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.