At a Feb. 7 meeting, following human trafficking awareness month, Fort Bend County commissioners registered the Creating Opportunities through Rehabilitation and Empowerment specialty court for juveniles with the Texas Office of Court Administration. The court provides counseling and mentorship for youth who are victims of or at risk of becoming subject to sex trafficking.

These services are offered in collaboration with the juvenile justice system, local school entities, behavioral health services and community-based resources.

County Court Judge No. 4 Toni Wallace—who presides over the commercially sexually exploited persons court—said at least 57 girls were referred to and completed the CORE program since its inception in 2016. Wallace said designating the program as a specialty court with the state would give them additional funding opportunities to expand the program and address the needs of all victims throughout the county.

“I am adamant about really making sure that people are aware that human trafficking transcends socioeconomic boundaries, it transcends academic and educational boundaries,” Wallace said. “There are victims of trafficking that come from neighborhoods all over this county. There is nothing that is going on in [places like] Katy that is not going on everywhere else.”

In the CORE program, every participant has access to counseling and treatment plans, Wallace said. The counseling can be for an individual or their family and also addresses drug use, aggression intervention or any issue that might make youth susceptible to becoming victims, she said.

The program also provides volunteering mentors and guest speakers who offer life skills training, as well as tutoring and GED programs.

Wallace defined human trafficking as a system whereby these youth are being forced to engage in sexual behavior that they are not choosing to do.

“We have to make that distinction because there is the category of people who choose to engage in those kinds of things voluntarily,” Wallace said. “We're talking about forced labor. We're talking about circumstances whereby they are induced and persuaded against their will to participate in sexual behavior without commercial gain for themselves.”

Wallace said the methods used to track youth have modernized through social media, where those who target potential victims have become extremely savvy. She said she engages with teenagers often to show how social media can expose them to someone with ill intent.

“It's not the weird-looking person walking down the street; it is somebody who is very sophisticated in how they approach and how they track these young victims,” Wallace said. “They use the terminology they are familiar with. They use the music they love. I see the impact that the trafficking industry has on our youth. It is very real, and it is happening in schools and neighborhoods across Fort Bend County.”