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When it comes to helping sex-trafficking victims, success is elusive

How do you help sex trafficking victims like Sarah who’ve learned that the way to survive is to flee?

By Morgan Smith, The Texas Tribune, Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune
People who care for sex-trafficking victims have a common refrain: It's not if they'll run away, but when.
Sold Out

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

AUSTIN — It's close to midnight, more than five hours since police officers came through the door of Sarah's motel room. She is just starting to pick french fries out of a fast food bag that has sat untouched in front of her. 

"We want you to feel safe," a female police officer is telling her. "That's why Detective Watts came and found you the first time, and that's why he came right back in and got you the second time." 

Sarah nods. She's small, even in her puffy winter jacket with the fur-lined hood. Her hair is tied in a top-knot; tracks of smudged mascara darken her eyes.

She's there because she exchanged text messages with an undercover police officer earlier that afternoon. He asked the price for "full service." She responded like she was supposed to: $120 for oral and vaginal sex. Then she gave him the number of a room at a Motel 6 on Interstate 35.

It was January 2014. This was the second time in 30 days Austin police had retrieved the 16-year-old from a roadside motel.

The month before, officers found Sarah when she was staying at the Super 8 across the highway. A housekeeper called 911 after finding bloody towels in the bathroom. Police discovered her with a 35-year-old man named Chris.

Sarah said the towels were bloody because she sometimes cut herself when she was upset. When police asked her whether Chris was forcing her to prostitute, she said no. Without evidence to arrest him, he went free. Sarah, a troubled kid who'd been in and out of police custody, went back to juvenile detention for breaking probation. 

It was during her short stay there that she finally opened up about Chris.

An Austin police detective named Trent Watts began visiting her. He brought her favorite snack: hot fries and Gatorade.

Sarah told him she'd been staying in motels with Chris for weeks, mostly in Austin but also in Dallas and San Antonio. To make money for Chris, she had sex with men who responded to ads he posted online — five to 10 times a day.

By the time kids like Sarah get picked up by police, they've already endured a lot. 

They've most likely suffered repeated physical and sexual abuse, both in their homes and on the streets. They're often deeply bonded to their pimps and so entrenched in their lifestyle that they believe they've chosen it. Anger and mistrust — the very qualities that helped them survive such dangerous conditions — have put them at odds with the caseworkers and care providers who tried to help.

Then they're thrown into juvenile lockups that either don't recognize their trauma or don't have the resources to treat it.

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Most of their stories don't end well. But for a brief moment, Sarah's looked promising: The system worked like it was supposed to.

Austin police officers had enough training to recognize her as a potential victim and to alert their department's specialized trafficking team. A probation officer knew to call them when Sarah went missing again. In part because of the skilled detectives working the case, Chris pleaded guilty, so Sarah never had to go through the ordeal of testifying against him in court.

She also had access to the only specialized treatment center Texas offers child sex-trafficking victims: Freedom Place, a rare facility that has raised enough private dollars to care for up to 20 of the state's estimated 80,000 child sex-trafficking victims at any given time. 

Watts, a veteran police detective who started his career two decades ago investigating child abuse cases, allowed himself a rare moment of optimism. 

"Maybe she'll be the one who gets to go in a different direction," he said, "who has enough of a platform, enough of a support, enough anchors to where she won't need to go back to the only thing that she knows."

In the police interview room after the undercover sting, Sarah nervously swivels her chair. She slowly begins to volunteer information about what has happened since she left juvenile detention. 

She moved back into her mother's Austin home. Within days, Chris reconnected with her through a friend. He wanted to meet up at a nearby motel. At first she said no. Then he grew threatening, texting her the address of her mother's home and a picture of her little sister and brothers lifted from her Facebook page.

"He wants me, fine. He wants to hurt my family, nuh-uh," Sarah says, shaking her head. "I mean, I know what to expect from him. They don't know what to expect from him."

More details come pouring out.

Police found Sarah, 16, at an Austin Super 8 motel in a room she was sharing with her pimp.

Police found Sarah, 16, at an Austin Super 8 motel in a room she was sharing with her pimp. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

There was the time Chris learned Sarah had made a plan to escape, so he stripped her naked and took away her clothes. The time she woke up disoriented after a client drugged her — and Chris told her to shake it off and take a shower. The time she didn't want to have sex with Chris and he raped her, saying he shouldn't have to ask.

Sarah eventually says she's willing to take a sexual assault exam to help collect evidence against him.

As the interview winds down, the detective makes an effort at small talk. Does Sarah like Jay Z? No. Kanye? No. Beyonce? Sometimes. But not the song "Drunk in Love."

Finally, Sarah ventures a question of her own.

Will she have to go back to juvenile detention? Even if she does, the detective says, at least she'll be safe. 

Sarah begins to cry, using a brown paper towel to wipe her eyes. 

People who care for sex-trafficking victims have a common refrain: It's not if they'll run away, but when.

"They've been brainwashed. They have to be un-brainwashed," said Angela Goodwin, the director of investigations for the Department of Family and Protective Services, the state's child welfare agency. "They run and they run and they run. Sometimes the most you can hope for is, the times in between runs, they'll be shorter." 

A crucial element of what clinicians refer to as "trauma-informed care" is helping victims build healthy, trusting relationships — ones that allow them to battle the deep shame and helplessness that trigger the impulse to flee.

