Why our city is such a powerful generator of human trafficking, and what parents should know if they want their kids to survive.
By Sara G. Stephens
A perfect storm musters its forces in Houston. This storm strikes Houston every day, arising from the powerful combined effect of some of our city’s most unique elements—central location on an interstate freeway that whizzes traffic from coast to coast, proximity to numerous ports and to an international border, an international airport, and a thriving commercial sex industry that firmly entwines itself with the city’s economy. Every day this storm wields a destructive force, leaving in its wake a menacing fog of lost youth, lost innocence, and lost lives.
This storm has a name: it’s called human trafficking.
We’ve all read the statistics, musing with detached concern the plight of Asian or Hispanic workers trafficked and exploited as slave labor or commodities of the sex trade. We sigh when we hear that one victim is trafficked across international borders every minute.
Our brows raise ever more slightly when we read of these occurrences in our own country—18,000 people are trafficked into the United States from over 50 countries every year, according to reports from the United Nations.
And we lean in a little closer when we hear of incidents in our own city, like in March, when 36 men, women and children from Guatemala and Honduras were found stashed in a small single-family home in southeast Houston.
But what garners our full attention is hearing that more than 300,000 children are trafficked within the United States annually, according to The Center for Missing and Exploited Children. These kids are trafficked within the U.S., meaning they are American children. And with our city’s perfect-storm qualities, these kids could be our kids, their friends, or our neighbors’ children.
Many Houston parents know this. We hear stories on the news all the time. In July 2013, a three-day FBI prostitution crackdown sting rescued 105 teens, three of whom were from Houston—ages 15, 16 and 17—and working as prostitutes. In October, the FBI, DPS and Homeland Security raided two cantinas on Telephone Road, rescuing 12 sex trafficking victims, five of whom were minors.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia made his point crystal clear, for those who had not yet gotten the message. “Sex slavery is not occurring in a foreign country; it is happening in our own backyard,” Garcia said during a press conference held following the raid.
Authorities took the opportunity to underscore Houston’s ranking as one of the nation’s most prominent hubs for human trafficking. FBI Special Agent Steve Morris commented at the time that the raided cantina was only one of many Houston businesses participating in the trafficking trade, with plenty more victims that need rescuing.
The question looms—how do so many children get trapped in the trafficking world?
We invest in security systems for our homes and teach our kids everything we know about parking lot safety. We avoid family trips to Mexico, where tales of kidnapping are more than rumor. We check Stranger Reports, detailing reported incidents to our kids, explaining that offenders can be male or female, and black, white or Hispanic, and coaching them on how to handle being approached by a stranger on their way home from school. We do all this in the name of protecting our kids from abduction and all the dangers that follow.
But we haven’t prepared our children for a different kind of trafficker, one who counts on our ignorance of his new and improved methodologies. Traffickers today are targeting their child victims using an increasingly sophisticated toolkit. The favorite new tool of the trade is one of seduction, preying upon the ailments suffered at one time or another by most children—insecurity, desire for popularity or fame, a need for a father figure, or just to be loved. There’s no need to physically snatch a target, not when the target can be groomed to come willingly, albeit ignorant of the dangers that lie ahead.
Here’s a little more about what Houston parents need to know about human trafficking of children in our own city.
Human trafficking is estimated to be a $32 billion industry, more lucrative than the illegal arms trade. It is one of the fastest growing criminal industries in the world, second only to the drug trade. And it may soon work its way to first place. What makes trafficking so lucrative is that, unlike guns or drugs, a human is a reusable commodity. Once the commodity is purchased, it can be sold and resold, every sale increasing profit margins for the trafficker. The margins are expanded with the commodity’s “shelf life,” lending mathematical sense to traffickers’ seeking increasingly younger children who can be sold repeatedly for many years before they are “used up.” Most trafficked kids survive only about seven years if they are not rescued, reports Kim Estes, Child Safety Expert and Founder of Savvy Parents Safe Kids. The chances for rescue are stunted when traffickers remove their victims outside of the country and/or get them addicted to drugs.
