Hidden In Plain Sight

To Prevent – Recognize & Report: Jackson advocates for human trafficking awareness and prevention through the “Not in My City” campaign

As she came out of the restroom stall, she noticed the young girl at the wash basin; disheveled was the adjective that came to mind, and “wow, she must be freezing.” The girl of about 16 was wearing a tank top, jeans and flip flops. But this was a cold January day in Central Texas.

At first, the woman thought the girl must come from a poor family, not being able to afford proper winter shoes and coats. But then, she saw the bruises around her wrists, the frightened, distraught look in her eyes. And the woman remembered the poster she had seen recently about human trafficking. This girl might have been abducted from warmer climates and on her way to who knows where, under duress.

“Are you okay?” she enquired. The girl, looking down, ever so slightly shook her head, as she wiped her nose with the back of her hand.

Knowing that time was of the essence, the gesture was enough for the woman to call 9-1-1. This young girl needed law enforcement to rescue her from whoever was making her this scared. And the phone call was easily made, did not get her involved, but it helped save a life.

To some, this scenario might seem implausible. But unfortunately, it’s all too real along highways in the Heart of Texas. Whereas the slave trade was technically abolished in 1807, it remains very much alive today. Human trafficking has more than 40 million victims worldwide – child labor in developing countries, immigrant workers in sweat shops, youth in the sex trade is all modern-day slavery.

In Texas, there are around 313,000 victims of human trafficking statewide including almost 79,000 minors and youth victims of sex trafficking and nearly 234,000 adult victims of labor trafficking, according to a recent University of Texas study. Awareness and prevention are the first lines of defense in the fight against this fastest growing degrading and despicable criminal industry in the world.

With January serving as Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month, Bosque County Republican Party Chair and concerned citizen Janet Jackson organized an awareness campaign on Jan. 30. With her efforts, she joins the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition – Bosque, Falls, Freestone, Hill, Limestone and McLennan counties – in the “Not In My City” outreach.

Joining forces with Jackson was Sally Griffiths, who had headed up a “Not In My City” campaign in 2016. Griffiths formerly worked at the Texas Attorney General’s office, in the Crime Victims Services Division. Former social worker Sarah Cady also assisted. She and her husband own SoZo Transit in Meridian, and are encouraging their drivers to recognize and to report, as well as become Truckers Against Trafficking.

Truckers Against Trafficking is a national organization raising up a mobile army of transportation professionals to assist law enforcement in the recognition and reporting of human trafficking, in order to aid in the recovery of victims and the arrest of their perpetrators. They have a training video explaining why they join the fight against human trafficking.

In the past, other Bosque County organizations – like the Womack Zion United Church and Clifton’s First Baptist Church – sought to bring human trafficking awareness to the county. Now, the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition represents a multi-disciplinary, collaborative effort to combat human trafficking in the Heart of Texas region.

“We are committed to making the Heart of Texas a safe place for our children, a healing place for survivors, and a dangerous place for traffickers,” the HOTHTC website states.

HOTHTC does so by increasing community awareness for the prevention and identification of human trafficking victims; increasing investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases at a local, state and federal level, and  providing coordinated, comprehensive, trauma-informed services to the individualized needs of human trafficking victims. For more information, go to HOTHTC.org.

“I was saddened by recent newspaper accounts to realize we have occurrences of this [human trafficking] at home,” Jackson said in her invitation to friends to join her efforts. “As I have learned more, I realized this hidden human catastrophe is overwhelming in scope. Twenty percent of all sexual and labor human trafficking is attributed to Texas.

“With Houston and Dallas as two of the top cities with this going on, Waco is mapped as part of the Red Triangle in Texas for trafficking. And this affects the surrounding communities, including ours.”

Human trafficking is one of the most significant issues facing communities today, yet it is commonly misunderstood and often undetected. Simply put, human trafficking takes place any time a person is forced, tricked, or manipulated into providing labor or sexual service for someone else’s financial gain. Or anytime a child is involved in a commercial sex act, whether or not there is someone directly forcing them to do so. Often victims are “hidden in plain sight,” which makes awareness and prevention key focus points for organizations involved. 

