LAKE JACKSON — Newspaper clippings displaying stories of sex trafficking cases in Brazoria County were posted to a board ahead of an awareness event last week. Each served as a reminder that sex trafficking continues to be an issue in this county.
The packed room for a panel discussion about the issue shows that message might finally be resonating with the public.
“This is such a huge, complicated problem that no one can know all the pieces,” Vicki Kirby, director of the local chapter of Refuge for Women, told the audience at the Lake Jackson Civic Center. “We have to raise awareness, then comes prevention, then comes rescue, then comes after care.”
Refuge for Women Texas Gulf Coast chapter put together the event Thursday. All of the guest panelists showed expertise in their knowledge of trafficking and what signs present themselves when a victim is being groomed for what one participant called modern-day sex slavery.
Friends and family members need to watch for behavioral changes that could indicate a young girl or boy is being recruited for sex trafficking — something that can happen before a child even becomes a teenager, said Joshua Collins, victims chief coordinator for the Brazoria County District Attorney’s office.
“It’s very important for us to listen for key things that are going on,” Collins said. “Why is this person using drugs? Who is this person hanging with? We ask those that come into the DA’s office if they’re doing this voluntarily.”
A study from the University of Texas showed more than 313,000 cases of trafficking are reported in Texas alone, said Hilary Sherrer, communications manager for Houston-based nonprofit The Landing.
“How can we increase identification of victims? We have some safe houses and residential programs, but how do they get to those houses?” Sherrer said.
The Landing is a drop-in day service that provides for the basic needs of those who have been sold for sex and are working to resurrect their lives. It’s a safe place victims can come to without judgment and serves as a first step to getting someone out of the situation, Sherrer said.
“We asked how can we lower barriers so they can be helped right where they’re at, and we looked at a drop-in center as a model,” Sherrer said. “So it can be easy for someone to come in right off ‘The Track’ and meet their needs.”
The Track she referred to is a known hot spot in Houston where prostitution and trafficking thrive. When victims are coerced through violence or drug dependency, they don’t feel like they have the choice of leaving, Sherrer said.
Through legislation in Texas, elected officials are doing more than ever to severely punish buyers of these sex slaves, said Austin Arceneaux, communications director for state Sen. Joan Huffman, a strong anti-trafficking force in the Leguslature.
“Texas is taking a very strong approach,” Arceneaux said, pointing out Texas leads the nation in human trafficking. “During (the last legislative session) we funded anti-human trafficking programs more than we’ve ever had.”
The state is working to create special task forces within the governor’s office, ensure teachers undergo special training to look for trafficking signs and make sure every rape kit is tested despite its age, Arceneaux said.
Allison Jasso, a counselor for Brazosport ISD, has worked extensively with Houston UnBound, a nonprofit working to provide support and resources for those who’ve been exploited. She’s working within the schools to make sure everyone who interacts with students has sufficient sex trafficking training, she said.
“We worked with school nurses, then expanded to include our school police department so all our officers are trained on what to look out for,” Jasso said. “And then also our transportation department.”
The public was able to ask questions and meet with the panelists after the event, and Kirby hopes the opportunity helped alert residents to the real issues facing our neighborhoods and our youth, she said.
Refuge for Women Texas Gulf Coast chapter secured a safe house in Brazoria County and hopes to have it operating in late 2020, Kirby said.
It also is her goal to host another event that will include a person who can educate the public in Spanish in addition to English, Kirby said.
“It’s our goal that women can leave the homes and our program with dignity,” Kirby said.
For all the harshness victims face, she said, they at least deserve that.