Experts weigh in on efforts against human trafficking at Houston symposium

Law enforcement officials spoke on human trafficking at Houston's Junior League on Oct. 8, 2019.

Law enforcement officials spoke on human trafficking at Houston's Junior League on Oct. 8, 2019.

At a symposium on human trafficking on Oct. 8, experts noted the success Houston has had in fighting the problem but also the huge challenge that remains.

“Sadly it does happen regularly, especially here in Houston,” said U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, who hosted the event at the Junior League of Houston. “That’s why we’re here today—to learn how we as individuals and as a community can help eliminate this horrific crime.”

Experts on human trafficking, including law enforcement representatives from multiple city, state and nation-wide agencies, spoke on how to identify, prevent and help the victims of trafficking.

Katherine Chon, director of the Office on Trafficking in Persons and senior advisor on human trafficking at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said there were more illicit massage parlors with victims of human trafficking than there were Starbucks storefronts in the U.S.

“As we enter into the next 20 years, we really want to focus more on prevention within forced labor, prevention within sex trafficking, and prevention needs to be implemented at the local level,” Chon said.

In a panel discussion with law enforcement officials, Sgt. John Wall with the Houston Police Department said combating trafficking will require a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach between agencies.

“Last year, in 2018, we recovered almost 400 victims of human trafficking and we arrested 211 perpetrators in a one-year period, and that’s significantly more than we did last year because of all of our partners coming together,” Wall said. “There’s no way we could do this without collaboration between local, state and federal agencies.”

Jeanette Milazzo, a special agent with the FBI and supervisor of the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Task Force in Houston, said Houston had a broad range of trafficking victims.

“There’s what we called domestic minor sex trafficking, which tends to be more local in scale but still just as problematic because those are the victims that are from your communities who could be your neighbor, your schoolmates, your granddaughters, your daughters, and they’re American citizens,” Milazzo said. “They just get involved with the wrong people, or they get manipulated by what is usually an older male, and they are forced into prostitution but not in the way you would think.”

Milazzo said the mental manipulation traffickers put their victims through can be stronger than the physical force people often associate with forced prostitution, and a lot of manipulation can begin online through messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp.

“Parents can be diligent about monitoring their kids while they’re online. … It’s very important to be aware of who your kids are talking to, what websites they visit, and don’t be afraid to ask questions but also don’t be punitive or judgmental,” Milazzo said. “You don’t want to make them feel like they’re doing something wrong when in actuality they’re being manipulated by someone who’s much older and very sophisticated.”
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