Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series on human trafficking.
During a recent symposium on human trafficking, Alf Halvorson, pastor at Houston’s Memorial Drive Presbyterian Church, said that one in five of victims trafficked for sex or labor end up in Houston. Statistics show that the state of Texas reports 300,000 human trafficking victims, including 79,000 minors, many of whom are forced into prostitution. Domestic minors are the largest at-risk group, experts say.
Runaways and victims of child abuse and sex abuse are targeted. Recruiting areas include bus stops, malls, schools, shelters, foster homes, juvenile detention centers and online social networks. Houston has more illegal massage parlors than Starbucks coffee shops, researchers pointed out during a recent trafficking education summit at MDPC.
Tracy Jackson of Houston Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Task Force said he and his co-workers “see some pretty gruesome stuff.”
“I want to be the voice of those victims who cannot speak or who are too afraid to speak,” Jackson said. “Next to a homicide – next to killing a child – taking the innocence of a child is the next worse thing you can do … They look for a weak link and then they pounce on it. I say to every parent, ‘Do not let your child become a victim. Be very proactive. I know kids tend to say, ‘Mom, Dad, I got this,’ but children do not fully understand the dangers they are under. How do I know that? Because we arrest the people who know the children don’t understand the dangers.”
If a child is withdrawn from their family, that may be an indicator of trouble, Jackson added.
“We at the Houston Police Department ask that you be our eyes for us,” he said. “We ask that you go home and talk to your kids. If you’re not going to be part of the solution, then you’re part of the problem.”
Human trafficking isn’t something that just happens in India, Asia and other parts of the world, says Rachel Thomas, who describes herself as a survivor and activist.
“It’s right here and we have a responsibility to keep our own children and young adults safe,” Thomas said. “Human trafficking is a form of identity theft, robbing people of their value, their purpose, their future, their identities – especially their identity in God, reduced to a product for financial gain. This is modern-day slavery.”
Thomas, from Pasadena, Calif., said she was approached by a man in a nightclub who told her she was pretty and asked if she was interested in modeling. After going on a modeling gig, she filled out a W-9 form that included all her personal information, including her social security number.
She says when she tried to leave the “modeling agency,” she was told, “I own you. You’re going to do what I tell you to do, or somebody’s going to get hurt.”
She was then forced into prostitution.
“There was violence; there was every form of abuse that you can imagine that comes with this lifestyle,” Thomas said. “The average life expectancy of a sex trafficking victim is seven years before death.”
Thomas was able to escape her captor – because a friend reported him to law enforcement – but she still deals with the scars, suicidal thoughts and fear. Her trafficker will be released from jail In 2019.
“God still has a plan for my life,” she said. “We may think it could never happen in our homes but we have to start thinking of the victims of these crimes as our babies. The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing. Please do something.”
John Clark, founder of Operation Texas Shield, said there are many stereotypes involving illegal immigrants but not kids in nice, stable neighborhoods.
“Because the stereotypes don’t match our own self-image, it’s a lower priority,” he said. “What if I told you that some of the statistics and the stereotypes don’t match some of the more recent data?”
Just 3 percent of the survivors of sex trafficking were born outside the country. More than half come from upper- and middle-class homes. More than half of the transactions for commercial sex acts occur online. The face of sex trafficking is changing, and it’s changing rapidly. The pace of change and the way it’s changing is putting our families at risk.”
The human trafficking hotline is 1-888-373-7888. Contact Rescue Houston at 713-322-800 or visit rescuehouston.org.