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 Kelly Schafler

Editor, Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood

Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.



MOST RECENT

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.

Montgomery County will now include antigen cases in its total case counts. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Montgomery County to begin including antigen positive cases in COVID-19 daily reports

Antigen cases will now be included in total case counts. However, a breakdown of antigen versus PCR cases will be available.

The first food distribution event at the new location will take place Sept. 22 from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. or until supplies last. Food giveaways will take place twice per month thereafter. (Courtesy Northwest Assistance Ministries)
Northwest Assistance Ministries relocates semimonthly food distribution site near IAH

By relocating the site to Ecopark-IAH, the nonprofit will be able to supply 3,000 families with 70 pounds of food in one day.

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.

Houston Police Department is joining Harris County's cite-and-release program. (Courtesy HTV)
Houston Police Department to join Harris County cite-and-release program

Houston Police Department is joining Harris County's cite-and-release program.

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.

Vehicles drive alongside the Tomball Tollway in Harris County. (Anna Lotz/Community Impact Newspaper)
Newly formed corporation could divert Harris County toll road revenue to non-mobility projects

A new limited government corporation formed by Harris County Sept. 15 could result in surplus revenue from the Harris County Toll Road Authority going to other county needs outside of the realm of transportation and mobility.