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Solutions: What Texas can do to help child sex-trafficking victims

Over the past week, we’ve exposed how Texas leaders who crusade against sex trafficking have done almost nothing to help child trafficking victims. We asked those closest to the issue how they would begin addressing the problem. Here's what they said.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal, and Morgan Smith and Edgar Walters, The Texas Tribune
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Rep. Senfronia Thompson D-Houston and Sen. Joan Huffman R-Houston during a press conference on Jan 12, 2017.
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How the crusade against sex trafficking in Texas has left child victims behind.

Over the past week, the Tribune has exposed how empty laws and hollow rhetoric from Texas leaders has done almost nothing to help child sex-trafficking victims. Our interviews with advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and victims offered plenty of ideas for how the state could — and should — do a better job.

These are five ways Texas could help sex-trafficking victims:

1. Spend some actual state dollars on victims’ services

  • The missing $10 million: Dozens of nonprofits across the state provide health care, counseling and other services to sex-trafficking victims like Jean — but get hardly any state money to do so. A 2009 state law called for distributing up to $10 million in grants to such organizations; Texas lawmakers never appropriated the money.  

  • Fund treatment beds: The state doesn’t offer money to build facilities that treat child sex-trafficking victims; it  relies on the private sector to do that. Texas has only one such facility, which can only afford to treat 20 children at a time — all girls like Sarah, not boys. Advocates say they shouldn’t have to raise millions of dollars, with no help from the state, to build places like this.

  • Create emergency beds: Advocates also say the state needs to fund facilities that take child sex-trafficking victims on an emergency basis, such as when they are recovered by law enforcement in the middle of the night. Right now, no such facilities exist in Texas, which is one of the reasons Lena ended up in jail after she was recovered by police. Building them would cost tens of millions of dollars, according to foster care providers.

2. Spend more state money to help vulnerable children in general

  • The $155 million gap: The Department of Family and Protective Services has asked the Legislature for $155 million to increase payments to facilities that treat foster children with behavioral and emotional problems — which could include many child sex-trafficking victims. The average cost of housing a high-needs foster child like Lena or Jean in a residential treatment center in Texas is about $300 per day. Right now, the state pays $260. The payments are so low that many facilities have closed their doors.

  • $900 million for the rest of the child welfare system: Increasing foster care payments are just part of the solution to shoring up Texas’ child welfare system. Officials say they need more than $900 million in state money to address a host of other issues, including more resources to prevent abuse and neglect of children like Jean, and more staff to investigate child abuse.

  • $3 million for homeless youth: Homeless youth are among the most vulnerable to sex trafficking. Advocates are asking the Legislature to appropriate $3 million over the next two years for things like transitional living shelters that can help youth without a stable place to live — like Yvette — learn how to be independent.

3. Stop treating sex-trafficking victims like criminals

  • Halt the arrest-first approach: Police often arrest sex-trafficking victims because there’s no other place for them to go, or to make sure they’ll testify against their pimp.

  • Remove the criminal stigma: Sex-trafficking victims like Yvette often have criminal records because their pimps may have forced them to do drugs or commit other crimes. They can have repeat arrests for prostitution, which becomes a felony after three convictions. Criminal records make it difficult, if not impossible, for victims to get jobs or apartments and rebuild their lives. Advocates say this could be fixed with legislation allowing victims to get their records expunged or sealed.

  • Raise the age of legal adulthood: In Texas, 17-year-olds are considered adults in the criminal justice system, which means they can be sent to jail or prison. Many support raising the age of adulthood to 18, or even older, though the Legislature has rejected such a change in the past. Raising the age would keep 17-year-old sex-trafficking victims like Lena out of jail.

  • Support diversion programs: A state law in 2013 authorized diversion programs for children involved in the sex trade. If they complete the program, their criminal records are sealed. But the three such programs in the state rely mostly on local funding and have long waiting lists. Judges and administrators in those diversion courts say they need more state funding.

4. Do a better job of tracking and finding missing children

  • Properly report all missing children: Federal law says all missing foster kids are supposed to be reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, a well-resourced nonprofit with a nationally recognized track record for finding missing kids. But many — like Lena — are still not reported by child welfare officials.

  • Keep better records on missing foster children: The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has improved its tracking of missing foster kids but still reported having incomplete information on more than half of the foster children who ran away in fiscal year 2016.

  • Collect trafficking data statewide: There is no good statewide information on incidents of sex trafficking. Though state task forces have called for better data collection for years, lawmakers have done little to address the issue. One recommendation from 2016 directed the state to develop a pilot data-tracking project statewide requiring certain counties and cities to collect comprehensive data on trafficking-related cases. No such project exists yet.

  • More boots on the ground: The Texas child welfare agency says it needs another $161 million from state lawmakers to hire more workers to check on at-risk children in a more timely way and to better look for missing kids like Lena and Jean.

5. Create a statewide approach to dealing with sex trafficking

  • Decide who’s responsible: State agency officials, speaking frankly, say they do not know who should “own” the issue of sex trafficking. Is it a criminal justice problem? A child welfare problem? For all of politicians’ hand-wringing over the issue, it is unclear which state agencies should be held accountable for it.

  • Coordinate investigations and services: There is no statewide procedure for handling cases of suspected trafficking. Such a system would provide law enforcement at the state, local and federal levels with the information they need to build their investigations and make arrests. It would also allow the appropriate social service agencies to begin finding treatment options for victims.

  • Increase training and awareness: Advocates say more public employees, especially those who deal with children, need to receive training on human trafficking. They’ve also proposed requiring businesses like motels, bars and strip clubs to post signage in bathrooms advising victims how they can get help.

There’s not a solution that will work for every victim. But everyone agrees they’ll all need certain things: specialized care that could involve everything from legal services to substance abuse counseling; an advocate or mentor who stays in their life; and a place to stay where they feel safe. That will cost money, and if lawmakers truly want to help more sex-trafficking victims get treatment, some of that money will have to come out of the state budget.

“We have to build the places. We have to create the places. That money has to be raised,” said Brooke Crowder, the founder and executive director of The Refuge, who’s in the middle of raising more than $6 million to build a facility for 48 child sex-trafficking victims in Bastrop. “At the end of the day, the state has to be willing to put resources for infrastructure to house and care for these children.”

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