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How hollow rhetoric and a broken child welfare system feed Texas' sex-trafficking underworld

Texas leaders have publicly battled sex trafficking for more than a decade, but they’ve devoted hardly any resources to helping victims.

By Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune, Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune
Pimps send their victims to "walk the track" on a stretch of Bissonnet Street in Houston. Anti-trafficking efforts in Texas have focused more on putting pimps in prison than rehabilitating their prey.
Sold Out

How the crusade against sex trafficking in Texas has left child victims behind.

When Mia was 16, she walked out of a Houston children's emergency shelter. She had to go, she told the staff. Her pimp was waiting.

It was 2013, the day before Thanksgiving. She was almost 200 miles from Corpus Christi, where she grew up.

Mia had been raised by her grandparents and, after they died, by her drug-addicted mother. When her mother went to prison, other relatives took her in.

By the time she was 10, behavioral problems landed Mia in a psychiatric hospital. That's where a state-appointed lawyer told her, as gently as she could, that the aunt and uncle Mia had been living with no longer wanted her.

She entered Texas’ long-term foster care system. For the next six years, she cycled through 19 different homes and institutions. She was brutally punished in some of those places — thrown to the ground and restrained, made to stand on milk crates for hours — and sexually assaulted. She attended nine different schools. She wound up in the emergency room twice for suicidal thoughts.

After Mia ran from one foster care facility, police found her in a park; she told them she had been having sex for money. She ran away again, and authorities sent her to the Houston emergency shelter. That's where, 15 minutes later, she ran for the final time, back into the arms of her pimp. 

Like too many kids in the state's care, she disappeared into the underworld of sex trafficking.

Mia was still missing a year later, in 2014, when a massive class-action lawsuit against the state's long-term foster care system went to trial. Lawyers had named Mia the lead plaintiff on behalf of all 12,000 children in the system. Federal District Judge Janis Jack would later rule the state had mistreated those children so severely that it violated their civil rights.

Buried in Jack's 2015 decision — and largely missed in subsequent discussions about foster care in Texas — was the fact that Mia was a victim of a crime that top Texas leaders have been publicly battling for more than a decade.

Sex trafficking is "one of the most heinous crimes facing our society," Attorney General Ken Paxton told reporters at a January news conference, flanked by posters with pictures of kids that read "I AM NOT FOR SALE." Gov. Greg Abbott made the fight against sex trafficking — which he calls "modern day slavery" — one of the 10 key issues of his gubernatorial campaign, and he previously spent years focused on it as attorney general. Neither Abbott nor Paxton agreed to an interview.

Yet for all the energy the state's leaders pour into anti-sex-trafficking rhetoric, most of their focus has been on arresting and convicting pimps, not rehabilitating their prey.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called sex trafficking "one of the most heinous crimes facing our society" at a recent press conference. Estimates suggest there are 79,000 child victims of sex trafficking in Texas.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton called sex trafficking "one of the most heinous crimes facing our society" at a recent press conference. Estimates suggest there are 79,000 child victims of sex trafficking in Texas. Marjorie Kamys Cotera for The Texas Tribune

They've devoted hardly any resources to the victims whose testimony is essential to putting sex traffickers behind bars. They have also failed to confront the role the child welfare system plays in providing a supply of vulnerable kids to criminals waiting to exploit them.

Eighty-six percent of missing children suspected of being forced into sex work came from the child welfare system, national data show, and a state-funded study estimated that the vast majority of young victims in Texas had some contact with Child Protective Services. Interviews with law enforcement and child advocates around the state tell a similar story. 

Dallas Police Detective Michael McMurray has worked child sex-trafficking cases, many involving foster children, for more than a decade. He used to believe that going after criminals would be the most effective anti-trafficking strategy. He called it the McMurray Theory. 

"We'll put all these pimps, all these traffickers in prison, and the word will get out, and people won't be doing this anymore because they'll be too afraid to go to prison. And that'll solve the problem," he said. 

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But after 10 years of locking up sex traffickers, the lack of progress frustrates him.

"The McMurray Theory is not working out too well," he said. 

A common story

Stories like Mia's are tragically common: Recent estimates suggest Texas is home to some 80,000 child sex-trafficking victims, kids who — in one way or another — end up being sold to adults for sex. 

