With awareness of human trafficking increasing on a nationwide scale, Texas agencies as well as Houston-area law enforcement officers and advocacy groups have increased their push to find out more about sex and labor trafficking in our region.
Melissa Torres, director of the Human Trafficking Research Portfolio at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, is part of a team that has studied human trafficking in Texas. Her team released the Statewide Human Trafficking Mapping Project for Texas report in 2017, which detailed the extent of human trafficking across the state. For Phase 2 of the study, which Torres said will be released in early March, her research team investigated child sex trafficking in Texas.
On March 1, Community Impact Newspaper hosted a panel discussion with Torres along with Sarah Koransky, an education specialist with nonprofit United Against Human Trafficking, and Christopher Sandoval, captain of the Special Investigations Division of the Harris County sheriff’s office, to talk about how local agencies, organizations and advocacy groups are addressing human trafficking in the Greater Houston area.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Which areas of the Houston area have been designated “hotbeds” of human trafficking activity, and what is law enforcement doing to regularly monitor these areas?
Sandoval: Bissonnet [Street] is on our radar, we know that area to be a hotspot; the area off [FM] 1960 and [I-45] are covered in motels in that particular area, so we do target those areas on a regular basis during our operations. Anytime we’re doing operations up there we definitely, we’re cognizant of identifying individuals that are being trafficked and finding those pimps—if you will—that are trafficking the women, and taking those individuals and holding them accountable and filing charges on them. … It’s everywhere. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in, what socio-economic background you come from—it happens everywhere.
Torres: Research-wise, obviously larger metropolitan and urban areas have more incidents of trafficking. [Is it more prevalent there?] Not necessarily. … But Houston is really unique because it’s one of the only major cities that has a Vice Division for human trafficking. … It’s the only city that has a special consulate of human trafficking from the mayor. The history of Houston’s response to trafficking in particular is very interesting and far more concrete than a lot of other places. So the attention that’s been given to it is necessary but, obviously, differs in where it’s happening in other cities that haven’t paid attention to it or haven’t identified what’s actually going on.
What are some common misconceptions you’ve heard in your line of work about human trafficking?
Koransky: One misconception is that it’s only child sex trafficking. … While that’s certainly happening, and you probably understand the reason behind why that’s the focus, but studies have shown over and over again that labor trafficking is much more likely to be prevalent. … [Another misconception is] where it’s happening. People they don’t necessarily want to believe and connect that it’s happening in schools, for example, or that it’s happening or that it’s possible that it could happen to their kids or their neighbors, or that their neighbors or their kids are the ones doing it.
Torres: One of the biggest ones—there’s several—is the needs of the victim. [People think victims] need to be rescued; they have this massive trauma that we need to serve them. I’m not dismissing that, but the assumption that that’s all they need and that’s all we need to provide [is wrong]. They’ve more than likely been in an exploitative relationship because they’ve already had vulnerabilities that haven’t been addressed, and not addressing those is just going to put them back into that circle of violence because violence is cyclical. This rescue mentality versus assisting them in what they’ve been crying out for and needing, or asking for and being ignored. So I think the response, a lot of times, is a huge misconception, as well, and it takes the agency of the victims and survivors.
What are the signs of someone who is being trafficked?
Sandoval: I think some of the things we’ve seen in young women is if you see them with new items, cellphones, gifts, things that you’ve never seen them with before. Maybe they’ve been injured, and they can’t explain the injuries or something along those lines. These are things that we as parents, as friends and family members, need to be cognizant of, because they could be at the point where they are being trafficked and have already been approached by someone who is doing this to them. If they have an older boyfriend or they’re talking to older individuals that they otherwise wouldn’t be talking to, that could be a sign of something going on.
Koransky: We talk a lot about red flags and indicators and things to keep an eye out for, and it’s never a checklist. It’s never: If all of these things are present, it must be human trafficking or if one of these things is. It can change from situation to situation. … Looking at the labor side, if you’re interacting with someone and they mention a debt to an employer, for example, that could be considered a red flag … or things like unexplained injuries or unexplained jobs. … If someone comes into the ER and they say that they got hurt at work, but they can’t explain what they do for work, for example, that should be a red flag. … Or scripted communication: If you’re interacting with someone and they have that buddy that’s accompanying them, that person that’s controlling the conversation—especially when law enforcement’s involved—who’s answering all those interview questions. … So things like that can be considered a red flag, and so much more.
Watch the full Coffee with Impact panel: