A Facebook comment left on a story about Patricia Madison Cope’s arrest described a narrative law enforcement officials say is all too common in the sex trafficking world.
“Maddy was pulled into this situation as a minor herself … she was victimized, she was stuck,” the comment read. “I know she put herself in the initial situation, but the outcome is quite severe. She isn’t a monster, she isn’t heartless, she isn’t soulless and she doesn’t deserve the worst.”
Cope, 19, was one of four people arrested last November on federal charges of conspiracy to commit sex trafficking. The Clute woman could face a life sentence in federal prison for each of the five counts of sex trafficking.
Law enforcement officials, both federal and local, remain vigilant in their efforts to aid women with stories similar to Cope’s. But they and others know it will take an effort much more widespread to reach sex trafficking victims before they hit the point of no return.
“If they do get out, that road to recovery is really long and hard and traumatic, and 99 percent of kids who enter this life never make it out. That’s a horrible statistic,” said Kerri Taylor, director of UnBOUND Houston, a nonprofit organization aimed at sex trafficking awareness and prevention. “The time to rescue is not after they’re in it. If we can keep them from falling into the net first, that’s a much better strategy.”
As the issue of sex trafficking becomes more visible, Brazoria County educators are positioning themselves on the front line of combat.
“I don’t believe that there’s this little glass dome over Angleton ISD,” Superintendent Pat Montgomery said. “I have to believe that if it’s affecting kids to the north of us and kids to the south of us, it’s affecting us.”
Angleton ISD kicked off its awareness efforts with a meeting Monday, pooling their resources with Taylor and local FBI agents to bring the message to community leaders. The district will hold a similar meeting with parents Wednesday before bringing the discussion to junior high and high school students later this month.
“What we’re hoping is whatever sphere of influence anybody has, they go back and spread the word,” Montgomery said. “We are trying to include as many people that can have an impact on the issue.”
The primary goals of these talks are prevention and awareness, both for students and the adults around them, Taylor said.
“We want to talk to them about how ‘this is how it looks online, but this is how it looks in reality. This is how they make you feel, this is where they’ll take you to make you feel like you’re in the in crowd, and this is what will actually happen,’” she said. “We hope to make the kids savvy enough to look out for each other.”
Taylor also spent half a day last October training Brazosport ISD counselors on the warning signs of sex trafficking and available resources for potential victims, said Allison Jasso, the district’s coordinator of guidance and counseling.
“She basically shared with us overall information about how the people lure young girls and boys into the trafficking industry. You very rarely meet a girl that age that’s very self-confident, so the way the traffickers are luring them in is making them feel like they’re important,” Jasso said. “Then the table flips on them and it’s too late for them to escape.”
In December, the counselors presented the information they learned to the district’s principals and assistant principals, Jasso said.
The district was initially targeting the beginning of September for a program very similar to the one at Angleton ISD, but due to the influx of information, officials have decided to hold that program this month, Jasso said.
“With them about to go on a long break, the more information we can get to them, the better, so they can have a good safe summer,” she said.
A Brazosport ISD parent meeting with Taylor, Rennison and Arizmendi is tentatively scheduled for Monday evening in the ballroom at the Lake Jackson Civic Center, although details are still pending, Jasso said.
The district plans repeat that meeting with students the next week, with assemblies possibly taking place May 15 at Brazosport High School and May 16 at Brazoswood High School. Students will be divided by grade level and gender for the sessions, Jasso said.
“It’s a sensitive topic and uncomfortable for a lot of people, but I think we are too close to a port and international airports to where we can’t think that this can’t happen in our backyard,” Jasso said. “It can, it does and it will continue to.”
The FBI implemented Innocence Lost, a national initiative targeting domestic child prostitution, at its Washington, D.C., headquarters in 2003, said Special Agent Richard Rennision with the bureau’s Houston office.
A local task force often crosses paths with Innocence Lost as its agents in six counties, including Brazoria County, partner with local agencies to work federal crimes, including child sex trafficking, Rennison said.
“It’s state, local and federal agencies working together to combat a specific crime,” he said. “We handle any violation, whether it’s online child pornography or sex trafficking of minors.”
Task force agents try to gain the cooperation of sex-trafficking victims in the hopes the victim will lead them to their pimp, Rennison said. They also assist victims in receiving services they might need, such as medical attention and living arrangements that will hopefully hand them a ticket out of that life, he said.
“A lot of the victims have STDs or physical injuries from being beaten by their pimps,” Rennison said. “We also try long-term placements with them to help them to get out of the life because so many throwaway victims with no family support have nowhere else to go but back on the streets.”
Authorities can’t successfully investigate Brazoria County child sex-trafficking cases without the support of local law enforcement agencies, who have an institutional knowledge of the communities federal agents may lack, said Texas Department of Public Safety Special Agent Aaron Arizmendi, also a full-time task force officer with the FBI’s Houston office.
“Most of these investigations, we rely and depend on local agencies and investigators to provide support and assistance along the way. They are quite often much more familiar with the people in the community and the locations and common crimes among the individuals, so they provide a lot of assistance and support in these investigations,” Arizmendi said. “In Brazoria County, the district attorney’s office has not only looked to us for help on these cases, but has provided help to us along the way.”
Both area Texas House representatives, along with a state senator, agree the responsibility of fighting child sex trafficking cannot fall to any single agency.
“It is imperative for a number of state and local agencies who need to have a seat at the table, as this is a complex issue,” state Rep. Ed Thompson, R-Pearland, said via email.
Law enforcement and social workers must play a role in bringing “pimps” to justice and rehabilitating victims, Thompson said, and people need to know how to look for signs of a trafficking victim and where to report it.
While the Department of Public Safety, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s Office and the Department of Family and Protective Services play key roles, combatting sex trafficking requires a collaborative effort from all state agencies with direct and indirect involvement in law enforcement, victim support, child protection, and education and awareness, state Rep. Dennis Bonnen said.
“This comprehensive approach enables us to identify and pursue criminals who are trafficking the women and children, while also providing holistic care and resources to the victims being trafficked,” Bonnen, R-Angleton, said via email. “No one agency is equipped to handle the extremely complex issues of sex trafficking.”
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, also expressed the importance of legislators fostering coordination between state agencies, the private sector, and survivor and faith-based organizations from around the state.
“I cannot stress enough how serious this issue is for Brazoria County because of its close proximity to Houston, which is regrettably known as a hub for human trafficking,” said Huffman, a former prosecutor and criminal district court judge. “The state of Texas, in my opinion, should use all of the tools at its disposal to fight against human trafficking.”
During the 2015 legislative session, House Bill 10 removed a statute of limitations on the felony offense of trafficking children younger than 18 for sex, as well as including training and reporting requirements for education and criminal justice officials, Bonnen said. The bill also created a task force specifically focusing on child sex trafficking through Gov. Gov. Greg Abbot’s office, giving it a two-year budget of $6 million, he said.
The House has passed two pieces of legislation aimed at sex trafficking during this session, Bonnen said. House Bill 269 allows trafficking victims forced into prostitution to have those offenses expunged from their record.
House Bill 29 grants the attorney general’s office the ability to investigate human and sex trafficking as racketeering, also enabling trafficking victims to benefit from the crime victims compensation fund and requiring truck-driving schools to instruct students on how to look for signs of human trafficking on highways, he said.
“It is a form of slavery, plain and simple. That slavery still exists in our lifetime is despicable,” Thompson said. “Though we may not be able to help all global victims of this heinous crime, Texas can take a massive step forward in this issue by fighting it within our own borders.”