Gangs are entering the industry with enthusiasm, now realizing that human trafficking is a high-reward, low-risk crime, compared with drug or arms trafficking, according to Nikki Junker, founder of a non-profit called With More Than Purpose, which has worked to help domestic sex-trafficking victims for the past four years. “The chance that the gang members will go to prison is low, and they know it. You have to prove they did it, and that largely depends on the victim’s cooperating, which rarely happens,” Junker explains. Maria Trujillo focuses her lens on Houston’s trafficking industry. Executive director of Houston Rescue and Restore, a non-profit organization dedicated to combating modern-day slavery, Trujillo also serves as chair of Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s Human Trafficking Task Force. Her passion about and knowledge of Houston trafficking is deep. “People think of human trafficking, and they think of foreigners or of something happening in far, distant lands outside of our own community.” Trujillo shares. “But Houston is a hub for human trafficking. “We distribute all kinds of commodities across the country,” Trujillo says. “Human beings are just another commodity. Buying and selling human life is what traffickers do.”
Prostitution is the oldest profession, as they say. The question to answer is whether this “industry” is growing, changing, darkening, or has it always been a form of slavery wrapped in the packaging of a victimless crime? Bob Sanborn, Executive Director of Houston’s Children at Risk, says many elements factor into this equation.
For starters, as a society, we are only now beginning to recognize prostitution as human trafficking. “Teens involved in prostitution are not making any of that money they earn—it’s all going to their traffickers or pimps,” Sanborn explains. “We invent this scenario in our minds that teens prostitute themselves to make money for college. That’s not happening. American girls run away from home, and within 48 hours, a third of them are lured into false romantic relationships and end up being sold out on the streets night after night.”
Sanborn also underscores the influence of the internet on the human trafficking trade. “The internet has made it easy to meet the demand for young girls,” he suggests. “Maybe 20 years ago, a john would have to drive along the streets and spend quite a bit of time seeking out a child. Now all he has to do is go online. In the time it takes to get a pizza, he can have a young girl or boy on his doorstep.”
Within the confines of Houston, Sanborn points out that sex businesses thrive everywhere, further facilitating the fulfillment of market demand.
Dawn Lew, Senior Staff Attorney for Children at Risk, explains that confronting child prostitution has lacked momentum because people perceive the action as a victimless crime. The reason for this perception, Lew says, is that people don’t actually see the trafficker taking the money from the children. As such, the kids are not seen as victims.
Meet the Victims
There are 21 million human trafficked victims in the USA, reports Yvonne Williams, co-founder and president of Trafficking in America Task Force (TIAT). Roughly 16.5 million people are in labor trafficking and 4.5 million people in sex trafficking. “One in five of those victims is in Houston,” she adds.
“Statistically, with 4.5 million sex-trafficked victims in the country, and each are used an average of 10 times a day, that means over 45 million Americans each year rape women, girls, and boys without a thought,” Williams remarks. “This is most likely a low number.”
Although some victims work out of view, locked in basements, apartments, or brothels, many victims are in plain view. Society does not identify these kids as victims, because we are not properly educated on the topic. If we recognize the trade in which these kids are engaged, we assume they are willing participants who have freely chosen this particular profession.
Trujillo cites field research revealing the average age for prostitution in Harris County is 15, higher than the national average, “but horrible,” she comments. “When the average age is 15, it raises some questions.” No one under the age of 14 can be charged with prostitution, but.” Once again, traffickers prey on ignorance, telling victims that if they go to the police, they will be thrown into jail. “The child wonders, ‘If I’m thrown into jail who am I going to believe?’” Trujillo explains. “It’s a huge challenge to help victims without making them feel like criminals, to protect them from themselves.” The Stockholm Syndrome is quite common in these situations, prompting kids to go back to their traffickers, with whom they’re often very much in love. Trujillo likens the victims’ frame of mind to that of domestic violence victims. “Most young kids become so engrained in the mental manipulation, and breaking that down is a huge challenge,” she explains.
She adds that the primary tactic used by traffickers is seduction. “We do see kids being kidnapped. But more often than not, they’re striking up a conversation on social media, they’re approached at the mall, a basketball game, or bus stops. Traffickers easily spot kids who are seeking self-esteem, love, or attention from parents, peers—or anybody.
“The number one thing for parents to know is that all children can be vulnerable,” Trujillo cautions. “The distinction traffickers are so skilled at making is how can each vulnerability be manipulated.”
Junker asserts that the best way parents can protect their kids against sex trafficking is to make sure their daughters have good fathers or father figures. Traffickers prey on girls who grow up without a father figure, have endured sexual abuse, physical abuse, or whose fathers left, died, are drug addicts, or even just a non-existent. It’s the reason girls call their pimps daddies. It’s another culture, and that’s the role the traffickers fulfill.”
