Rescuing Trafficking Victims . . . Then What?

When Tess Franzen, a U.S. missionary associate with Intercultural Ministries, speaks about human trafficking and rescuing those who are being trafficked, there’s a distinct tone in her voice that’s difficult to describe. Passionate patience? Intense composure? Perhaps loving endurance?

Franzen, 55, believes she’s been called by God to establish a reproducible ministry that moves trafficking victims from the “rescued” stage to the “happy, healthy, and whole” stage and beyond. That’s why, after three meaningful years serving with U.S. missionary Mike Bartel and F.R.E.E. International, she, with Bartel’s blessing, has begun a new ministry called Freedom’s Journey based in Rapid City, South Dakota.

For many people unfamiliar with the horrors of human trafficking, the idea of rescuing people — especially children and women — is romanticized. The knight-in-shining-armor/hero ideal where the victim is freed of his or her bonds and the villain vanquished is, for the most part, a fantasy.

“Someone caught up in sex or labor trafficking is trapped,” Franzen says. “Very few — as in single-digits few — successfully leave. However, all the survivors I know and worked with are pretty amazing and resilient people. They’ve endured things few could imagine, yet they’re still moving forward.”

Franzen explains that victims typically suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and often have been so manipulated by their trafficker, that he (or in many cases, she) is seen as their protector and the only one who truly cares for them, even though at times, because of the victim’s behavior, the trafficker “is forced” to be mean to them.

“A friend of mine, who is a trafficking survivor, equates the experiences with being prisoners of war,” Franzen says. “The violence, humiliation, torture, no control, and degradation — it’s physically and psychologically devastating.”

The problem, as Franzen sees it, for the women and men who are rescued from their traffickers — 40 percent who are women — it’s not like they can just go out, get a job, and start living a normal life.

“Some trafficking victims don’t even have an I.D.,” Franzen explains. “The world of a trafficking victim is so completely different from the world the rest of us live in that learning to function well outside of trafficking can be a long process.”

Freedom’s Journey is relationship based and Franzen’s focus is on helping survivors bridge the gap between slave and “normal” life. The goal is to become a trusted, non-judgmental, compassionate friend that listens and helps survivors meet needs that result from being trafficked so they don’t just survive, but thrive.”

The motto for the ministry is Yesterday Doesn’t Get to Write Tomorrow’s Story. Freedom’s Journey works to find survivors shelter, provide them meals, clothes, groceries, help with home or car repairs, enable job training, get them I.D.s, find transportation for and help with relocation, secure legal assistance if needed, and sometimes they just provides a listening ear to allow survivors the opportunity to vent in confidence — all as part of their journey to freedom. Currently Franzen is working to raise funds to get Freedom’s Journey on solid financial footing, with establishing a safe house for survivors being the next step.

For years, Franzen, who works closely with local law enforcement, has felt a call to this kind of ministry. The mother of three, she waited until her youngest daughter turned 18 before going to college, getting her master’s degree, and becoming a licensed minister with the Assemblies of God. She joined F.R.E.E. International about three years ago to be part of a team that educates others, locates victims, and works with authorities to see trafficking victims rescued.

“God placed a verse in my heart that has stuck with me for many years,” Franzen says. “It’s Isaiah 1:17 (ESV) — . . . seek justice and correct oppression. To bring justice to the fatherless and plead the widow’s cause. I see those who are being exploited in trafficking as today’s widows and orphans.”

James Moore, pastor of Journey Church in Rapid City, says Franzen is uniquely gifted. “She has a tremendous level of understanding of these situations,” he says. “She has the energy and grace to deal with broken people, to deal with people who are in difficult circumstances without being judgmental . . . people are willing to talk to her because she’s not going to look down on them.”

Some may wonder why western South Dakota would be a good place for a trafficking ministry, but Moore quickly makes it clear: South Dakota is rural, the interstate I-90 runs right through Rapid City, it’s a huge tourist destination with Mount Rushmore and the Black Hills (meaning a lot of transient people), and every year, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally comes through the city.

Although Franzen understands the heart of people who want to be a part of ending human trafficking, she advises never to try to personally free a person from a trafficker or to attempt to intervene in any way.

“Freeing someone is a job for trained authorities,” she explains. “Well-intentioned people, in their attempts to help, could end up getting hurt themselves or getting a victim severely beaten by his or her trafficker. The complex challenges that come from being trafficked need to be addressed in safe shelters with people who understand the effects of trauma. However, if you notice indicators of human trafficking, you should contact authorities immediately.”

Moore says that Franzen has an undeniable heart for people and a heart for God. That kind of passion shows through as she cares for people who struggle to trust and, due to their experiences, are quick to grow defensive.

“I’m going to love survivors no matter if they send me profanity-laced texts or even if they decide to go back to their old life for a time,” says Franzen. “I’m here for them, no matter what.”

That type of commitment, that type of enduring love, pays off and often opens the door for Franzen to share Christ with survivors who don’t understand her devotion, even when the the road gets rocky.

“Every time I encounter someone being trafficked or a survivor, I know that there’s something in their past that has made them vulnerable to this,” Franzen says. “Most victims are terrified of their trafficker, as they will use death threats, threaten a person’s family or children, or use whatever leverage they need in order to control the victim. What’s incredibly sad is that it’s no longer that uncommon for authorities to arrest parents who are trafficking their own children — some only months old.”

With some estimates reaching as high as 40-plus million people being trafficked around the world, the numbers can seem overwhelming. Franzen wants to help people rethink how they see people who are living in the margins — the trauma they’ve experienced and what that kind of abuse could do to anyone.

“We can get psychological and psychiatric help for survivors, but I know, as a believer, that without Christ, it will not result in a very best tomorrow story,” Franzen observes. “Christ alone can minister to a heart wounded that badly . . . I’m simply a tool who He has called here to minister to survivors’ needs, help them understand we care, that we’re praying for them, and we’re doing what we do because God cares about them.”


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