Order of Malta


Anti-Human Trafficking Ministry Off to a Great Start in 2022


This article was originally printed in Hospitallers Volume 2022 Summer 2022.

At the Board of Councillors Meeting on September 22, 2021, President Peter J. Kelly, MD, GCM, announced the funding of a new official Association ministry to fight against human trafficking. The Anti-Human Trafficking Ministry, led by Deborah O’Hara-Rusckowski, RN, DM, fulfills one of the key initiatives President Kelly had challenged the American Association to develop upon beginning his role as president in 2018.

Why This Issue Now?

It is estimated that there are approximately 40 million people worldwide who are currently being trafficked. Deborah states, “I believe this is a gross underestimation because this statistic hasn’t changed since 2018 and does not take into account the current US border crisis, Afghanistan crisis, or the tsunami of trafficked victims that will be flowing out from Eastern Europe due to the Ukrainian war. This is devastating and we need to view this with a sense of urgency.”

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are annually about $150 billion in illicit profits as a direct result of human trafficking. The COVID-19 pandemic only increased this horrific crime, as traffickers moved their business from the streets to social media to more easily target children and teenagers isolated at home and deprived of healthy and positive opportunities to engage with others.

As a part of the American Association’s Called to Serve Capital Campaign, Deborah and her husband Stephen, made a $250,000 donation and matching grant of $250,000 to address the issue of human trafficking and support victims. Matching gifts and an additional generous contribution made by a prominent family foundation in the northeast has brought the total to $1 million. Over time, we expect to create a long-term endowment that will not only be sustainable but have the potential to replicate the model of Catholic healthcare clinics, which provide resources for victims of human trafficking and their children and help place them in safe homes.

Where Do We Start?

Victims of human trafficking have unique needs to heal and recover and to do so in an environment where they are and feel safe. The focus of the Association’s Anti-Human Trafficking Ministry is to make an impact on the extreme scarcity of long-term beds for victims. In 2019, it was reported that there were only 45 beds, not all long-term, in New England for victims of human trafficking. Many facilities are unable to house victims for more than 30-90 days, instead of the 1-2 years needed to help the victims recover and transition to living more normal lives. Sadly, victims who are placed in short-term facilities are seven times more likely to return to a life of trafficking.

Another challenge with homes for victims is that the employees who provide the daily care and companionship for the victims rapidly experience burnout, so the average turnover rate is 4-12 staff members turning over every 6-8 months. It is a tremendous challenge for victims who then feel abandoned.

Despite these challenges, there are meaningful examples of hope. A home in Louisiana called Metanoia Manor has recruited religious Sisters from Nigeria who are experienced working with victims of human trafficking. They found that these Sisters are able to work with the victims for 1-2 years without turnover because three or four of the Sisters live in community with the victims. Their spirituality and community allow them to remain with the victims and helped the victims experience continuity of care.

“The Sisters are ’the secret sauce’—they are not expected to ‘run’ the homes, but rather to be the loving, nurturing presence the victims so badly need on their journey to become survivors.” 

Deborah O’Hara-Rusckowski, RN, DM

The Catholic Church has a huge opportunity to begin restoring the lives of hundreds of thousands caught in the horrors of trafficking. By repurposing currently empty Church-owned buildings, previously used as convents or rectories, we can offer a place of healing to so many suffering from complex trauma. Our goal should be one new safe house in every diocese.

The AVODAH Collective, a space created for women survivors of sex trafficking, families, and young people to find restoration, was awarded an American Association grant this year to help finance a new home in  Massachusetts. The AVODAH Collective is based in Colorado and opened its first safe home, AVODAH Farms, in January 2022. AVODAH Farms, the Massachusetts Home, and future homes will use the Metanoia Manor model, which has 24/7 live-in religious Sisters with the residents. The AVODAH Collective is also looking to establish homes in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Wisconsin.

The AVODAH Massachusetts Home will welcome up to 11 female survivors who are either pregnant or have an infant. The women will be given 24/7 care by Sisters and staff members, which includes a comprehensive program of healing, life-skills, and other tools to help the women reintegrate into society with a deep appreciation of their dignity as children of God. This grant will help bring 24 Sisters from Nigeria to the US, support four of them in their first year as they help run the Massachusetts Home, and provide funding to hire and train three new staff members for one year. This is the first step in our fight against human trafficking.

“With the gift from Deb and her husband, Stephen, we can now help fund non-profit organizations that specialize in providing housing and rehabilitation for victims and abide by Catholic teachings.  We will not own these facilities or be on their Boards; we will provide only a portion of funding needed to open and to maintain the facilities, but it will demonstrate that the Order of Malta is trying to help end this terrible problem.”

Peter J. Kelly, MD, GCM

How Can I Help?

Training is the integral first step. President Peter Kelly and Deborah O’Hara-Rusckowski have been working with the NY Office and OnWatch, a survivor-led training program, to create an online training course for members interested in volunteering. This online course will be set up like the Year of Formation and Chaplains Formation online courses. Training will include several modules with informative videos to help prepare you to become a volunteer.

Once members complete the online training course, they can participate in a variety of activities such as furnishing and refurbishing the homes for the victims, providing transportation to doctors’ appointments, and teaching basic life skills and caring for their young children. We anticipate this course to be released shortly, so please keep an eye out for an email announcement.

Volunteering at one of these homes is not, and will not, be our only means to support anti-human trafficking efforts. It is only the start. Plans are already in the works to support homes in Connecticut and Missouri. We hope to continue to award grants to homes throughout the Association’s various Areas that follow Catholic principles and where our members can volunteer their efforts in providing a safe and welcoming environment for victims to heal and recover.

If you have any questions about the Anti-Human Trafficking Ministry, please contact Deborah O’Hara-Rusckowski, RN, DM.

Order of Malta, American Association, U.S.A.

American Association, U.S.A
1011 First Avenue, Room 1350
New York, NY 10022
(212) 371-1522