Dottie Laster, of Laster Global Consulting, is a legal advocate, radio talk show host, and consultant who specializes in training and consulting to combat human trafficking. She comments that, while we tend to think of traffickers as being male, she makes an effort to be gender-neutral. “We think of women as mothers or potential mothers, and just can’t envision them going down that path,” Laster says. “But I’ve had cases where mothers have sold their children into modern-day slavery. It’s a case of perfect evil.”
In one 2012 instance of such unfathomable “parenting,” a Pasadena mom and her 47-year-old boyfriend, Reynaldo Alaniz, were accused of forcing the woman’s teenage daughter into a life of prostitution. The victim was coached on how to prostitute herself at local truck stops, like Trucker’s Paradise and Texas Truck Plaza, where she was forced to sell herself. Alaniz took all the money the girl made each night to buy cigarettes and alcohol. Fortunately, a neighbor notified the police after seeing the victim wandering around a street, appearing hungry and improperly dressed for the temperature. But a lifetime of damage had already been done.
How Traffickers Recruit Victims
When it becomes apparent that a mother can sell her own child, society is forced to reconsider its ideas of how this trade operates.
Junker addresses the misconception many people have of how human trafficking begins. “So much of the press want it to be black and white, suggesting that it’s only trafficking if a kid is kidnapped and chained to a bed,” Junker says. “It doesn’t happen that way very often. It’s so much more. If you look at the cases where girls are actually kidnapped, they are few and far between, as opposed to long indoctrination processes.”
This process begins with scouting, which can happen anywhere. Trujillo says she sees young groups of kids at malls until hours on end, which is why recruiters favor these spots. “They hang out at all the malls, The Galleria, Memorial City, looking for their next victims.”
Recruiters also spend a lot of time on social media. Trujillo recently had to pick up a girl who was lured from Facebook to join a sales crew, then left at the side of the road for not complying with the rules.
Trujillo talks about door-to-door magazine sales operations as another venue for human trafficking. “Kids are left in suburban neighborhoods, are forced to meet quotas for the day, or they’re not fed,” she explains. The kids are recruited in Houston, then taken to Seattle, Las Vegas, or Chicago, where they’re stuffed into hotel rooms. “Imagine going from Houston to Chicago in the middle of winter to sell magazines door-to-door, and getting paid nothing to very little, usually $8 to $10 a day.” Trujillo describes ads in local newspapers or bus stations, inviting kids to make money over the summer, earn money for college, or travel the country, all expenses paid. “Any kid would be susceptible to that,” Trujillo remarks. “And the ads even encourage kids to bring their parents to the interview, which adds a sense of credibility to the operation.”
Kim Estes, Child Safety Expert and Founder of Savvy Parents Safe, spends a good deal of her time myth- busting around the human trafficking issue and talking to parents about what to watch for and showing how any child, in the right circumstances, can become a victim. “Affluence, honor roll and kids on sports teams are not immune,” she emphasizes.
Equally important, Estes sheds disturbing light on the traffickers. “[They] are not grown scary looking men,” Estes reveals. “They can be other kids (teens), both male and female. Charming and well- groomed. College students. High School students.” She adds that traffickers pose as best friends and boyfriends. They zero in on middle-school girls who easily fall prey to charming guys who make them feel and look special, and kids who are needy for attention, shy or insecure. This brand of recruiter is adept at identifying kids who are largely unsupervised. Once the recruiter selects his or target, the “grooming begins,” and it can go on for months and months.
Laster acknowledges this evolution in the trafficking industry and has devoted countless hours to decoding the elaborate grooming and recruiting process and has broken it down by benchmarks.
She sees more and more U.S.-citizen, non-marginalized victims being targeted on campuses, from middle school to high school, where kids are trained as “bait” for commercial sex recruiters. “The trainees specialize in targeting potential recruits—and, at schools, the victims are just fish in a barrel,” Laster says. The recruiter shows up as an acquaintance or love interest—someone we call a ‘Romeo pimp.’ He is the answer to the victim’s prayers, whether those prayers are for a father, fame, to be rock star, dancer, model—whatever the hook is.”
During the grooming phase, the recruiter learns everything about the victim, who can’t wait to share everything about herself with her new love interest. “Every disagreement she’s had at home or with best friends, he listens. And it truly is seductive to have someone listen to you and always take your side,” Laster acknowledges. The victim interprets this listening as love.
