Paula Barthelmess, left, is founder of Community Outreach Behavioral Services Ministry and Tylar Bell, right, is a member of the COBS Board of Directors. (Photo by Gaye Bunderson)
By Gaye Bunderson
When Paula Barthelmess moved to the Treasure Valley from Burley in 2005, she soon felt a leading from God. Trained as a licensed clinical social worker, she’d come to the local area as a single mom to open a mental health clinic. While pursuing her vocation, she noticed something troubling: the presence of human trafficking in an otherwise quiet valley.
“I felt God leading me to help these people,” Barthelmess said.
She ultimately started COBS, or Idaho Community Outreach Behavioral Services Ministry – its full name. COBS became a 501(c)(3) during the summer of 2014. Through COBS, Barthelmess and others work with victims and survivors of sex trafficking. “Two years ago, I opened up my first safe house for victims,” she said.
The women who seek shelter there range in age from 18 to 50 years old. Though they may vary in age, race, and other factors, they have a common thread: their vulnerability.
“They were abused from childhood, that is their underlying foundation,” Barthelmess said. Asked if it’s possible to really reach someone following such a difficult start in life, she replied: “It is 100 percent possible to help them – help them learn to live a safe life. And hope – we give them hope their life can be better.”
Because of the great need, Barthelmess opened a second safe house in April of 2022. As of early September, there was a combined total of 40 women and four children in the safe houses.
She acquires and maintains the houses through community donations and receives no government funding. Residents are provided with trauma care, substance abuse treatment, housing, food, and medical assistance. The safe houses, which are off the radar of everyone except residents and a few trusted people, are sanctuaries of security and refuge, but also of opportunity.
“We teach them skills, and they work toward employment,” Barthelmess said.
“They’re amazing,” Barthelmess continued. “They work jobs, buy vehicles, and pay a modest rent to live in the safe houses when they are able, all in preparation for becoming self-sufficient.”
Residents are also given legal help because law enforcement too often sees them as criminals. “They’re not seen as victims but as prostitutes,” Barthelmess explained. “We keep them from going back to jail.”
One of the many positive aspects of what COBS does is introduce the mostly female population of the safe houses to friendlier police officers who are not out to get them and also to males who are not out to abuse them.
One member of the COBS Board of Directors is Tylar Bell. He is also part of a COBS crisis team of eight people who work in shifts to help victims of trafficking, often a 24/7, ongoing situation. Bell said: “Paula asked me to be on the board, and I thought it would look good on a resume. Now I’ve been with the organization for eight years. Before that I was uneducated and uninformed about human trafficking.”
He’s gone from someone who just wanted to fill out his resume to a committed member of the COBS front line team. “The thing about Tylar (and men like him),” said Barthelmess, “is that the women see positive male figures, healthy men – and healthy law enforcement too. They don’t always like the police.”
Barthelmess stressed the need for more safe houses to meet a growing demand. “I’m coming in contact with 2 to 4 trafficking victims a week,” she said. She goes straight into the heart of the problem, working with trafficking victims right on the street. She goes alone to wherever victims are in order to reach them. “I go into the jails, and I sometimes go into hotels where there are victims,” she said.
What is behind the growth of the sex trafficking business? Abuse and poverty, to be sure. But also a a darker side of capitalism. More people are being motivated by more money. “It’s become a more profitable business,” Barthelmess said.
COBS teams with human trafficking task forces in the valley, as well as with law enforcement and churches. The non-profit is always in need of both more funding and more volunteers. No one at any level who is part of the COBS organization is paid. Barthelmess works as a mental health practitioner, for instance, and Bell is a business owner. But they keep on working to help the helpless as well. No one and no organization can do it alone. “It takes a whole community to make this work,” Barthelmess said.
For more information, go to idahocobs.org.