Magdalene and Thistle Farms: A Social Enterprise Model for Survivors of Sex Trafficking

by Cary Rayson, MSSW, Executive Director of Magdalene

The recognition, adoption, and implementation of best practice models for all victims of trafficking and prostitution is currently needed to effect a critical change in the national problem of sexual exploitation of women and children. More than a decade of public awareness and dialogue, public and private coalition building, and tip and help lines have increased the numbers of traffickers prosecuted, johns arrested, and victims identified. What remains unclear, however, is how many children and adults are actually defined as trafficked, by what means are they so defined, and to what extent are these victims being offered meaningful services and support for recovery.

Magdalene and Thistle Farms address the complex needs of women who have been trafficked or prostituted in the United States as well as the needs of the communities where they live.1 Magdalene was founded in 1997 with Thistle Farms, our social enterprise, following in 2001. In offering a small community of women long-term, free housing, treatment, and a social enterprise or employment, the organization has become a national model for the cultural change needed to end the sexual exploitation of women and children. Grounded in universal principles of compassion, hospitality and community living, Magdalene and Thistle Farms don’t accept federal or state funding, and we aren’t faith-based. Private community support, revenue from our john school and the power of social enterprise allow us to remain true to our mission.

At Thistle Farms and Magdalene, we consistently see women recover from life on the streets, create new families or reconnect with healthy family members, work and live in safe housing. Highlights of the Magdalene program and model include:

  • For two years, we offer housing, food, medical and dental needs, therapy, education and job training without charging the residents or receiving government funding.

  • Our six homes function without 24-hour live-in staff, relying on residents to create a supportive community, maintain recovery, and share household tasks.

  • Women come to Magdalene from prison, the streets, and from across the Southeast and the country.

  • The women of Magdalene/Thistle Farms range in age from 20-50, and many have been sexually abused between the ages of 7-11, began using alcohol or drugs by 13, have been arrested on average of 100 times, or have spent about 12 years on the street prostituting.

  • 72% percent of the women who join Magdalene are clean and sober 2 1/2 years after beginning the program.2

After four months, the women find work, return to school and/or enter Magdalene’s job training program at Thistle Farms, a social enterprise.3 Magdalene also offers a matched savings program to help residents prepare for economic independence upon graduation. Women who remain in recovery two years post-graduation are eligible for a new home-buying program administered by two local congregations and Magdalene.4

At Magdalene and Thistle Farms, we believe that the primary driver of domestic prostitution and sex trafficking is severe childhood abuse, traumatic loss and/or neglect. The experience of unmitigated sexual abuse in childhood is the single most common event in the lives of women at Magdalene. Indeed, our residents and graduates have taught us that, if prostitution is the world’s oldest “profession,” then child sexual abuse is one generation older. The difference between a child abuse victim who ends up trafficked or prostituted and victims who don’t, lies in the ability of families and systems to protect children, in the severity and duration of the abuse, and in the tendency of our culture to minimize the trauma of the experience.

To that end, Magdalene and Thistle Farms are working to shift the national conversation around sex trafficking so that, first and foremost, the secrecy, power and consequences of untreated child abuse will be consistently acknowledged at a national level by all stakeholders. Broad acceptance and utilization of documented, best practices for healing from childhood trauma will decrease the risk of child abuse survivors being trafficked. The “definition” of a sex trafficking victim must be expanded to include adults who have moved beyond the covert nature of the sex trafficking industry and are simply on the street trafficking themselves. The needs of the criminal justice system and law enforcement for witnesses and testimony against traffickers and johns should not impact the provision of services to survivors. Sentencing for crimes related to addiction and prostitution must be shorter, and prostituted children must be treated as victims, not criminals. Finally, funding and support for prevention of sex trafficking, prosecution of traffickers, and protection of trafficking victims must be evenly distributed across each area of response.

In the past two years, more than 1000 visitors from more than 100 towns and cities have visited Magdalene and Thistle Farms for free, monthly education and program duplication workshops. More than 20 groups from across the United States are sister programs or have duplicated some of our best practices into their communities. In response to growing demand, Magdalene and Thistle Farms are hosting Welcome to the Circle, a national conference in Nashville, Tennessee, on October 13-15, 2013.5 Conference attendees will be invited to join Thistle Farms’ Shared Trade Alliance, a coalition of social enterprises united by the common goal of moving women permanently out of poverty. The goal of our conference, which is now open for registration,6 is two-fold: to share best practices for healing for adults who have been trafficked and/or are prostituting, addicted, and homeless, and to provide and share knowledge about social enterprise that can be replicated in communities throughout the country.

Cary Rayson became the Executive Director of Magdalene in 2010, following ten years of service on the Magdalene Board of Directors as board chair, grant-writer and clinical supervisor. She received her Bachelors of Arts from Vanderbilt University in 1982 and a Masters in Social Work from the University of Tennessee in 1986. After working for eight years with adolescents and families in community mental health and private practice, she helped found Renewal House. She has been honored for her work with Magdalene as a Center for Non-Profit Management “Board Member of the Year” award.