their own decisions,” she said. “It’s a gradual process. It won’t be fixed in a year. It’s a lifetime of healing and therapy that they need.”

The first stage of treatment is the “blackout period” where the women have no access to phones or social media or other means that might allow them to be tracked by people who might be looking for them.

“After we feel comfortable nobody is looking for them, we widen it a bit,” she said.

There are a few places they can go accompanied by volunteers so they can start to get into the community.

“After that, depending on their comfort level, they might go grocery shopping or do other activities,” Kuhlman said. “There’s always a volunteer with them.”

In some cases, she said, women become strong enough to begin making their own decisions.

“By that time, most of them feel safer,” Kuhlman said. “They’re willing to stand up and they’re willing to prosecute their pimps.”

But that doesn’t happen often because their lives might be in danger, she said. Pimps have been known to torture their victims for disobedience or overdose them on drugs.

“Some of them have had their teeth knocked out with a hammer,” Kuhlman said.

“Of course, they learn paranoia from that, and there are good reasons to be paranoid,” she said. “There is nobody to protect them (long term) except themselves.”

Some women have been able to create lives — get a job, live by themselves, make friends.

Kuhlman said she and other founders of the organization have learned a lot.

“When we starting this, we were so naïve,” she said. “We thought we were setting up a program that would provide a significant amount of healing.”

She said the idea was to educate women through a 12-step program, provide for their needs temporarily, and they would be able to function on their own.

“After three or four months, let’s start looking at job training,” she said. “That was the thought.”

The reality turned out to be much different.

“It’s more like we start pealing an onion and find new layers unexpectedly,” Kuhlman said.

Most of the women have anxiety and depression issues.

“They have physical problems that need attention,” she said.

And most of them have learned to run away from things they think aren’t working.

It’s been four years since the nonprofit organization separated from the Sisters of St. Francis into its own identity — and 10 years since the seed of the idea germinated.

Kuhlman said the precursor to Sisters in Shelter was a phone call from Florida to the convent in Tiffin requesting assistance for a young woman who was being trafficked.

“She was in the hospital and she had been beat up by her pimp, and the pimp’s family was trying to kill her,” she said. “We went to Florida and brought her back. She came to live with us.

“That was pretty much our introduction,” she said.

“Four months later, we get a call from a gal at a migrant center,” she said.

The situation was different, but similar.

“That was kind of our rude awakening that this is going on right under our noses,” she said.

Looking back, Kuhlman said those first cases were “easy,” compared to what came next.

“That’s how we got involved,” she said. “They were easy gals. They weren’t on drugs. They had little kids they were trying to care of.”

But later cases became more difficult.

A house was offered as a shelter, but it closed after a woman left and went back to her pimp, telling him where the house was located.

“We kept going,” Kuhlman said. “At that time, it was the advisory board we were educating, and within six months somebody offered us (another) house.”

The decision was made to form a nonprofit organization separate from St. Francis.

“They aren’t responsible for keeping us going,” she said. “Four years ago, we turned the advisory board into a board of directors so it could continue.”

The organization has grown, and still is growing and changing.

“We’re trying to build in some stability, but not so stable that it’s cemented,” she said. “We have to be willing to change when we need to change or adjust in a way that is helpful to our residents.”

She said community support is essential.

“We have developed a marketing committee, so we’re doing a lot of great things,” she said. “We want people to know about Sisters in Shelter. It’s a way to increase our base of donors. We need donors to keep us going — financially and educationally.

“We need a lot of people to keep this afloat,” she said. “We are always looking for people to educate, to go out into the schools, to go give talks to the community.”

In addition to volunteer board members and committee members, volunteers provide presentations to local groups and in schools to increase awareness of trafficking.

She said it’s important for young people to recognize the “red flags” that show they might be dealing with a pimp or someone working with a trafficker.

And, she said it’s important that adults understand trafficking exists.

Other volunteers are women who are trained to assist survivors as they go through the recovery program. At the house, women never are left alone. Volunteers assist them, including staying overnight.

Kuhlman said it’s hard to find volunteers to stay overnight, even though the house has a good security system.

Volunteers are required to take a Human Trafficking 101 training program offered three times a year. The next session starts in April.

Along with building its volunteer and donor bases, Kuhlman said the organization is putting together a flowchart of how the community can work together to assist women who don’t know where to turn. It provides a coordinated approach to assistance if someone in law enforcement, a medical office or hospital, social services — or an individual good samaritan or the victim herself — seeks help for a woman they suspect has been a victim of trafficking.

“It’s a template of how the girls can get help,” she said. “Along the way, we have to make sure all those people are trained.”

The chart provides direction for immediate needs, and then follows through a few days later by taking care of basic needs, medical care, emergency housing, safety planning, legal advocacy and similar topics.

Within a few weeks, women are educated on topics such as trafficking, their rights, procedures to follow and benefits for which they are eligible. Also, they continue safety planning, and a service plan is developed to help them recover.

During the next months and years, the service plan is implemented to help women learn to live their own lives. Needs might include residential treatment, permanent housing, mental health services, drug and alcohol treatment, employment training and placement, legal services, medical services, community orientation, life skills education, referral to public benefits, and interpretation and transition services.

The organization also is working on plans to keep the program going if current personnel are unable to continue their work.

“We’re working on a succession plan if employees must leave, or die, or for some reason cannot fulfill their commitment,” she said.

In addition to volunteers, trained social workers are hired to assist the women.

However, Kuhlman said a lack of funds doesn’t allow for health and other benefits, so young social workers gain experience and then move on.

“We spend a lot of time advertising and interviewing,” she said. “Not many people have the background on how to relate with women who are survivors because of the trauma they have experienced.”

The ideal worker is a woman who is retired with a steady income, or has a spouse to provide benefits, she said.

There is a need for new board members on a regular basis.

“The board has a rotation of three years,” she said. “We’re always looking for replacements.”

Board members are community leaders, often with legal, medical or social service backgrounds “so they can provide for us what we don’t know.”

Also part of the strategic plan is forming more partnerships with the community.

“We have a lot of partners in the community,” she said. “We’re trying to firm up those partnerships and have it in writing.”

For example, Tiffin Community YMCA provides no-cost memberships to women in the program.

However, she said formal agreements are needed to make the organization more eligible for grant funding.

“When we apply for grants, one of the things they ask is who are our partners,” she said.

She said she would like partnerships to be of mutual benefit.

The shelter receives a federal Victims of Crime Act grant, but is searching for more grants.

Ideally, Kuhlman said, the organization would have more partners, more housing for women in need, more experienced social workers (although she’s grateful for all people willing to help), more staff members and more education for staff members.

“Long-term commitments are tough because not only do they have to take all that in, they have to do it without becoming too close to them,” she said. “They cannot become friends, which is a danger also.

“Every new person comes with a whole new bundle of needs and triggers,” she said. “There’s a lot of slow, minute steps.”

Sisters in Shelter accepts one-time donations or monthly donations, which are tax deductible. To donate, visit www.sisters or mail a check made out to Sisters in Shelter to P.O. Box 384, Tiffin OH 44883. For more information or to volunteer, visit the website,, or call (567) 938-6163 8 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow SIS on Twitter @SistersShelter or on Facebook.