Meanwhile, the bad guy is just gathering data, 24/7, on how he’s going to manipulate this person. Unknowingly, she is feeding him everything he needs to know.
Suddenly, the dynamics of the relationship change from courter and sweetheart to cat and mouse. The “love interest” is distant, then comes back. Then he’s mad again, and then he comes back again. “You want the guy that’s too good for you—women are so easily manipulated,” Laster notes.
“Once he has her hooked, there’s a trauma—a rape on her, or she’s taken somewhere she never would have gone to, like a strip club or drug party, to shock her sense of reality,” Laster continues. While helping the victim heal from the trauma, the groomer works on rewriting her reality. He distances her from her best friends, from family, and from school, building a new identity for his victim, one he can easily manipulate. “When your brain is traumatized, it works through the trauma short-term, rewriting history with a super-glue bond—trauma bonding,” Laster explains. “I worked with one girl who had been a National Merit Scholar and was told by her groomer that school was not for her—she wasn’t good at it. He had rewritten her history while she was in a trauma stage, so instead of bonding with family and friends, whom he has isolated, the victim has only her “love interest” for input.
“When something happens to you, you call your friends and your family for perspective,” Laster says. “The victim at this stage of the process has only her groomer. And the more people try to talk to her, the more she clings to him.” Even if they wanted to help, the family could not do so immediately, as they really don’t know about the trauma that’s occurred. They weren’t there, and the victim’s not talking to them about anything going on in her life. The victim acts normal in front of family, preventing them from getting a head start on intervening. “That’s why it’s so evil,” Laster muses. “By the time her family has a clue, she’s just too far down the rabbit hole.”
This is a dangerous turning point in the process. Once the victim survives the trauma, she no longer fears it.
The family receives less and less communication. When they do, it’s vague, devoid of details. While the victim communicates less and less, she is instead always texting and on the phone. She’s always in a hurry and won’t stay long. Relationships that were once normal are now strained. The victim starts to travel. The trips become more frequent. Pretty soon there’s one last trip home. “You won’t see her after that,” Laster says. “There will be a family blow up, and then she’s gone.”
“If they just took her, it would be easy to get law enforcement involved,” Laster explains. “But because she’s around and communicating, the danger is less obvious. Bad guys are very good at this strategy, and it works every time. It takes everyone outside of law enforcement to pull apart the layers and devise a strategy to get the victim out.”
Recruiter profiles vary. Sometimes the bad guy is actually on campus, actually selling drugs and prostitution. Other times, he is more of an acquaintance and a very simple part of the transaction. In this case, the campus acquaintance is just a connection to the bad guy, who operates elsewhere.
Social Media Recruitment
Campuses aren’t the only venues for recruiting. Another hotbed today is social media. Recruiters work on Facebook, Twitter, and gaming sites. One of Laster’s cases in New Braunfels involved two kids who were targeted on a gaming site. They were taken from Texas to northern California to work as prostitutes. The plan was to eventually make the girls have babies, which the trafficker would sell to upper-class citizens.
As an aside, Laster mentions that this particular trafficker was a woman.
Hence the warning heralded by every human traffic expert: social media is the new trafficking hub, and parents must sit up and take notice.
“Human traffickers create sites specifically for the purpose of attracting youth” says Williams. “They know how to manipulate the youth population and prey on their need for acceptance, raging hormones, a desire for success and popularity, etc. They are the compassionate shoulder to the youth who need a loving father; the talent agent that can get them in front of the modeling agency that can make them a star; the college scout that can make the sportsman’s dream come true to go pro. In other words, human traffickers are the consummate professionals in any area that the youth is weak in.”
Police across Texas say there are many ways predators get to kids from the phone to the Internet.
In May 2012, a 12-year-old Houston girl met someone on Facebook and was lured into a dark situation for which she was completely unprepared. The girl thought she was being invited to a show. When she arrived at the location, she was basically prostituted. Her family’s search for her ended after two days, when they were able to track her location using GPS from the girl’s cell phone. “You could just tell she’d been through a lot, hell on earth,” said the victim’s aunt, Crystal Whalon, in a statement following the event. Investigators believe other victims were targeted and urge parents to be vigilant about monitoring kids’ social media activity.
In October 2013, 20-year-old Alyssia Renee Perkins stood accused of being a sexual predator when she targeted a 12-year-old girl in Spring, allegedly sending her sexually explicit pictures. A resident of San Diego, Perkins claims to have fallen in love with the girl over Instagram. The two had been texting each other for a couple of months, with Perkins’ constantly professing her love for the child.