Part of the “Not in My City” outreach is helping people understand who’s affected, what makes someone vulnerable, and warning signs that someone is being trafficked. The program educates on how traffickers lure people in and maintain control over them, and it gives resources to assist those exploited and concrete steps of how to enlist aid.

“It is our intention to run an outreach campaign within the county to educate our citizens on the prevalence of sex and labor trafficking that can infect our county,” Jackson said. “We will be asking high schools to allow programs along with healthcare facilities and businesses.

“We are very pleased Bosque Coiunty Sheriff Trace Hendricks plans to join the coalition, along with the McLennan and Bellmead Sheriff Departments. Bosque County Chief Deputy Larry Betik will be attending training provided by the Coalition later this month in Fairfield specifically for law enforcement.”

Under the motto “No one person can do everything, but every one of us can do something,” Jackson enlisted attendees to her informational presentation to distribute posters to schools, churches, restaurants and convenience stores in Bosque County. The bi-lingual posters with the National Human Trafficking Hotline number pose the questions “Do you feel trapped?” and “Do you know someone who is?” as well as “End Human Trafficking in your Community – you can help, you can get help.”

In one of his first 2016 major initiatives, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton formed the Trafficking Transnational/ Organized Crime Section (HTTOC), tasked with combating human trafficking across the state. As designated by the Texas Legislature in Senate Bill 72, the Office of the Attorney General also leads the Human Trafficking Prevention Coordinating Council, which is tasked with creating a strategic plan to halt and prevent human trafficking in Texas.

The following link is the hour-long “Be the One” campaign documentary / training video that highlights cases and law enforcement actions in the battle against human trafficking.

“You are the one person, the one moment, the one act that can save a life,” Paxton says in conclusion of the documentary. “You have the power to be the one.

Like in any market dynamic— where the demand exists, someone will step up ready to supply. This remains very much the case in exploitative labor trafficking and the lurid sex trade business.

Detectives at the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office working with Homeland Security regularly organize undercover stings, leading to many arrests. As disturbing as it may be, children represent as much as 27 percent of sex trafficking victims. In the United States, as many as 300,000 children between the ages of 12-18 years old are part of sexual enslavement.

Established in Waco, Unbound supports survivors and resources communities to fight human trafficking. With locations in the United States and around the world, Unbound believes that together, we can end human trafficking and ignite hope. Visit the Unbound website here: https://www.unboundnow.org/

According to Unbound, social media and apps custom-designed to ensure anonymity along with the internet providing an abundance of sex-related websites continues to drive the numbers up. In these targeted stings, McLennan County detectives pose as “Johns,” a pimp or a male prostitute. With all the online chatrooms and other Social Media outlets, the ease and speed in which a child can be bought and sold for sex in the area has become alarming.

During January 2021 alone, Waco-area new services such as KWTX, KXXV, KCEN and the Waco Tribune-Herald were filled with human trafficking articles:

1/4/21 – Deputies Snare Man in Online Central Texas Child Prostitution Ring

1/7/21 – Sting leads to Waco Man’s Arrest on Trafficking, Prostitution of a Minor Charges

1/11/21 – Man Charged in Local Sex Trafficking Sting

1/14/21 – Bruceville-Eddy Man Arrested in Online Sex Sting, Charged with Human Trafficking

1/14/21 –- Man Caught in Sting Accused of Seeking Sex with Underage Girl

1/22/21 – Human Trafficking and Slavery Prevention Month: Experts Share Tips for Spotting and Stopping Human Trafficking 

1/25/21 – 6 Arrested by Robinson Police, DPS in Online Solicitation Sting

1/26/21 –- Deputies Arrest Area Police Officer in Child Sexual-Assault Case

1/26/21 – Bruceville-Eddy police officer arrested in child sex assault, prostitution case

Besides the San Antonio, Dallas, Houston triangle between IH-35 and IH-45, Waco represents a sex trafficking hub. Bosque County lies between IH-35 and Highway 6 on the way to Abilene, providing another hub.

