Unchained: Alum launches nonprofit to fight sex trafficking

Jamie Roberts in front of bookshelves

When it came time to choose a community internship project as part of her major in the School of Social Transformation, Jamie Roberts (class of 2011) approached Catholic Charities Community Services with the expectation that she might be assigned to an after-school program working with kids. When Roberts learned about Dignity House, a residential program for victims of sex trafficking, she was immediately drawn in.

“Like many people, I thought sex trafficking was something that mostly happened in other parts of the world,” says Roberts, who majored in justice studies and combined minors in women and gender studies and political science. “I had no idea that Phoenix was near the top of the list nationally, and that some 300,000 kids in this country are at risk for being trafficked each year.”

When Roberts graduated from ASU last May, she enthusiastically accepted a full-time professional position as a case manager with the Dignity program. Known nationally for its 360-degree outreach efforts and diversion programs for those arrested for prostitution and solicitation, Dignity boasts impressive success rates: 89 percent of those who complete their jail diversion program do not re-offend, and 93 percent who go through the year-long residential program at Dignity House break the cycle of prostitution for life.  

“As much as we’re able to do for our clients, it’s heartbreaking that by the time many victims are even eligible for Dignity House at age 18, they’ve already suffered years of emotional damage,” Roberts says.

The average age of entry into prostitution is 12.8 nationally and between 13 and 15 in Phoenix.

Recognizing that there was enormous unmet need for services and rehabilitation programs for sex trafficking’s youngest victims, Roberts and colleague Rachel Irby were moved to start their own nonprofit to fill this gap. “Unchained” is committed to using education to build recognition and awareness of this growing problem among youth and to offer hope for prevention.

Roberts says her entrepreneurial efforts were emboldened by her work as a research assistant with Vanna Gonzales, a justice and social inquiry professor, during her junior year. Working with Gonzales, Roberts helped create socialeconomyaz.org. The expansive online resource is a gold mine for those looking to launch nonprofits, cooperatives and sustainable businesses.

“All the paperwork and legal forms can be overwhelming, but Vanna connected me to great resources,” Roberts says. "Including an attorney who would do all our tax and incorporation forms for a flat fee, and it was at her urging that we applied for and got accepted into the Technical Assistance Partnership of Arizona, a part of St. Luke’s Health Initiative which helps incubate nonprofits."

Now only six months since its official launch in Phoenix, Unchained has presented nearly 30 awareness events at six university and college campuses around the country. The organization also has developed a mobile interactive “walk through” event that uses video and actors to give participants a first-hand look at how sex trafficking takes place, how society normalizes trafficking, and how trafficking affects those who become victims.

Unchained has plans to phase in a fundraising campaign, April 1, to establish a juvenile residential safe house and treatment program.

“In addition to educating young people, we want to reach out to teachers, to those working in law enforcement and social agencies, even in associated areas like the hotel industry, to teach them to recognize sex trafficking and make them aware of the resources available to get victims the full range of treatment they need,” Roberts says.

“Runaway teens are running away from something – from domestic violence, or drug use in the family, or sexual abuse,” she emphasizes. “And within 48 hours of being on the streets, a third of runaways are contacted by pimps. Sending a minor back home, or to a foster home, or arresting or labeling someone as a prostitute or drug addict doesn’t address the complexities that led them to that life. But by getting these kids into appropriate therapeutic and healing programs, we can turn their lives around.”

"Jamie is a fabulous example of the deep commitment and initiative that School of Social Transformation students bring to their lives and their careers," says Mary Margaret Fonow, a professor and director of the school. "Recognizing they have the power to bring solutions to community challenges, they are determined to be the change – stepping forward as social innovators and changemakers."

Learn more about domestic sex trafficking and Unchained’s advocacy efforts at unchainedmovement.org or email the co-founders directly at jamie@unchainedmovement.org or rachel@unchainedmovement.org.