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.
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.