Survivors move past their traffickers

Published 10:08 pm Friday, March 8, 2019

It takes a lifetime for the deep scars of human trafficking to heal, but survivors can live past their trauma, according to Dana Wynn Steele, founder of Angel’s Hands at the Ranch.

The 22-acre ranch in rural Suffolk serves as a restoration home for victims of human trafficking. It also helps those that are in danger of being trafficked, such as women aging out of foster care and female veterans.

“I always say to the girls, ‘Your healing … is probably going to be a lifetime,’ but that’s not to discourage you and say ‘You’re never going to be normal,’” Steele said. “You’re going to be normal, but you have to remind yourself that you matter.”

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Traffickers exploit 24.9 million children and adults across the world, according to They coerce their victims into forced labor or sex work and profit from their crimes in excess of $150 billion annually.

Steele became involved about 10 years ago as an attorney. She represented children who were either brought to the United States explicitly for trafficking purposes or were trafficked when they arrived.

“I saw how they were being taken advantage of and how they were easily manipulated into a trafficking situation,” she said.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported more than 5,000 human trafficking cases in 2018. The victims were mostly females, and the majority were sex trafficked.

American women and young girls — some as young as 11 — are trafficked from big cities and small towns, according to There are victims in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and the U.S. territories.

Traffickers are predators that prey on the vulnerabilities of girls from all backgrounds and ethnicities. They’re targeted at malls, schools, youth centers, theme parks, their own neighborhoods and online.

“They’re able to spot vulnerabilities in people that you or I would not pick up,” Steele said. “They’ve honed it, and they know exactly what they’re looking for.”

Steele founded her 501c3 nonprofit in 2016. Since then, she, her husband and others have helped more than a dozen women at the ranch with education, counseling, job skills and training. The ages of the victims range from 18 to 30.

One woman who has been helped at Angel’s Hands at the Ranch told her story to the Suffolk News-Herald after being promised anonymity. The Suffolk News-Herald does not identify victims of sex crimes.

The woman is 29 years old and met her trafficker when she was 17.

“He brought me to different state as soon as I turned 18,” she said in a phone interview. “He said he didn’t want to get in trouble for talking to a minor.”

He was older, about 46 years old by this woman’s estimation, but also friendly. He told her that he wanted to make new friends, and she didn’t know what she was getting into until he brought her to a house — a house that was filled with other girls.

“I wasn’t really sure of the adult world,” she said. “I’d seen strippers and that (kind of) stuff on TV, but I didn’t think it really existed in real life. Until I actually met my trafficker face-to-face.”

“I have a proposition for you,” he told her. He said things like “it’s great,” “you’ll love it” and “you’ll stay with me forever.”

She was sex trafficked by this man for about seven years, she said.

“I just stayed in this life that I didn’t know how to get out of or what I got myself into,” she said.

The woman met Steele in December 2014. She was extricated from her trafficker, and she said she grew as a person with Steele’s help both on and off the ranch.

In addition to helping victims, Steele and her family rescue animals at the ranch. There are now horses, ponies, goats and dogs living on the ranch, along with a bunny, rooster, sheep and cat.

The women do chores to keep the house in order and also care for the animals, which are part of their therapy. It’s up to each of them which animals fit them best. Some of them may be afraid of the horses, Steele said, but they’ll become attached to the bunny or big, friendly goat.

“They’ll kind of ‘adopt’ it as sort of their special animal,” she said.

The 29-year-old survivor said that she was particularly fond of Moonshine, the horse that helped her learn how to ride. She said that Moonshine was big, white and just as patient as the others that helped her at the ranch.

“The family environment (at the ranch) helped me,” she said. “The family environment, and Dana being so nurturing and patient. Everyone that works with her is so patient, nurturing and helpful.”

These women either live on the ranch during their stay or live nearby and come to the ranch during the day. They’re guided through online programs and other educational resources to pursue their goals. They’re taught how to make a resume, answer interview questions and other skills for jobs in the community.

“A lot of them want to do cosmetology, so we look at trying to get a scholarship for them or financial aid for them so they can do that,” Steele said.

But not all of the women are emotionally or mentally ready to interact with the community. Steele said that they’ve worked with some who have been inflicted incredible traumas by their own families.

“We’ve had three girls who were trafficked by their parents,” she said. “Two of them specifically by their dads, and both of the girls that were trafficked by their dads we believe were also sexually abused by their dads, too.

“You’re talking (about) the person in your life who was supposed to be protecting you. That’s your abuser.”

The women are helped in group therapy sessions and counseling services provided by Western Tidewater Community Services Board, all at no cost to them. This helps them heal and prepares them to protect and take care of themselves, with Steele and her organization there to support them.

“We’re trying to make these girls independent so that no matters what happens to them later in life — who they marry or don’t marry or what becomes of them — they have skills, in addition to emotional skills (they receive) through their therapy,” she said.

Steele is looking to purchase another home for the women so that they’re able to care for up to a dozen at one time. There are also plans to assist more women that are being trafficked at home and abroad.

“(We) just (want) to continue to be an educational resource for the community and a resource for healing for any girls that need it,” she said.

Part of that comes through their faith. The nonprofit is a faith-based organization, and Steele said that the primary way these women will heal is through understanding that they are beloved children of God, and that each of them are valued.

But that takes time, she said.

“You have to hang in there with them, (and) them seeing us hang in there with them, and doing this for no other reason than this is what God’s called us to do, I think that makes a difference,” she said.

The 29-year-old survivor appreciates the ranch for helping her find therapy, faith and hope. She was grateful for being able to share her stories with other survivors. Above all, she’s thankful to be heard.

She said she’s going to start school again soon, and even though she’s not physically at the ranch any longer, she still receives their support both emotionally and mentally.

“The experience overall was very amazing, and (the ranch) is really a blessing that saved my life,” she said.

Angel’s Hands at the Ranch is supported through monetary donations, as well as donations of supplies like senior horse feed, horse rice bran, dog food, single-bed sheets and towels. Visit for more information.