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Montana couple provides safe house for sex-trafficking victims

Montana couple provides safe house for sex-trafficking victims

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The pimp whipped Kailyn with a pistol.

That was the breaking point for the teenager who landed in the Montana safe house, the only one in the state, according to the couple who took her in.

Kailyn had ended up "in the life" the first time after her father got mad at her for getting a boyfriend and put her on a bus from Dallas to Chicago where her mom lived, said Rick and Pat Freeland. The teenager had no phone, no food and no money.

The man who whipped her probably meant to beat Kailyn into submission. Instead, the violence opened her eyes to the fact that her life was in danger, and the teenager fled to a gas station where an attendant called the National Trafficking Hotline.

A mutual contact called the Freelands, who remember the phone ringing at 10:39 p.m. The call would bring the first victim of forced prostitution to their doorstep, a log home in a quiet corner of Montana, a place as far away geographically from the streets of Dallas and Chicago as it is metaphorically.

The contact knew the couple had planned to open their home to victims of sex trafficking.

"We've got a young woman. Can we bring her up?" the contact asked.

"You bet," Rick said.

The couple had one caveat, though. He and Pat wanted to be sure the woman was coming of her own volition, and they wanted to hear her say the words herself.

Rick remembers the squeak at the other end of the line: "Kailyn said in this mousy little voice, 'I want to come to Montana, and I want to get away from this. I'm in danger. I'm tired of living like this.’ ”

The Freeland home has long been a hub of activity for teenagers in Montana, ever since the couple raised their own three daughters. When they came face to face with sex trafficking in their travels overseas and then learned of its presence in Montana, they committed to fighting it.

"We knew this is what we were supposed to be doing," Rick said.

A few days after the call, Kailyn walked into their home. In her big furry boots, large sweater, and wig, she reminded Rick of a wolverine. That and an ungulate.

"She walked through the door like a deer in the headlights," Rick said.

That was three years ago. All told, the Freelands have hosted five teenagers, all but one a victim of sex trafficking; they remain in touch with all but one of the young women.

Pat and Rick met at Oral Roberts University and have been married 40 years. She's a small business owner, he's a master electrician, and neither has a background in law enforcement, mental health or trauma counseling.

To do their work, they rely on their commitment to the cause, a network of support, and their faith. They're pleased the Montana attorney general has listed them as a resource on its website about human trafficking.

"We don't have all the skills to deal with what they've been through," Pat said of the teens. "We're not psychiatrists. We're not counselors. But we know girls, and we know how to help them find their dreams again."


The Freelands were first drawn to victims of human trafficking after traveling to Thailand around 1985. Pat collects porcelain dolls and was visiting a supply company.

Rick was along for the ride.

"This had been eating on me for years. In Thailand, you could buy a boy or girl for 40 bucks, like a pizza," Rick said.

"It was like a room service menu. We couldn't get over it," Pat said.

Back at home, they watched a television program and saw the sex industry was growing in the U.S. too. The truth of the trade is that children and young women are lucrative, and unlike drugs that require reordering, human beings can be reused until they're sick, damaged or dead.

"We'd heard what was happening to this generation, and it sickened us," Pat said.

Over the years, the couple had opened their home to church groups and college clubs, and they'd offered shelter to battered women, people in pre-release, and their children's friends.

"We've been called the grandparents of the wilderness by the churches in Helena," Rick said.

Colleen Richards, a pastor in Helena, said the Helena Valley Faith Center has been holding functions at the Freeland home for some 15 years. She and her husband put on leadership retreats, young women's retreats, young men's retreats, and marriage retreats there.

"Their home is always open," Richards said.

A few years ago, with their own children grown, the Freelands decided they would finally use their home as a safe house.

They made a connection to a nonprofit that helps victims, but rescuing women "in the life" was going to prove more difficult than they had realized.


Rick is a burly man, and in the back of his mind, he had imagined driving into enemy territory and returning with busloads of young women who had been kidnapped and sold. The trade wasn't so easy to penetrate, though.

For one, victims don't know who to trust, Pat said. "They don't know if you're just another pimp."

Sometimes, a woman changes her mind at the last minute. "They'll quit on us if a parent that they need and want says, 'I want you back.' "

Sometimes, women and girls are killed before they can get to the safe house.

Once, their contact in the industry found a 9-year-old girl dead in a closet before she could be rescued, the Freelands said. She was strung up by her hair and needle marks punctured her arms.

"She was used up and killed as a result of what they did to her (the night before)," Rick said.

So the Freelands wait, and they never know if they'll be host until someone actually shows up at the doorstep.


Kailyn was the first to land at the refuge, a location the Freelands protect (and the Missoulian agreed to protect as well).

She stayed six months, and Rick and Pat got to know both sides of her during their daily interactions and long conversations on the porch.

In some respects, Kailyn looked almost like a normal teenager. She'd come bounding down the stairs in the morning, 17 years old through and through, arms spread wide in her morning salute to the family: "Hellooooo, my people."

Kailyn wore a wig, and she could also put on dress clothes and be the picture of sophistication. She displayed her urban sensibilities in the backwoods of Montana, wearing tight leggings and white furry boots to go horseback riding.

"She'd have worn high heels if we let her," Rick said.

But the glamorous getup was a relic of her time "in the life," time she spent with her father in full knowledge that she was being prostituted, Pat said.

One day, sitting on the back porch, Rick told Kailyn about her disparate personalities.

"I see two completely different people here. I see the one with the wig and the glasses and the stilettos. She's not my favorite," Rick said.

After that conversation, Kailyn packed away the wig. That was three months into her half-year at the refuge, and it didn't last.

"Kailyn wanted the lifestyle that she had when she was going from penthouse to penthouse. And she did end up back in the life," Patti said.

Once, she asked the Freelands to come back.

"We asked her why. She couldn't answer us," Pat said.

So they didn't let her return then, but the question remains open to her.

Pat has a dry sense of humor and a cool exterior, but she mourns the women who are lost. She and Rick also turn away cases, knowing they can't help everyone.

One contact asked them to take in an 8-year-old, but the child acted out sexually even over the telephone, Rick said. He talked to her on the phone three times, and he and Pat decided they were not equipped to handle her.

"I'd never been around that kind of thing at that age," Rick said.


In the first days and even weeks, Pat and Rick try to help the women get used to sleeping and feeling safe.

In some ways, the victims who arrive are like little children. If they break something, they try to hide it for fear of a beating.

"It's like having 3-year-old kids again," Rick said.

In the girls' bedroom, a teddy bear sits on each of the beds, and Pat likes to let the teens choose their own bedding. Some, though, don't know how to make the simplest choice because someone else has ruled them.

The girls are broken when they arrive.

They hoard food out of habit and show other odd behaviors Pat doesn't even like to mention. To address some of their problems, the Freelands have a counselor who works with the girls as needed.

When the teens get to the refuge, they may have no social security number, no identification, and no birth certificate. So the Freelands also have a lawyer that helps the women with their paperwork.

One victim showed up with a fractured neck that had never been treated, Pat said. Some are malnourished and anemic. One had eaten out of trash cans to survive.

One was addicted to meth, and she wanted to smoke tobacco. Pat figured it made sense to help.

"It beats meth. It was actually my first time buying cigarettes," Pat said.

Along the way, the Freelands learned the women are mostly pro-choice, not necessarily because of their political persuasions but because they've been forced to have abortions.

In general, the teens have little faith in authority.

"They don't trust anyone in charge. Judges. Cops. Civil servants. Johns just like everybody else," Rick said.


At their home, the grandparents offer the women a semblance of a traditional family, exposure to new skills, and an acquaintance with their faith.

Do they require the women to go to church or attend Bible studies in order to remain at the refuge?

Said Pat: "Do we cram Jesus down their throats?"

The Freelands themselves are steeped in their faith, and religious sayings are posted on their walls. The professional counselor and lawyer who help them are both connections in faith as well.

The Freelands don't require the girls to take Bible studies as a condition of their stay, but they do believe the improvements they see in the girls come from a divine power.

"I'm not politically correct, and I'll just say this, man. You do what you want, but I've seen Jesus heal these kids," Rick said.

The couple is more interested in being quiet role models than proselytizing.

Take their own relationship: They've been married 40 years, they love each other, and they have disagreements without hitting each other.

"There is such a thing as real love. They need love so badly, and they're incapable of feeling it," Pat said.


On the property, the young women learn archery, horseback riding, and splitting wood. They spend time in the kitchen.

The Freelands stay rooted in humor, and they admit the meals the teens dispense aren't their favorites.

"They all wanted to cook. None of them could," Rick said.

"They all have a specialty that we've survived," Pat said.

"Liz made the meatballs," Rick said.

"They about broke our teeth," Pat said.

All was not lost, however.

"I saved them for throwing at skunks," Rick said.

One summer, the grandparents took two teens on a family road trip. The young women hopped in the van with the Freelands and their grandchildren and drove to the Oregon Coast.

The van has climbed Going-to-the-Sun Road in Glacier National Park and rolled past the bubbling mud pots in Yellowstone National Park.

"They experience family just like we are," Rick said.


In some ways, the couple is charting new territory with their work. Unlike a foster home, they are doing it outside the arm of the state or its financial support.

The refuge is a nonprofit that's supported by individuals, and Rick said it's important to him to remain independent and transparent. He's seen other organizations advertise refuges where the houses are vacant and lawns overgrown.

The Freelands don't claim to have special training to work in the field they've chosen. At the same time, they know the jails and clinics and institutions are falling short, and they have seen some success.

One girl arrived with a third-grade education and left with a GED. She is struggling with life choices, but she graduated from college, holds a job, and goes to church, Pat said.

One is an advocate for victims.

One who threatened the family was arrested in Florida.

One has dark bruises under her makeup. The Freelands stay in touch with Kailyn on Facebook, and they hope she finds a reason to return to Montana.


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