Nonprofits, law enforcement, government officials move to curb sex trafficking growth in Katy

[gallery ids="314789,314795,314790,314791,314794,314793,314792"]

The Katy area is contributing to what Gov. Greg Abbott calls a statewide health crisis of human trafficking. Throughout greater Katy, law enforcement officials and nonprofit organizations see human trafficking–also known as modern slavery–as a growing problem, especially in the realm of forced prostitution.

“The heinous crime of human trafficking is not confined to some remote country; it is happening right here, [in Texas]” Abbott said by proclamation Jan. 5, declaring January to be Human Trafficking Prevention Month.

A December 2016 University of Texas at Austin report says 313,000 people were trafficked in Texas in 2016, 79,000 of whom were children.

Kelly Litvak, director for Childproof America, a Katy-based nonprofit that works to prevent child sex trafficking, said the problem is not just in downtown Houston as some may think. Litvak said there is evidence of brothels and trafficking along the I-10 corridor as well as along Mason and Fry roads.

“What makes Katy a high target community is a combination of things. Parents are unaware of the threat; therefore, their children are vulnerable to the threat [of being trafficked],” Litvak said.

Targeting tactics


According to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, 73.3 percent of the 13,897 human trafficking calls received during 2017 were related to sex trafficking. Of those, 27.6 percent of the victims they learned about were young Americans.

Human trafficking occurs when someone is held against their will and used for labor or sold. When the captive is sold for sexual purposes, human trafficking becomes sex trafficking.

At a Feb. 20 parent education seminar, speaker John Clark of Operation Texas Shield described the recruiting methods sex traffickers use to ensnare young Texans, typically between 12-14 years of age. Operation Texas Shield is a nonprofit organization that works to educate parents about the dangers of child sex trafficking and lobbies policy makers to improve laws against sex trafficking.

Clark said traffickers have a wide variety of tools available to them, especially with the prevalence of social media. Traffickers look for children going through difficult times, such as breakups or parents’ divorcing, and use social media and other manipulation tools to lure them into compromising positions.

Andrea Sparks, director of the governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team, said a multidisciplinary team that includes attorneys, counselors and law enforcement professionals will begin operations in the Houston area this spring to facilitate the prevention, prosecution and recovery of victims of child sex trafficking.

Childproof America has partnered with Fort Bend County Precinct 3 Constable Dwayne Thompson to prevent child sex trafficking from worsening.

The partnership is expected to improve officer training, Thompson said. The organizations are also working to develop a community outreach program that teaches residents about how children can be recruited into sex work. The hope, he said, is to prevent trafficking from occurring in the first place.

“A kid that’s been exposed to this—the horror is already there,” Thompson said. “You can’t undo sexual assault.”

Not just a problem for children


Many Katy-area brothels hold women against their will to provide sexual services, said Vanessa Forbes, intervention coordinator at Elijah Rising, a Katy-based nonprofit organization that works to intervene in the operation of brothels.

Along I-10, Mason Road and Fry Road, Forbes said she knows of at least 11 brothels, most of them staffed by women of Asian descent who are forced into prostitution.

The brothels are easy to identify, said Forbes. They are often in strip malls and disguised as reflexology salons or nail spas and have tinted or heavily-curtained windows.

It is not easy for police to move in on a brothel, Forbes said. Organizations like Elijah Rising and Childproof America help where they can. Elijah Rising’s staff keep an eye out for suspicious locations that advertise spa services and verify licensing through the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, the agency responsible for licensing those businesses.

The city of Katy is home to sex trafficking as well, but Forbes said it is more concealed there. Women trafficked for sex within city limits are often set up in apartments or delivered to people responding to online ads on sites such as www.backpage.com, Forbes said. This makes tracking illegal sex trade schemes more difficult.

Sex trafficking is growing in Katy, throughout Texas and nationally for a variety of reasons. Demand is increasing because online tools are available to protect the anonymity of sex buyers.

Additionally, trafficking is more lucrative with less risk than dealing drugs, Forbes said. A narcotic can be sold once and possession of a narcotic is illegal; meanwhile, a prostitute can be sold multiple times per day and it is hard to prove that a person in the company of a pimp is a prostitute being trafficked against their will.

Operation Texas Shield also cites prosecution as a challenge in the effort to stop sex trafficking. With 76 percent of money for sex transactions processed online, it is difficult to prosecute the crime because authorities do not easily see money change hands.

A difficult battle


Identifying and prosecuting sex trafficking crimes can be difficult, as is helping survivors recover, sources said. Lawmakers are moving to put preventive and punitive tools in the hands of law enforcement, though.

More than 60 percent of traffickers who go to court go free, Litvak said. Often, victims of sex trafficking have been mentally conditioned through abuse and coercion to defend their pimps in court, she said. Pimps often threaten to harm loved ones if the victim testifies.