Once the victim’s mother discovered the sexual nature of their exchanges, she notified the authorities. Sgt. Gary Spurger, with Harris County Precint 4 constables, recognized Perkins’ tactics as grooming exercises. The intervention was timely. Perkins had traveled to Houston to meet with the girl, so she could “take care of her,” but was greeted by police at her Greenspoint-area hotel before the meeting took place.
Recognizing grooming and recruiting tactics is the most effective tool in helping to rescue victims and potential victims, making it critical for parents to educate themselves on these processes.
After Recruiting, the Trafficking Begins
Once a victim has been groomed, recruited, and removed from her reality, the trafficking soon follows. At this point, the trafficker implements another set of tools, including force, fraud, and/or coercion to maintain control over the victim. If the victim being forced to provide commercial sex is under the age of 18, force, fraud, and/or coercion do not need to be present for the situation to be considered trafficking, although they are still employed by the trafficker.
In terms of force, the abuse may be physical or sexual, including repeated rapes by multiple parties, in an effort to render submission. The victim may be confined to a residence, or have his or her movements restricted, along with communication with family and friends.
The illusion of boyfriend or caretaker established during grooming continues, with the trafficker promising a better life for the victim. At the same time, the idea is reinforced that law enforcement will view the victim as a prostitute, arrest her, and be of no assistance.
Under the umbrella of coercion, the victim is threatened with harm either to herself or to her family. The trafficker may also threaten to shame the victim by revealing her activities to the community. This emotional pressure is intensified with verbal, psychological and emotional abuse, as well as nightly quotas, confiscation of identifying documents, and forced dependency on the trafficker.
Throughout the experience, the victim undergoes an unending cycle of rewards and punishments, lending to deepened emotional confusion and fear.
The Internet again rears its head as an indispensable tool, this time serving as an agent for the actual trafficking. In fact, the Internet is the number-one platform used in the U.S. by pimps, traffickers and johns to buy and sell children for sex. Any interested buyer can find the child of his or her choice on websites such as Backpage.com, Eros.com and others. One FBI investigation revealed that more than 2,800 ads for prostituted children were posted on Craigslist in 2008 alone.
Those advertised online for commercial sex are marketed in a way that makes them appear to be working independently, when in fact they are victims of sex trafficking.
An open letter from “MC” to Craigslist tells one girl’s story:
“I was first forced into prostitution when I was 11 years old by a 28-year-old man. I am not an exception. The man who trafficked me sold so many girls my age, his house was called “Daddy Day Care.” All day, other girls and I sat with our laptops, posting pictures and answering ads on Craigslist. He made $1,500 a night selling my body, dragging me to Los Angeles, Houston, Little Rock— and one trip to Las Vegas in the trunk of a car. I am 17 now, and my childhood memories aren’t of my family, going to middle school, or dancing at the prom. They are of making my own arrangements on Craigslist to be sold for sex, and answering as many ads as possible for fear of beatings and ice water baths.”
What Parents Can Do to Protect Kids
Much of what human trafficking experts recommend for parents falls in the category of prevention.
Williams says that parents must find a way to get on a communication level with their children that lets them know they care and that their children can come to them for anything. “Kids need to hear their parents say that they understand that navigating teenage years is difficult,” she says. Hearing this message repeatedly will help buffer a recruiter’s attempts to convince a child he or she is alone.
“EDUCATION, EDUCATION, EDUCATION. This cannot be overstated,” Williams asserts. “Today’s families simply must take the time to get educated on all aspects of this culture, which is primed to lure any of our youth.”
Williams suggests several other techniques parents can employ to protect their kids:
“1) Parents can plan family activities to develop the bond that is necessary for their children. They need to take whatever measures they can to re-prioritize their lives to move from a group of people living under one roof and going their own separate ways to a working and caring group of people that interact with each other.
2) There must be a sense of self-worth instilled in today’s youth that enables them to say “no” in certain circumstances.
3) Parents need to put firewall protections and guards on their children’s computers and phones and check their emails on a regular basis to see who they are communicating with, including social media messaging groups like Facebook.