The Texas Tribune has uncovered dozens of these cases buried in criminal files and unfurled in interviews with prosecutors, caseworkers, police officers and victims' advocates over five months of reporting. 

Over the next week, the Tribune will tell the stories of four young women trafficked for sex after being failed by the state's most fundamental safety nets. 

There's Jean, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who at 16 turned to a Dallas pimp for food, shelter and affection amid a slow-burning crisis in the state's foster care system.

And Lena, a foster child who at 17 became one of the youngest inmates in the Harris County Jail, even though authorities knew she was a victim of child sex trafficking.

And Yvette, who was convicted in San Antonio of trafficking a minor two days after her 23rd birthday, despite suffering at the hands of the man who pimped them both out.

And Sarah, a 16-year-old from Austin who gave police a rare cause for hope after landing a spot at the state's only treatment facility for sex-trafficking victims.

Potential johns circle an area known for prostitution in Houston. Pimps wait nearby in strip mall parking lots.

Potential johns circle an area known for prostitution in Houston. Pimps wait nearby in strip mall parking lots. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

Each of their pimps was punished under the law. None of the girls got the help they needed.

Empty laws, hollow programs

State officials say they have taken steps to address Texas' sex-trafficking problem. Texas was one of the first states to pass a law defining human trafficking, in 2003. Lawmakers have piled on with additional legislation — and great fanfare — in virtually every legislative session since.

They've made it easier to prosecute men and women who exploit minors, as well as the buyers who seek to purchase sex with them. They've established a special team inside the attorney general's office to help unravel sex-trafficking rings. 

Top state leaders routinely trumpet the law enforcement stings that round up suspected traffickers. Most recently, Paxton's office claimed a minor role in arresting the chief executive of Dallas-based, one of the largest online advertisers of commercial sex.

Thousands of state government employees have received training to help them identify potential sex-trafficking victims. Child welfare officials also say they are doing a better job of tracking down runaways like Mia, who are among the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation. 

But the state's child welfare system — overseen by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services — needs $1 billion over the next two years to shore up its operation, department officials say. State lawmakers have proposed spending just under one-third of that amount.

Lawmakers have also passed few policies aimed at directly helping victims, and they have balked time and again at providing the money to pay for them. That has left a laundry list of empty laws and hollow programs.

"I try to be upbeat about the Legislature, every time I come here," said state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat who's worked on anti-trafficking laws. "But my little joke is, sometimes the Texas Legislature is like the guy who's really insistent on taking you out to lunch, but when the check comes, he's nowhere to be found."

Bills but few dollars

Among legislators' unfunded efforts over the past decade: 

  • A 2009 sex-trafficking law calling for a victim assistance program to distribute up to $10 million a year in grants to provide housing, counseling and medical care for trafficking survivors. The Legislature never appropriated the money. Eight years later, the program's coffers remain empty.
  • An anti-trafficking measure passed in 2011 meant to establish a stream of funding for victims by requiring convicted child traffickers to pay them restitution. Restitution depends on a defendant's ability to pay, which is often limited. None of the victims the Tribune interviewed said they received any money after their traffickers were imprisoned.
  • A 2013 law authorizing judicial diversion programs for juveniles caught selling sex. Lawmakers provided no money for those programs.
  • A 2015 law allowing police to take "emergency possession" of sex-trafficking victims, as long as they place them in secure facilities providing everything from 24-hour supervision to counseling. But no such facility exists, and no funding has ever been allocated to create one.

In the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers created a child sex-trafficking unit in the governor's office and gave it a two-year budget of $6 million. That money will go toward coordinating services for victims across the state, but not toward addressing the lack of places for them to go. 

There is only one facility in the entire state that is licensed specifically to treat victims of sex trafficking, and it can only fill 20 beds at a time. Not one of those beds is available for an "emergency" placement, meaning victims in immediate crisis, like those picked up by police in the middle of the night, don't qualify. And no beds are available for boys.

The end result is that during the precarious period when victims first come into contact with authorities — adults they should be able to trust — they often end up in handcuffs instead. Nearly one-third of trafficking victims recovered by the state's child welfare investigators are sent to juvenile detention.

"The state needs to step up and be prepared to protect these kids," said Ann Johnson, the former lead prosecutor for Harris County's sex-trafficking unit. "If we don't invest wisely in the front end, we're going to pay for it more later." 