According to Forbes and Litvak, this mental conditioning is one factor of complex trauma, a condition where the victim has been psychologically conditioned to such an extent they are unable to be rational about their situations.

Younger victims may be scared by threats to their family, or feel shame due to forced drug use, Litvak said.

Older victims may depend on their role as a sex worker to provide for their family, Forbes said.

U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-TX, introduced the Department of Homeland Security’s Blue Campaign Authorization Act of 2017, which was signed into law in October. The bill provides the Office of Homeland Security with tools to coordinate efforts between law enforcement partners to better combat human trafficking.

Other laws targeting trafficking are being developed and have a good chance to make it through Congress, Forbes said. One bill is the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, known as FOSTA, which was  passed by the House of Representatives Feb. 27. U.S. Rep. Pete Olson, R-Texas, who represents portions of Fort Bend, Harris and Brazoria counties, cosponsored and voted for FOSTA.

The bill would allow prosecution of websites providing advertising services to traffickers by closing legal loopholes, Forbes said.

State level measures include Abbott’s decision to include human trafficking in his Bicentennial Blueprint for the state when it was updated in January. Texas legislators including state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, are pitching in as well. Huffman has introduced multiple bills to improve prevention and prosecution of human trafficking as well as services for trafficking victims.

“With improved enforcement of these laws, victims will have a better opportunity to obtain the justice they deserve,” Olson said in a Feb. 27 press release.


MOST RECENT

The Harris County Department of Education lowered its tax rate for the 2020-21 fiscal year. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Harris County Department of Education lowers tax rate for 2020-21

For the average homestead valued at $182,484, that means taxpayers will contribute $9.11 to support its programs.

Another 1,372 new cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Harris County over the Sept. 19-20 weekend along with 48 deaths caused by the virus. (Community Impact staff)
Harris County coronavirus count: Texas Medical Center positivity rate under 5% for two straight weeks

A low positivity rate is one of three metrics medical center officials are tracking that they say may indicate a declining spread of the virus.

Free COVID-19 testing will be available to festival staff, participants and patrons every weekend of the festival this fall. (Courtesy Steven David Photography)
Free COVID-19 testing at Texas Renaissance Festival and more Houston-area news

Read the latest business and community news from the Houston area.

Here is the latest information on COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Fort Bend County. (Community Impact staff)
DATA: Fort Bend County sees 347 new coronavirus cases Sept. 11-17; hospitalizations dip to May levels

Here is the latest information on COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in Fort Bend County.

Free COVID-19 testing will be available to festival staff, participants and patrons every weekend of the festival this fall. (Courtesy Steven David Photography)
Texas Renaissance Festival to offer free COVID-19 rapid testing throughout season

Additionally, a free drive-thru testing site will be set up in Todd Mission on Sept. 19.

According to a Texas Supreme Court order, all eviction notices in the state must be accompanied with the CDC eviction order's declaration form. (Courtesy Pexel)
Texas Supreme Court issues order strengthening CDC eviction moratorium

The action aims to strengthen a federal order that renters' advocates say has been falling short in eviction court.

Hope Impacts has expanded its services to the Richmond and Rosenberg areas and is operating from an open space in their parking lot in order to follow CDC guidelines. (Courtesy Hope Impacts)
Katy-area homeless population still suffering effects of COVID-19, recession

Serving the Katy-area homeless population has become more difficult in the time of the coronavirus, according to Tina Hatcher, founder and executive director of Hope Impacts, a local NGO serving the homeless population in the area.

Dr. Sam Rolon is a physician for Baylor St. Luke's Medical Group Creekside Family Medicine in The Woodlands. (Courtesy St. Luke's Health)
Q&A: St. Luke's physician shares advice on flu season, vaccine and prevention

The influenza vaccine is recommended for nearly all patients of all ages ahead of this year's flu season, Dr. Sam Rolon said.

student in mask
TEA launches statewide COVID-19 dashboard for public schools

The Texas Education Agency, in collaboration with the Texas Department of State Health Services, has launched its latest COVID-19 dashboard for positive cases in Texas public schools.

The Houston Food Bank is looking for more volunteers as it handles increased food distribution during COVID-19. (Courtesy Houston Food Bank)
Houston Food Bank: COVID-19 pandemic amplifies already-high food insecurity rates across region

Before COVID-19, the Houston Food Bank distributed about 400,000 pounds of food daily. That number has since increased to about 1 million pounds a day.

Gov. Greg Abbott said Sept. 17 that data from Texas' 22 hospital regions will dictate when certain businesses can reopen at 75% capacity. (Screenshot of Sept. 17 press conference)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: Retail stores, restaurants, office buildings, gyms can reopen at 75% capacity as early as Sept. 21

Nursing home and long-term care facilities will also be allowed to reopen for visitation as early as Sept. 24.