4) Youth must go to malls and other public places in groups. Two is no longer enough. If a parent can not accompany their youth on these types of outings, they must go in groups of three or more. Since Houston is a hot spot for traffickers, this is a must. Shopping malls are the number-one area for scouting for victims.” Junker is a survivor of sex trafficking. During speaking engagements, when parents ask her what they can do to protect their children, her response is always to make sure their daughters have good fathers. “I have never worked with a girl or woman who had a positive father figure in their life,” she says. She urges that parents need to be involved in their kids’ lives. “I was raised by a single mother,” Junker says, “but she was as present as she could be in my life. You need to know what your child is doing, or hanging out with. Know about violence in school or gangs, who they’re talking to. Just show them you care.”
Junker advises parents to watch out for red flags. “If your daughter comes home late, with her nails done, hair done, with expensive things she can’t afford, like a new Coach bag, and can’t explain where she got it from, this should be a red flag,” she says, explaining that, “Oftentimes, traffickers entice their victims with love bonding—it doesn’t last very long—taking their recruits shopping, buying them expensive things, making them feel beautiful.”
Along these lines, Junker states an obvious, but often-underestimated protective measure: pay attention to whom your daughter is dating, especially if it’s a much older man. “Even if the guy is around her age, look for warning signs, like if he’s showering her with gifts,” Junker says.
A child who is overly protective of his or her cell phone could be another sign of trouble. “If she has a cell phone you didn’t pay for, be concerned,” Junker stresses. “If she’s constantly using the cell phone, get a look at it. If you provide the cell phone, understand it’s a potential tool for recruiters, and simply checking in on texting and phone call transactions can let you see things early and nip them in the bud.”
It’s important that parents talk about human trafficking with their kids, so they understand this isn’t something that just happens in movies. Junker recommends a film produced by the GEMS organization, which documents the entire indoctrination process girls go through. “If kids see how a 14-year-old ended up doing this, they can relate it to themselves and know it can happen to them too,” she says.
Junker adds that she doesn’t see a problem with checking on the history of dates and their families before parties and even sleepovers. “This day and age, most parents probably Google before the date. The findings aren’t always correct, but you can make sure the date or friend is stable, has a family, is reachable—not just a stranger you know nothing about,” she says. “Use those social networking tools. The traffickers out there are using them. Why not you?”
“Texas has passed more legislation against human trafficking than any other state,” reports Sanborn. He explains that Catholic Charities came to his organization suggesting they look in the issue. “We’ve written a lot of legislation, and we’ve been recognized nationally for the tools we’ve given.”
Sanborn sees a strong need for social action in Texas, which is a large, populous state. It’s warm, making it a natural destination for runaways. Domestically, this is where runaways come, and traffickers use the I10 corridor to cross the country and cross the border into Mexico. “Houston is a prime location, and Texas is a state that turns a blind eye to sexually-oriented businesses,” Sanborn says. “We have to be on the front lines of legislation.”
Children at Risk has identified many objectives toward this end:
- putting an end to human trafficking by emphasizing the importance of treating trafficked children as victims, not criminals
- creating for Texas a comprehensive and coordinated system to both protect and serve domestic human trafficking victims
- training child welfare workers to identify child victims and connect them with the appropriate services
- offering service providers willing to provide shelter for victims clear regulations to facilitate the best standard of care for victims.
The organization also recognizes that The Human Trafficking Prevention Taskforce “has been very effective in fighting trafficking in Texas and urges the continuation of its work.”
Children at Risk occasionally organizes tours of local businesses police suspect are illegally luring and exploiting young girls, boys and women. One of the more recent tours took a bus through the Ship Channel area near I-10 and Market Street, then hit the Gulfton and Chimney Rock area. “We do it from time to time,” Sanborn says, adding that the organization scheduled a tour in late October for Doctors for Change. “It’s an experiential learning experience—people stay on the bus and get to see the many places in their own neighborhoods or close to their own neighborhoods where pick-ups happen. And they learn how to look for signs that a business is indeed trafficking.” Elijah Rising, another Houston-based human trafficking organization, conducts similar tours.
Efforts to spread awareness of human trafficking extend beyond organizations, right down to kids themselves. Demme Durrett, sophomore at the John Cooper School spearheaded the successful Human Rights Walk and Festival in The Woodlands the past two Decembers, to celebrate Human Rights Day, in an effort to broaden awareness and inspire others to help take up the torch for Human Rights education. Her event launched, as a project for Durrett’s Gold Award in Girl Scouts when she was fourteen, has been named the largest Human Rights Day celebration in the US, both years that she has held it. The 2012 event attracted approximately 2,000.attendees
Another event is scheduled for Saturday, December 7th, at Town Green Park, in The Woodlands. Durrett is seeking large and small corporate and individual sponsors, volunteers, and a large community turn out for the fun, uplifting, and inspiring event.
