County amends approach to human trafficking victims

In an effort to help vulnerable populations, the Texas Legislature and Harris County have been making changes to better serve victims of human trafficking.

A new Texas law went into effect Sept. 1 to make it tougher for human traffickers to exploit children. House Bill 10 has several provisions to protect minors involved in the crime, including eliminating the statute of limitations on offenses against a child.

“You literally had a 31-0 vote in the Senate because it’s just such a terrible underworld area for kids to be involved in sex trafficking and prostitution,” state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, said.

Bettencourt, a co-sponsor of the bill, said another provision in the law requires the Texas Education Agency to develop reporting policies for children who could be involved in trafficking.

“One of the patterns is that these kids are put into schools from time to time, and if that’s the case we want pattern recognition,” Bettencourt said.

Human trafficking is a criminal enterprise where people are sold for sex work or labor. Harris County is the only area in the country that had a Department of Justice human trafficking task force established prior to 2010.

Harris County Assistant District Attorney Ann Johnson said that while Houston is recognized as a hub for human trafficking, there has been a shift in the last few years that has changed the way victims are treated in the criminal justice system.

“Now our focus is not only to try to identify and rescue victims, but to prosecute exploiters,” Johnson said.

That was not always the case, she said.

“In the old days, there was a focused prosecution on those involved in prostitution, and now there’s a renewed focus by law enforcement and everyone else to look at the surrounding circumstances of that individual,” she said.

Both the Texas Legislature and Harris County have made an effort to curb human trafficking and help offenders, she said. At the county level, one of those efforts is the formation of Survivors Acquiring Freedom and Empowerment Court, which assists first-time and some repeat prostitution offenders between ages 17 and 25. Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said his team works to shut down operations in Cy-Fair as well.

“As quick as you shut these places down, a new one will open up again,” he said. “If it looks suspicious and you don’t feel right about it, call our guys and let us check it out.”