Editor’s Note: This is the second in a four-part series on human trafficking. We sat down with local law enforcement officials to get their take on the matter and found out it’s not a major issue in Austin County. They did, however, offer suggestions on how adults and youth can educate themselves.
When reading through the Austin County sheriff’s report and Sealy Police Department arrest records, it’s not common to see arrests for human trafficking, sex trafficking or smuggling. While people who are up to dirty deeds may pass through on Interstate 10, they’re likely setting up shop in a larger city like Houston where they can operate an illegal business or otherwise fly under the radar.
“There’s a problem, but we don’t have a problem here,” said Sealy Police Sgt. James Long. “They’re going to do that in Houston where it’s easier to hide. They’re not going to come here; it’s easier to stick out. If you have a house full of 20, 30 people, somebody’s going to start calling. They’re going to move into a community they can blend in with.”
Austin County Sheriff Jack Brandes agreed.
“We’ve seen very little of this in our agency,” Brandes said. “It has not been an issue.”
But in order to stay ahead of the curve, officers with the sheriff’s department and police department attend classes on the subject and stay educated on the matter.
“We’re prepared,” Brandes said. “There’s some special schools coming down the pike, and we’ll certainly attend. We’re at heightened awareness.”
An accident occurred in Sealy a few years ago where a mother and child were trying to come across the border, Long said. The event was reported as trafficking but in fact appears to be smuggling, he explained.
“People confuse human trafficking and smuggling,” he said. “Smuggling is bringing someone from across the border just to live here. Human trafficking is a new term for slavery. They’re bringing people in to do forced labor. When they’re doing human trafficking, they might hold their passports or IDs or anything that would help them become established residents.”
A greater concern locally is online solicitation, the detective added. If parents want to protect their children, talk to them and be a part of their lives, Long said.
“I talk to my children,” Long said. “We get cases of online solicitation. I’m not an expert, so I talk to people who are. Parents need to be part of their children’s lives. Ask questions; you’re the parent. If they’re hiding something from you, why are they hiding it?”
While not necessarily trafficking, sometimes officers see teenage runaways who turn to prostitution in order to survive on the streets. Although they’re committing a crime, it’s important to look at why she ran away in the first place, Long said.
“Is she being beaten or abused at home?” he said.
The Sealy community has an advantage because it’s small and tight-knit. Often adults know their neighbors and get to know other parents at the ball field or school functions. It’s still OK to keep an eye on your kids’ activity, track their locations and know their phone passwords, said Long, who has a 12-year-old and a 16-year-old.
“Monitor their social activity,” he said. “Find a way to know their friends. Find a way to know their friends’ parents … Explain that there’s not good people in the world. It’s not that I don’t trust [my kids]; I don’t trust the other people in the world. Don’t talk to strangers. If someone tries to touch you, scream, yell, holler. If you drop them off at the bowling alley or the movie theater, look at who’s hanging around there.”
While the Long children have a unique situation since their father is an investigator, being part of your kids’ lives applies across the board, the detective says.
“When you live in my house, it’s my rules,” he said. “Your room is not your room. I have a right to know what’s going on in my house. If your kid goes from being a straight-A student to making F’s, what’s going on? When kids start getting in trouble, there’s some reason.”
Social media and online solicitation are bigger issues locally than human trafficking, Long said, but it all ties together.
“Human trafficking is a terrible thing in my opinion,” Long said. “If I’m soliciting them online or keeping them against their will in a slave-type format, it’s all the same thing. Maybe someone is cleaning houses for my business for no pay or maybe it’s prostitution. Are we ever going to stop it? I don’t know.”
The human trafficking hotline is 1-888-373-7888.