Parents or educators who want to learn more about human trafficking can tune in to watch Laster’s new television series, scheduled for broadcast on MSNBC in early 2014. Described as a “news documentary series” in the vein of “To Catch a Predator,” the program’s video crew follows Laster and her partner Kat, as they cover human-trafficking cases in a sting-like fashion. “The idea is to highlight three cases in each show: one case that’s in its final phases (a success story); a second case that’s in progress; and a third case that we’re just initiating from outcalls off backpage or other commercial sex ads. Lasster and her crew were in Houston in October filming a segment for the show.
A Million Men
Vocal artist and finalist on NBC’s “The Voice,” Melanie Martinez tells HFM about the inspiration for her touching song about human trafficking:
“Sara, I wrote this song because I first learned about this topic on a teen retreat with my church at 14 or 15 years old. The not for profit is called www.love146.org, and I was heart-broken by a story of a young girl who was sold at a young age and went through hell. No one knew her name, just a number that they give these girls. Since then I always wanted to write a song about this crime, and I did after I came back home from being on “The Voice.” I’m hoping to get this song on my album one day to reach more people hopefully around the world. Unfortunately the song is a true story for to many kids around the world. I try not to cry when I sing it because it’s so real.”
Tips for Parents
Protect your child…
- Get to know the parents of the classmates your child is friends with or dating.
- Be leery and ask questions if the person is older than your child and wants to date them.
- Talk to your child about the kinds of lures (and threats) that traffickers use to get kids.
- Make sure your child knows that if they were being threatened or if someone was threatening to hurt the family that they need to let you know right away. Kids will suffer extreme abuse in fear that their family will be hurt or that they will disappoint their parents for what has happened to them.
- Watch for a child who seems like they are being alienated from friends and family by someone.
If your child is a victim…
- Don’t hesitate to get police involved.
- If in doubt talk to someone in law enforcement about known traffickers in your area. Find out if any of these known traffickers have made contact with your child.
- Exercise patience. Human trafficking is a horrid and dangerous place for anyone to be, let alone a child. If a child has been trafficked, the path to recovery can be long, difficult and sometimes will not make sense to the parents (like a child who will run away again to their traffickers). Counseling and medical intervention will be key.
Source: Kim Estes Child Safety Expert and Founder of Savvy Parents Safe Kids
Tips for Kids and Teens
Be aware of how traffickers recruit people.
Traffickers make false promises of a better life. They paint unrealistic pictures of what life could be like with lots of money. They quickly befriend a person, showering them with gifts and displays of affection; this is particularly true of recruiters who will later force a girl into prostitution.
Do not make decisions under the influence of substances and do not be in the company of people you do not fully know and trust while intoxicated. Traffickers looking to put someone into prostitution will take advantage of unconscious people or someone who cannot fight being transported elsewhere. Traffickers will also attempt to take advantage of those with addictions or attempt to create drug dependency.
If someone, whether stranger or acquaintance, promises something that seems too good in return for sex or free work, wait. Listen to the intuitive voice inside your head, and check with family and friends for advice. Do Internet searches or background checks on the person wanting you to go with them. Say no and see how they react. Look for signs of abusive or possessive behaviors. Is the person trying to isolate you or turn you against family and friends? If so, avoid that person.
Runaways are at particular risk for being forced into prostitution. If leaving home because of abuse, try to find a safe place; Forsaken Generation has resources to locate shelters. Or call the runaway switchboard at 1-800-Runaway for help. If you are already on the streets, try to find a safe place like Children of The Night.
If coming from a life of poverty the lure of a better income or education is hard to resist. Check and double check if the agency or recruiters are reputable. Do they have references from people living where they want to send you? Make sure all contracts signed are in your native language, to understand all the details. Ask lots of questions. Find out from another source what a reasonable travel and recruiting expense would be. Ask for pictures of housing and names of people, companies, or schools that can be contacted. Human traffickers will typically avoid those who are asking too much; they want easy targets. Someone looking for a legitimate employee or student will honor the questions, knowing that you would be a valuable employee or student.
None of the above suggestions are foolproof. However, if these suggestions are implemented, then fewer people will become victims of human trafficking. Evil exists in the world. Protect yourself and family.