Editor’s Note: This is the first in a four-part series on human trafficking, an overview of what it is. Future stories will include interviews with law enforcement, clergy and parents and introduce discussion on how to combat this issue – which is happening throughout the U.S.
It could happen to a 16-year-old girl who is spotted at the mall and told that she’s pretty enough to be a model. It could happen to a middle-aged Vietnamese woman seeking citizenship and looking for a job at a nail salon or massage parlor. It could happen to a male, young or old – and statistics show that almost half of human trafficking victims are in fact men and boys.
It’s modern-day slavery, and it’s happening in our backyard.
The city of Houston’s anti-human trafficking task force defines it as a “lucrative criminal enterprise.”
“Victims may be forced to provide labor services or have their bodies sold for sex,” states information posted at humantraffickinghouston.org. “Men, women and children are bought and sold every day in the U.S., and sadly, Houston has been identified as a hub for this criminal activity.”
Texas was one of the first states to pass a human trafficking statute and local lawmakers such as U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul and Sen. Lois Kolkhorst – who represent Austin County – are doing their part to bring an end to the issue that has affected more than 300,000 victims in Texas alone.
McCaul partnered with Kelly Litvak, whose teenage daughter was targeted at an upscale Katy ISD campus. While the details on what happened to Courtney Litvak in 2016 are vague, mother Kelly Litvak – who already was an activist – sprang into action and created Childproof America to educate and activate other parents. The organization has four primary objectives:
• Increase sex trafficking awareness through creative media so that it can be quickly recognized in its various forms and stages.
• Coordinate and provide advocacy support for teens and families that are affected by sex trafficking.
• Provide quick and easy access to the very best local resources for those who need help, know someone in need and/or want to support the cause.
• Connect the "johns" who fuel the industry with a rehabilitative brotherhood focused on pornography and sex addiction so they can overcome shame and isolation.
While Childproof America identifies the epidemic as “sex trafficking,” the broader term “human trafficking” covers those whose bodies are sold for sex and those who are forced into unpaid labor.
News broke last month of former “Smallville” actress Allison Mack’s arrest in Lost Angeles for her alleged role in a sex cult called NXIVM (pronounced “nexium”). She claims to have branded members with a cauterizing pen and was charged with sex trafficking and forced labor. Defectors from the group have claimed they were recruited with the promise that they would be joining an empowering self-help organization. They subsequently signed over their money, bodies and dignity, using things like nude photos and letters trashing their loved ones as collateral so they’d be too ashamed to leave the cult and be exposed.
While a sex cult may be one of the more extreme examples of the epidemic, similar practices are occurring locally but with lower-profile ringleaders. The city of Houston notes that illicit massage establishments and nail salons may even have legitimate licenses, but there are several warning signs – posted at humantraffickinghouston.org – that may alert customers to something shady going on.
McCaul and Litvak stated in their joint press release that “education is absolutely critical,” particularly to parents of young people who could become targets. The most likely targets are between 12 and 14 years old, according to national research.
“’Spotters’ are looking for young people who show signs of vulnerability due to a variety of reasons,” states the release issued by McCaul and Litvak. “It could be something as small as teenage acne, to a traumatic event such as sexual assault or divorce of parents. Once a target is identified, the very methodical grooming process begins, which can take months or years. Parents who are ill-equipped to identify the early onset of behaviors could be placing their children at risk for exploitation.”
Several area churches, including Sealy’s Christian City Fellowship, have formed task forces to address the matter and host periodic events to help educate and empower their communities.
The human trafficking hotline is 1-888-373-7888.