Additionally, the high poverty rate in Bosque County makes youth vulnerable to being “groomed”— lured away from their community and into sex slavery. Parents with a methamphetamine addiction – a problem in Bosque County – will go to great lengths to get money to satisfy their drug, to the point of renting out their children for money.

Often confused with human trafficking, human smuggling involves illegal border crossings. In fact, the crime of human trafficking does not require any movement whatsoever. Survivors can be recruited and trafficked in their own home towns, even their own homes. Many survivors have been trafficked by romantic partners, including spouses, and by family members, including parents.

Many victims don’t realize they are human trafficking victims. Traffickers are often expert manipulators and may lead their victims down a path of exploitation –  filled with lies, false promises and coercion. This makes it very difficult for victims to reach out for help, either from fear, false beliefs, or lack of awareness.

Traffickers look for vulnerabilities as they target victims. In labor trafficking, common vulnerabilities include being from another country, uncertain documentation status, lack of economic opportunity and low levels of formal education. In sex trafficking, common vulnerabilities include homelessness, history of abuse, involvement in the commercial sex industry, substance abuse and more. For child sex trafficking, other common vulnerabilities include low self-esteem, familial strife, running away, being in foster care and more.

Although these are common themes, anyone can be a victim. Today's youth face unprecedented challenges, risks and pressures, which are intensified through social media and the internet. They are becoming more isolated, less empathetic and more prone to engage in unsafe behaviors, especially within the online world.

Add to that the challenges many youth face in their home environments, resulting in bad odds regarding resisting the traps set by those who would seduce, manipulate and exploit them with promises of love and belonging.

The following clip from Unbound portrays a few scenarios in which people are seduced into modern-day slave trade, and how Unbound aims to combat that slavery on all levels.

As part of her research, Jackson visited the Austin Bullock Museum’s exhibit “Not Alone – Working Together in the Fight Against Human Trafficking.”

Not Alone educates visitors about human trafficking and aims toward empowering visitors to not just be bystanders, but upstanders – in identifying trafficking and becoming advocates for themselves and others. Visit the Bullock Museum exhibit here: https://www.thestoryoftexas.com/visit/exhibits/not-alone

The Bullock exhibit highlights organizations like Unbound, Love 146, A-21, the Polaris Project and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office on Trafficking in Persons.

As organizations and concerned citizens work to prevent trafficking and strengthen the protective factors of communities, education of vulnerable groups and professionals like teachers, doctors and churches about the warning signs remains vital. If you see the “Not In My City” Outreach poster, take the time to read its important message.

A former law enforcement officer, Gus Patton attended the presentation by Jackson and volunteers to speak at schools for “Not in My City.”

“It is a dirty, Godless deal,” attendee to Jackson’s presentation Gus Patton said. “As you put up the posters, keep the victims in your hearts.”

In human trafficking cases, an ounce of prevention is not worth a pound, but more like a ton, of cure. Numbers to call if you suspect human trafficking in your community, city or county include:

  • 9-1-1: for emergencies and immediate danger, call 9-1-1.
  • The National Human Trafficking Hotline: 24/7, confidential and multilingual. Call 1-888-373-7888 or text “help” to BEFREE (233733).
  • Unbound 24 hour Crisis Response and Referral Line: Text or call 254-414-0814.
  • Unbound Non-Emergency: 254-757-2333.

“What I want is to dilute that red triangle,” Jackson said. “I want to make it too hard for the perpetrators to do their dirty business in Bosque County.”

And like the concerned woman coming to the aid of a frightened, lost young girl, calling 9-1-1 probably saved her life. Just one more phone call to the National Human Trafficking Hotline or Unbound Crisis Response would get that very same girl on her way to recovery and maybe a better, safer life.

Photos by SIMONE WICHERS-VOSS

©2021 Southern Cross Creative, LLP. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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