Coffee with Impact: Local experts address misconceptions of human trafficking in Houston

Melissa Torres (left), director of the Human Trafficking Research Portfolio at the University of Texas at Austinu2019s School of Social Work, along with Sarah Koransky (center), who is an education specialist with nonprofit United Against Human Trafficking, and Christopher Sandoval (right), captain of the Special Investigations Division with the Harris County Sheriffu2019s Office, attended Community Impact Newspaperu2019s panel to discuss human trafficking in Houston.

Melissa Torres (left), director of the Human Trafficking Research Portfolio at the University of Texas at Austinu2019s School of Social Work, along with Sarah Koransky (center), who is an education specialist with nonprofit United Against Human Trafficking, and Christopher Sandoval (right), captain of the Special Investigations Division with the Harris County Sheriffu2019s Office, attended Community Impact Newspaperu2019s panel to discuss human trafficking in Houston.

Image description
Local experts address human trafficking
With awareness of human trafficking increasing nationwide in recent years, Texas and Houston-area governmental agencies are pushing to find out more about local sex and labor trafficking.

Community Impact Newspaper hosted a panel discussion March 1, inviting Melissa Torres, director of the Human Trafficking Research Portfolio at The University of Texas at Austin’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work, who studies the prevalence of human trafficking across Texas. The two other panelists were Sarah Koransky, education specialist with nonprofit United Against Human Trafficking, and Christopher Sandoval, captain of the Special Investigations Division with the Harris County sheriff’s office.

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 areas off [FM] 1960 and [I-45] are covered in motels, so we do target those areas on a regular basis during our operations. Anytime we’re doing operations up there … we’re cognizant of identifying individuals that are being trafficked and finding those pimps—if you will—that are trafficking the women, taking those individuals, holding them accountable and filing charges on them. … It’s everywhere. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in [or] what socioeconomic background you come from.

What are some common misconceptions you have heard 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, 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 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: [People think victims] need to be rescued, that they have this massive trauma that we need to serve them [for]. 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.

What are some red flags that someone is being trafficked?


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 [present]. … [However,] looking at the labor side, if you’re interacting with someone and they mention a debt to an employer, … unexplained injuries or unexplained jobs … 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—whose answering all those interview questions.

Can county and city planning and zoning pre-empt trafficking operations by not granting permits to specific businesses like massage parlors?


Sandoval: I think anything we can do to slow these massage parlors down or these types of businesses down is very beneficial. ... Whenever we do these [sting operations], we’re looking for as many violations as we can possibly get and it helps with identifying these locations as being nuisances. There’s a nuisance abatement that can be filed on them through the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, and that will slow and help shut them down ... The problem we run into is that’s a perfect plan in theory, but sometimes what will happen is these businesses will shut down and they will reopen under a different name. ... [Then] we have to go through that whole process of identifying, running the operation and presenting this information to the county attorney’s office.

Torres: I think [Sandoval] said a keyword in the beginning: it will slow it down. But illicit activities are going to happen ... despite the laws that are made [to prevent them]. ... Human trafficking is constantly changing, and there’s not one way it happens, so there’s going to have to be different ways it’s approached. ... They can help in the investigations and it can slow down the process, but human trafficking is already illegal, so they’re going to find ways to do it.

How has law enforcement’s handling of human trafficking changed or evolved in recent years?


Sandoval: I think the biggest way it’s changed and evolved in the last few years ... is that now we have a lot more resources, training [and] funds, and we’re paying more attention to victim advocacy. When we identify a victim of human trafficking, we’re not so prone to want to file charges on that individual for prostitution, for example. We’re more prone to help them and try to find a way to get them out of the situation they’re in. So there’s a lot more attention paid to helping the victim, identifying the individual as being a victim and doing all we can to get them the services and help they need to be able to get out of that situation they’re in. Law enforcement is very cognizant of that now, ... so resources, training and victim advocacy is extremely important.
By


MOST RECENT

The show is making a stop at Sam Houston Race Park this December. (Courtesy UniverSoul Circus)
Cy-Fair hosts events and more Houston-area news

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

Feign by Feign Boutique opened a second location in Humble in mid-October. (Courtesy Feign by Feign Boutique)
Feign by Feign Boutique opens in Humble area as second location for mother-daughter team

The Humble boutique offers clothing, footwear and accessories for women, men and children.

Houston residents can apply for $1,200 stimulus-style checks. (Courtesy Fotolia)
Houston residents can get $1,200 in aid and more popular area stories

Read the past week's most popular stories from the Houston area.

Council Member Robert Gallegos, Arturo Michel, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Ron Lewis.
Mayor announces changes among Houston’s top-level staff

Several key staff are retiring or leaving for new positions.

Montgomery County COVID-19 updates
Active COVID-19 cases double in Montgomery County since Nov. 17

Since Monday, active cases countywide have risen 13.1%, while four more deaths have been reported.

Community Impact Newspaper uses data from New Caney and Humble ISDs to compile weekly case counts. (Community Impact staff)
New Caney, Humble ISDs see sharp increase in active coronavirus case counts

Both districts have seen a large increase in active cases as compared to their pre-Thanksgiving numbers.

Doug Hooten was announced as the first executive director of Harris County Emergency Services District No. 11 on Dec. 3. (Courtesy Harris County Emergency Services District No. 11)
Harris County Emergency Services District No. 11 hires first executive director

Doug Hooten has 35 years of experience in EMS, according to a Dec. 3 press release.

Kings Crossing shopping center, located at the northwest corner of Kingwood Drive and West Lake Houston Parkway, will undergo renovations under new management. (Screenshot courtesy Kingwood BizCom and SDI Realty)
Kingwood's 'old H-E-B center' to undergo redevelopment, gain new tenants with acquisition

The Kings Crossing shopping center at the northwest corner of Kingwood Drive and West Lake Houston Parkway is being acquired by SDI Realty Advisors.

The Woodlands Township board of directors met at the township building Dec. 2. (Screenshot via The Woodlands Township)
COVID-19 patients in more than 15% of Montgomery County hospital beds; free testing seeing demand in The Woodlands

The percentage of COVID-19 patients occupying hospital beds in Montgomery County was more than 15% in early December.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Dec. 2 that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has allotted 1.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines to the state of Texas. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
First allotment of COVID-19 vaccinations expected to arrive in Texas in mid-December

About 1.4 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccines have been allotted to the state of Texas and will arrive the week of Dec. 14.

The East Montgomery County Industrial Park off Gene Campbell Road will welcome the Lowe's Distribution Center in July. (Courtesy East Montgomery County Improvement District)
Lowe's to bring 200 jobs to Montgomery County and more Houston-area news

Read the latest Houston-area business and community news.