"They come across as a bad street kid because that's what they've had to do to survive," said Chuck Paul, a former Texas child welfare investigator who is raising money to build a new shelter for trafficking victims in San Antonio. "These kids are like, 'Everybody I've ever trusted in my life has always written me off. How are you any different?'" 

Trafficking victims have learned to operate in constant survival mode, which throws the decision-making part of their brains into chaos. Confronted with the challenge of processing what's happened to them, that mindset can be volatile. Every aspect of their treatment requires a carefully considered approach.

"You are disrupting their continuity and their connection," said Angela Ellis, a Harris County juvenile judge who leads a specialty court for trafficking victims. "Maybe you and I can look at it and say, ‘That's a really unhealthy connection to have.’ But it's what they have, it's what they know, and you are in some ways disrespecting their entire life and what they believe are their choices and their experiences."

Pimps enforce rules through punishment and reward. So Shandra Carter, Freedom Place’s executive director, said she doesn’t use that tactic when rehabilitating victims. If a girl starts acting up or pushing boundaries, everyone at Freedom Place — from counselors to cooks to maintenance workers — is trained to be a calming presence, not to shout or lecture. 

Carter gauges progress based on attainable goals, like whether the girl is getting out of bed on time, or if she's screaming and cursing when she's upset instead of punching a wall or harming herself. 

Freedom Place is the only facility in Texas licensed to treat child sex-trafficking victims. It cares for up to 20 girls, who usually stay from nine to 12 months at a time.

Freedom Place is the only facility in Texas licensed to treat child sex-trafficking victims. It cares for up to 20 girls, who usually stay from nine to 12 months at a time. Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune

"That's progress for this kid," Carter said. "In the hierarchy of what this kid brought with her, this is amazing, say what you want to say."

This type of care, though, is enormously costly.

The state only pays Freedom Place $260 a day to house and treat a kid, but the actual cost is $317. Without its expenses fully covered, the facility can only afford to fill 20 of its 38 beds at a time. Girls typically stay from nine to 12 months.

"We're losing money," said Scott Lundy, president and CEO of Arrow Child and Family Ministries, the foster care provider that operates Freedom Place. "If we expand, then all I'm doing is I'm inviting more losses and I'm putting other programs at risk."

When Freedom Place opened in 2012, it accepted girls in emergency situations. But now, officials there have decided to only take victims who agree ahead of time to stay in the program long-term — a point in the healing process that can take weeks or months to reach.

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Even so, four of the 52 girls Freedom Place served last year ran away, according to Carter’s records.

“I don’t lock them in, I don’t electrify the fence,” Carter said. “I work really hard to create an environment that feels safe enough that they will stay. That is grueling work.”

After her second run-in with Austin police, Sarah heads back to juvenile detention. A few weeks later, she has landed at Freedom Place.

At the former summer camp, on 110 acres in a confidential location outside of Houston, girls have single bedrooms or a double they share with a roommate. They go to an in-house school. There are horses and dogs, a lake surrounded by tall pine trees. 

The facility is designed to keep girls secure — both from their attempts to run away and from the pimps who may be trying to find them. A 10-foot-tall fence surrounds the property. Before they go to bed at night, they take off their shoes and place them in bins outside their rooms. Staff monitor who goes in and out of the campus 24 hours a day.

There, Sarah is surrounded by other girls who identify with her experiences. Though she tells her mother she misses her friends and family in Austin, in phone calls and letters she seems happier than she's been in years. 

But then Sarah tries to run, her mother says. She breaks the rules by asking her friends to come pick her up, giving them the address of what’s supposed to be a confidential location. Between six and nine months after she arrives, her mother says, Sarah is forced to leave because she has become a safety risk to the other girls.

With Freedom Place off the table, there's nowhere for Sarah to go but back to juvenile detention, where she remains until her 18th birthday.

Sarah is now 19. Since she left juvenile detention, she has been arrested once for prostitution in Harris County, a charge that was later dismissed. The Texas Tribune's attempts to reach her have been unsuccessful, but her mother says they keep in touch. Sarah's living in Houston with a boyfriend, she says, and trying to start a modeling career.

Watts, meanwhile, has begun joking with his partner about buying an island in the Pacific where all the girls can go until they heal. He has yet to find his success story.

For Watts and the dozens of other police officers, prosecutors and caseworkers the Tribune interviewed for this series, cases like Sarah's are the rule, not the exception. Reminding themselves that the recovery process operates on its own timeline, they've learned to redefine success for kids like Sarah in different, more qualitative ways. 

Did she come visit a caseworker between arrests? Did she call a familiar detective when she needed help in the hospital? Has she stopped cutting herself as much? Did she get that job at the convenience store? 

"We have to remember they are recovering on their time, not ours," said Kirsta Melton, who heads the sex-trafficking unit in the Texas attorney general's office. "I think when people want a super-happy ending — like a movie ending — our lives don't have that ending, right? Why would we expect theirs to?"

About this story:

Sarah is a pseudonym, because The Texas Tribune generally does not publish the names of victims of sexual abuse or sex trafficking. The details in her story come from interviews with her mother, police detectives and a social worker familiar with her case, as well as extensive criminal files.

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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