“I do love telling a story, because it’s all about Christ, and what the Lord has done is just absolutely amazing in ten years of my life, but especially the last two or three,” Rocco Magnelli, a board member of Refuge for Women’s new Pittsburgh location, began our conversation with this disclaimer, and continued to pause throughout our conversation to communicate, “it’s God’s story,” or how the Lord had moved powerfully.
It is, truly, the only way to understand his story, because it seems that, through suffering and difficulty, the call of his life is one that continues to echo for the redemption of sexually exploited women.
Following this disclaimer, he went on to explain his background in law enforcement. Rocco had worked in the recovery field, with people suffering from the disease of alcoholism and addiction, and through a strange and divine chain of personal experiences, has returned to the task force doing child investigations.
Rocco’s winding story with the Lord began after he and his wife separated in 2007. He ended up in alcoholic recovery, and rediscovered God in 2013, in an experience he depicted as getting hit with a two-by-four, and asked, “have you had enough?” Even more simply, he said that, “the Lord just totally swooped me up and took me.”
“We can be blamers and, and we can look for fault in everything else––especially in wanting to blame God––but we’re the ones that walk away from God,” he insisted, “God was always there, just waiting.”
Upon Rocco’s return, he indeed found God faithfully waiting, and found Him as the steady backbone for the trials that would plague the next chapter of his life. From the moment his new journey began, he was off and running. Two years following his rededication, he tragically lost his son. This is a story in itself, and one that would root him in a needed dependence and commitment to God, but the crux of his call to his work and to his relationship with Refuge for Women began with his daughter, and her experience being trafficked.
Rocco had just left law enforcement when he learned that his daughter was a victim of trafficking. He spent his evenings all over town, looking for his missing daughter in motels and streets. “It was just never-ending… and then she’d go missing again for three, four days, and I’d be out again.”
During this time, Rocco was in communication with the police he formerly worked with, who were unhelpful by no fault of their own, as law enforcement were untrained and unfamiliar with the complexities of juvenile and trafficking cases at the time. His daughter’s situation was not unusual, yet the gaps of understanding led the police to shift the blame to her, even in a courtroom.
“I’d be going to a courtroom with her [during her] hearings, and [these officers] would be telling the judge that she’s prostituting herself. No one was getting it back then. And I was saying, ‘She’s not! That’s not what’s happening here,’” he explained how he took things into his own hands out of necessity. “I fought that for six years… I couldn’t get help from anyone else. No one else believed this––you know? It was a blame game…. And I know my daughter wasn’t the only one.”
He continued, recounting the journey that brought him to serve on the Board of Refuge for Women, to the ultimate redemption of his daughter, and raising questions that would have ripple effects to build a foundational understanding for those in these desperate but unfamiliar situations.
“I relate it to recovery, in a sense, because no one understands that unless they’ve gone through it, especially a survivor. Let alone the family of a survivor––just like the family of recovery, it’s a family illness. You all become sick from it. And no one understands what a parent is going through.”
Suffice to say, despite this passion, at this point in the story, Rocco had no plans to return to law enforcement. He was working with therapy groups at the time, and enjoying it, when the Lord caught his attention. He was speaking at a church when someone approached him afterward and asked, “Why aren’t you still working?” They were referring to CSI, an investigation agency with retired officers whose job was to find runaways. “Within two weeks, I’m not even looking for this, and I’m hired and I’m out, back in the field again doing this.”
“My point of that story is the Lord,” he said definitively. “Just goes to show you how he has the master plans… because I went to school to be a therapist. I’m thinking, this is what I’m going to do. He scooped me right up out of there. But here’s the catch. He put me with all these multiple [Children, Youth and Family] agencies in Pennsylvania, to find these runaway children who are victims of trafficking and sexual exploitation… [God] knew that I was going to need that knowledge, because what I’m dealing with is a lot of families suffering from addiction.”
Rocco went on to describe, with compassion and fire, the unique situations he found himself in that created such a specific understanding and equipping for these settings. His personal journey with addiction, coupled with his daughter’s and its relationship to her trafficking experience, not to mention his training as a therapist, was wholly a unique opportunity to relate to and advocate for individuals and families who are generally, but especially at this time, deeply misunderstood.
“When we find our women out there, because of these traffickers… they’re suffering from addiction,” he explained. “So not only am I understanding the piece of being stuck in the streets, I’m understanding that need of addiction. And I’m understanding––what I was going to go into–– the piece of the family being sick. No one ever brings up what the parents of these survivors go through. No one knows what it’s like to be a parent, that has to answer your door, and there’s a 60-year-old guy there with $100 bills, because he knows he has your daughter.”
The understanding and resources that law enforcement currently operates from was strongly impacted by this fight that Rocco took up. As he continues this fight with his nine-to-five as a CSI investigator for children, he also leverages this knowledge in his advocating for Refuge, and laying the foundational pieces for Pittsburgh’s new location. His unique expertise has steered the comprehension, compassion and fight of a city toward a heartbreaking issue, and that influence is only growing.
“So that’s what lit my fire and my passion. Because I’m one parent. And I’m one parent that had knowledge, and came from law enforcement and everything like that, and still fought the system. I fought against law enforcement, to get them to try and understand this. No one really understood it, and now that it’s in the limelight, my passion is even deeper; because now I know I have some access and resources for so many other women and children.”
This is the first of several parts to Rocco’s story. Please follow along to hear more about the challenge, redemption and call of God on Rocco’s life, and its part in how God is moving in the community of Pittsburgh.