How bad is the child sex-trafficking problem in Texas?

Texas doesn't have a uniform policy on how state and local agencies should collect data on sex trafficking, so it's hard to know. But there are a few numbers that offer a limited glimpse into its scope.

A conservative estimate of the number of young sex-trafficking victims in Texas in any given year, the vast majority of whom are under 18, as calculated by a 2016 University of Texas study funded by the governor's office.
The subset of those victims who had some contact with the child welfare system, according to the same study.
The percentage of missing kids nationally suspected of being forced into sex work who come from the foster care or social services system, according to 2016 figures from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
The number of kids who ran away from Texas foster care and were identified by child welfare workers as sex-trafficking victims in fiscal year 2016. All were girls, ages 13 to 17. Given that many runaways are never found, few victims come forward and Texas only started keeping that data in late 2015, the number is surely an underestimate.
The number of people arrested on allegations of forcing children into sex work in Texas' two largest counties — Harris and Dallas — in the past two-and-a-half years.
The number of minors arrested on suspicion of prostitution in those two counties over that same timeframe.

Source: Texas Tribune research

Texas lawmakers say they're proud of their track record.

“We’ve passed more legislation than any state in America,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, the Houston Democrat who has sponsored nearly every anti-trafficking bill for the past several years.

Lawmakers have announced plans to file another anti-trafficking bill this session, which they said will focus on further enhancing penalties for convicted pimps. 

Thompson acknowledged the state needs to place more emphasis on helping victims, but she wasn't sure there would be any funding to do so.

"I just hate we have not been able to do more faster,” she said. “But we are catching up."

"A perpetual hell" 

As lawmakers begin figuring out how much money they can spend in this year's legislative session, the Texas child welfare system is buckling under a $110 million budget shortfall. The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services says it fails to check on hundreds of the state's most endangered children each day, and there's a crippling shortage of good homes for children removed from their families.

The class-action lawsuit, a series of high-profile child deaths and a barrage of negative headlines have pressured lawmakers to take action. Leaders in both the House and Senate have again proposed reforms, but so far they largely focus on administrative fixes.

Child welfare officials say they need money.

"We have to spend the funding now," agency chief Hank Whitman said at a January budget hearing. "Otherwise, these children will end up in the criminal justice system, and they're there for life, and it's a perpetual hell for them."

Whitman said his agency needs an additional $1 billion over the next two years to hire workers, find more foster homes and make basic improvements to children's care. Lawmakers have so far shown an appetite to spend only about $325 million. The governor has asked them to spend $500 million.

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"Do not underfund this rickety system only to have it come back and haunt you," Abbott said in a January speech to the Legislature.

Lawmakers say they are skeptical more money will improve the agency's performance.

"Problems persist at this agency despite funding increase after funding increase," state Sen. Jane Nelson, a Flower Mound Republican and the Senate's chief budget writer, said in a prepared statement. "Moving forward, we must ensure that additional resources lead to better outcomes for children."

Even as the Legislature debates its own reforms, Paxton and Abbott continue to fight Judge Jack's orders to overhaul the foster care system, arguing Texas will do it better without the meddling of a federal court.

Meanwhile, almost two dozen children run from foster care each week. One of those children was Mia, the teen from Corpus Christi who became the anonymous face of the foster care lawsuit.

A few months after she walked out of the children's emergency shelter in Houston and returned to her pimp, child welfare workers got a tip about her location. But they waited two weeks before visiting the address. By the time they got there, Mia was gone.

The next year Mia turned 18 and aged out of foster care. She hasn't been heard from since.

About this story: 

The Texas Tribune generally does not publish the names of victims of sexual abuse or sex trafficking. Mia, Yvette, and Sarah are pseudonyms. Jean is identified by her first name at her request. Lena is identified by her middle name at her request. The details in Mia's story come from court documents in the foster care lawsuit and interviews with her lawyer. In total, The Texas Tribune interviewed more than 90 people for this series, including 16 victims, 14 foster care and victim service providers, eight prosecutors, 11 police officers and three pimps. Reporters reviewed more than three dozen criminal cases and attended two full sex-trafficking trials.

Editor's note:  

One of the reporters on this story, Neena Satija, also works for Reveal, a public radio show and podcast from The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. Ryan Murphy was the lead developer on this story; Emily Albracht was the lead designer.

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