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Houston a Focal Point as Advocates Target Sex Trafficking

As a new survey shows large counties across the U.S. identifying human sex trafficking as a major problem, federal lawmakers and advocates have pointed to Houston as a critical city in their efforts to address the issue.

By Ashley Hickey, Medill News Service
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, speaking at the National Press Club on April 29, 2014. Poe has coauthored a bipartisan bill with Democrat Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York to address human sex trafficking, a major problem in Houston and other Texas cities.

WASHINGTON — As a new survey shows large counties across the U.S. identifying human sex trafficking as a major problem, lawmakers and advocates have pointed to Houston as a critical city in their efforts to address the issue.

Thirty-three Texas counties were among 400 polled in a nationwide April survey of county sheriffs and police departments that revealed 48 percent of counties with more than 250,000 residents consider human sex trafficking a major problem. Nearly 90 percent of those counties said sex trafficking is a problem to some degree. The poll was released Tuesday by the National Association of Counties.

Human sex trafficking can refer to the recruiting, harboring, transportation or receipt of people for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Children, some as young as 12, are often the victims.

“Human trafficking is modern day-slavery,” said U.S. Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, who has co-authored a bill with U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., that aims to reduce demand for domestic sex trafficking and provide aid to trafficking victims. The House is expected to vote on the bill in May.

The bill would impose a $5,000 fine on anyone convicted of crimes related to trafficking and establish a fund within the Treasury Department to collect these fines and use them to award grants to organizations providing support to victims. 

Every year as many as 300,000 children in the U.S. are at risk for sexual exploitation, including sex trafficking, according to a 2011 Justice Department report.

Poe, a former judge who co-founded the Congressional Victims’ Rights Caucus, said that Houston is a hub for sex trafficking and is often a starting point for victims to be taken to other areas of the country.

The city’s proximity to the border and seaports make it a hub, according to Texas-based nonprofit Children at Risk, an advocacy and research organization that focuses on human trafficking in Texas. Robert Sanborn, president and CEO of the organization, said more must be done to end the demand that fuels trafficking.

“There are a lot of things we can do  — raise awareness, go after traffickers and put them away, treat the victims,” Sanborn said. “But the only way to really end it is end demand.”

Sanborn says Houston could decrease demand by continuing to push for stronger regulation of sexually oriented businesses such as strip clubs and massage parlors, where minors are often hidden away and victimized.

Increased police presence on internet sites selling adult and escort services can also help decrease demand, Sanborn said, citing success the Dallas Police Department has had posting ads warning that such sites are being monitored for anyone advertising services involving children.

In his March 20 testimony before the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee in a hearing on human trafficking, Houston Police Department Chief Charles McClelland spoke of the seriousness of this issue in Houston and measures his department is taking to address it, including the formation of a human trafficking unit intended to consolidate police resources for better tracking, quicker response and more thorough, focused investigations.

The public also has a role to play in alerting authorities to suspicious businesses that could be a front for a sex-trafficking operation, Sanborn said, many of which will have a combination of features like blacked-out windows, multiple video cameras, stickers supporting the local chamber of commerce and an iron gate behind the front glass door. These features may or may not indicate a sex trafficking operation, but Sanborn encourages the public to report them to local authorities.

“The best thing the public can do is call the city council and county commissioners, and be specific that these places need to be shut down,” Sanborn said. “The more pressure that gets put on the city council, the more action we see out of our police department.” 

And would-be traffickers and purchasers notice when the police take action.

“If they hear people are getting arrested and the police are engaged in this, that really has an impact on demand,” Sanborn said. “We have to make it difficult and a shameful experience where you have to jump through lots of hoops and obstacles to buy and you’re afraid.”

During a panel discussion on the issue Tuesday at the National Press Club, a trafficking survivor identified as Jessica M., 29, of California said her tale of abuse began when she was 11 years old and took her all over the country.

“I was even trafficked in front of the White House on K Street,” she said.

Jessica, who now mentors other victims of sex trafficking, spoke of the “recurring nightmares” and “shattered self-worth” she and other victims experience, adding that it is painful to hear victims referred to as “child prostitutes.”

“Don’t call us prostitutes,” she said, noting the term doesn't acknowledge the abuse the victims suffered and suggests consent was involved.

“Children cannot consent to sex,” Poe said. “They aren’t prostitutes. They are victims of a crime and need to be rescued.”

The Medill News Service is a content partner of The Texas Tribune and is providing reports from Washington, D.C.

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