By Steven Olender
In the state of Texas, there are nearly 79,000 victims of sex trafficking under the age of 18, according to a study published in January by the Institute on Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault (IDVSA) at the University of Texas. When numbers are that large, it can be difficult to reconcile that each represents a child being exploited through prostitution, pornography or other sexual acts so that a trafficker can profit off of them. It can be difficult to think that this is happening in our country, in our state, in our community.
“A lot of people are surprised to hear that these are children from our community being sold or purchased for sex by other members of our community,” says Team Leader Charron Sumler. There is a conception when it comes to trafficking, this is a thing that happens elsewhere.
“There’s some comfort in not acknowledging that this happens in our community,” says Chief Program Officer Emily Rudenick LeBlanc. “We all feel a little safer.” But not acknowledging the problem doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. “There are recruiters in every middle and high school in Austin right now – every elementary school – looking for victims,” says LeBlanc. “No one is immune to this, no race, class, gender or socioeconomic status. It’s easy to stereotype what a vulnerable kid looks like. We are never going to curb the problem if we can’t get over the fact that it is happening everywhere.”
The effect on children is staggering. The trauma that we see in children who have suffered abuse or neglect stays with them for life, but children who have been trafficked, who are repeatedly victimized by multiple abusers, have their trauma compounded. Trauma rewires the brain, halting emotional growth and causing large portions of the brain not to develop. Children who have been trafficked often find themselves trapped in fight, flight or freeze mode, unable to build relationships or self-regulate.
Travis County’s judges have moved forward, training in how to respond to this issue, but the resources in our community simply don’t exist to solve this problem, especially not on the scale necessary. Right now, only one housing option, Lifeworks, exists for children who are not in the CPS system. For those in CPS care, shelters like Austin Children’s Shelter and residential treatment centers like Freedom House offer some services, but most placements are ill equipped to provide the sort of care necessary.
In December, we will see an addition to this list from The Refuge, a long-term therapeutic ranch on 50 donated acres that will help 11- to 17-year-old girls with a full array of services, from a school and clinic to multiple therapeutic modalities all on the same campus. The program recognizes that for children who have suffered the compound trauma of domestic minor sex trafficking, time and comprehensive care are needed to heal.
Even with The Refuge, there are still major gaps in resources, a fact that is readily apparent to Governor Abbott, who is putting forward state resources to confront the issue in our state. In Austin, a coalition of local programs dedicated to ending this crisis, the Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Work Group, has formed to identify and fill these gaps. Led by John Nehme, the CEO of Allies Against Slavery, the group has identified several missing resources in our community, including case management, a drop-in center and both emergency and long-term housing. Additionally, more trauma-informed counselors, substance abuse services and prevention programs are necessary to build strong support systems for victims.
More community education is necessary to begin to confront this problem. “When we look at kids who have been victims of trafficking, it is easy to distance ourselves and say ‘I would never do that,’” says Alejandro Victoria, Team Leader for CASA’s Teen Advocacy and Permanency Project. “The most important thing is to remember humanity.” The Refuge’s Executive Director, Brooke Crowder explains further. “Traffickers are not people that snatch kids and take them off to other states. They are actually very cunning and form relationships with kids in such a way that they earn their trust.”
The process of grooming children to be trafficked seems innocuous at first, with getting to know their victims and offering compliments. Over time, traffickers ingratiate themselves, acting sweetly and preying on the needs kids aren’t having met, offering understanding (“No one should treat you the way you’ve been treated. Let me take care of you.”), a sense of love and belonging, or even basic needs like food and shelter. Eventually, it progresses to physical and sexual abuse. “People don’t understand the severity of the psychological breakdown that occurs,” explains Sumler. “They have been groomed, used, beaten until they understand there is no one who can meet their needs other than their trafficker.” Often youth, who have not learned what healthy relationships look like, believe that they are in a relationship with the person trafficking them. Because it happens slowly at first and because of when trafficking begins, it can be difficult to detect. “Parents might see behavior changes, but it’s happening at the same time as puberty,” says Crowder. “Sometimes they just write it off as that when really it’s something far more sinister.”
While any child could be a victim of trafficking, the IDVSA study singled out children who have been abused or neglected as particularly at risk. “Our kids are a population that traffickers seek,” explains Sumler. “They are kids who seek love, seek attention, seek basic needs that they not getting met, so they are vulnerable.”
“It’s not hard for traffickers to offer them a better life than they’ve got,” adds LeBlanc. It’s a fact that is exacerbated by necessary policies in foster care that create physical and emotional boundaries between children and their placements for the purpose of keeping kids safe. For children who have experienced trauma, if foster parents have not had specialized training in working with kids from difficult places, this can mean kids miss out on vital elements of nurturing, making them more vulnerable to exploitation.
These considerations make CASA’s role in combatting domestic minor sex trafficking even more apparent. “We are in a unique position to be able to recognize trafficking situations when other people haven’t,” says LeBlanc. “As we are doing our work to advocate for the best interest of a child, it is likely we will see what other people aren’t seeing, so it’s important to be educated on signs and what resources are available and to bring it to the judges’ attention if we suspect it is happening.”
With intervention and care, it is possible for victims of trafficking to heal, but it is not easy. “The trauma that has occurred has truly rewired their brains and affected them neurologically and physiologically,” says Crowder. “That takes a while to undo but it can be undone and we can give them the tools to lead productive and victorious lives.”
It is not easy, though, as LeBlanc explains. “Once someone is entrenched, they don’t see other options. It’s going to take multiple attempts. It’s going to take forming a relationship with someone they believe cares about them.”
“You have to normalize these kids. They don’t know normal,” says Victoria. “How do you give them the opportunity to know normal?” It can’t just stop at normalcy, though as children who have experienced trauma, especially the compound trauma of trafficking, are particularly sensitive to fears of lacking basic needs. If they don’t feel secure that their needs will be met, that they will be taken care of and that they will be provided a better life with more options, they will seek out people who provide them the options they feel they need.
Ultimately, our whole community must confront domestic minor sex trafficking. It takes a whole community to say that this is not a place that will tolerate even one child being trafficked, let alone 79,000. The community must fill resource gaps, supporting different organizations doing work on the ground and getting involved themselves, so that we can support the healing of children who have already been victimized and future victims currently being groomed.
“By the time you are looking for red flags, the trafficking’s already started,” explains LeBlanc. “While that’s important, it’s even more important that we stop it before it starts.” That will require education, for ourselves and for the people in the community, but also for children. By educating kids about healthy relationships, healthy ways to give and receive love, physical touch and boundaries, we can help to prevent trafficking. “Honestly, I think the most important thing they can do is take an interest in a kid’s life,” LeBlanc explains. “Ultimate prevention comes down to the idea that it takes a village and making sure our village is watching out for every child.”
Learn more in the Texas Tribune’s recent series on trafficking, Sold Out.
Advocacy April 2017