Woman in Bakhita House

Interview: Karen Anstiss, Manager of Caritas Bakhita House

Caritas Bakhita House Manager, Karen Anstiss, talks about her work to restore the lives of survivors of human trafficking.

Can you tell us a little bit about Caritas Bakhita House?
Caritas Bakhita House opened its doors in June 2015. Since that date it has housed 86 female victims of human trafficking and had five new babies. It was set up by the Catholic Church to help women that have been victims of trafficking or modern-day slavery, that need refuge while they decide on their future options and a care package put around them. Especially those that weren’t willing at the time to go into the government system of care, can sit outside that system.

How did you get involved working at Caritas Bakhita House?
I was a police officer for 31 years and my last posting was to the kidnapping and human trafficking team at the metropolitan police. So, since 2002 I have worked with different churches, when we have rescued victims, to enable them to work alongside the police, to build trust. The Church is very good at that. People that work for the Church have a natural ability, often, to work with these victims, to get them to come forward, to help to police in their investigations, and so it was kind of a natural move for me to apply for that job when it came out.

Did you notice a big change from your work in the police to your work at Caritas Bakhita House?
In the police I could only work with the victims to a certain level – it was my job to encourage them to make statements, to help them through the court procedure, but I had no way of actually caring for them. The police don’t have those facilities. So, the step to Bakhita House was for me, from the heart, to see that they actually were cared for 24 hours a day, and helped to move on to a better life.

Tell us more about this better life. What do you hope that women leaving Bakhita House, or finishing their time with you, will leave with?
The point of Bakhita House is to give each guest that arrives a better life in the future, and to help them to develop that. They come through the door, often very broken, very traumatised and with no hope. We put a care package around them, through our team and the volunteers. We help them to find a way that they can move on and have a much better life. To find an independence that they have never had before. Most of the women that come to us have never had control of what they wear, or what they do on a daily basis, things that you and I accept as normal. You and I, if we are hungry, we might go to a supermarket and get a sandwich or buy ourselves a coffee. They don’t even make those simple decisions. So, it is about caring for a person, and giving them back the strength to become their own person, to make their own decisions, to step away from being controlled, to find that life that a lot of us take for granted.

Do you have any good news stories from Bakhita House?
We have 86 good news stories and five little good news stories. One of the things that I emphasise is that we have had five babies born to women of the house. Those babies were conceived through rape, which is never a nice thing, but the positive outcome is that all of those women have bonded with their babies and have moved on to care for them in their own independent lives. That can’t be beaten in my book – to see the joy of new life and to see it in a much more positive light than when it began. I think it has been something brilliant at Bakhita House that the Church has allowed us to do.

The Day for Life this year is focusing on bringing the awareness of human trafficking to more people, and part of Day for Life’s aims is to care for life in all its forms, be it the trafficked woman, or the new life that they have brought into the world. What do you think the public can do to raise awareness or work to defeat human trafficking?
I think it is what you have said yourself. Anybody that listens to the work that is going on within our own country, can start to help to raise awareness. When they have done that, they can start to help the Church by seeing who is around them, because often, believe it or not, victims will go to Church. It is being aware of who is around you in Church, being aware of who lives next door to you or in the flat above you. Raising awareness is so very important, because through awareness more victims can be rescued. We have focused on woman because Caritas Bakhita House houses women, but it is not only women. It is men, it is children, it is families. The Church is a very powerful tool in that there is so many people that go, and so the awareness is essential. There are other things that people can do as well as raising awareness. There is always fundraising. Every person that houses people, in this country, from this horrific crime needs funding. Even those that sit within the national system need additional funding. If they put a call out to people that work within the areas of their parishes, they will need things like toiletries and clothing because often, but not always, victims come with nothing. We often need languages and we know that within the Catholic Church in this country there are a lot of different languages. They can always be helpful, because if you can’t speak to somebody then you can’t help them.