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In 2017, Texas leaders promised bold reforms to help child sex-trafficking victims. Here’s what’s changed — and what hasn’t.

State leaders have made serious reforms to some of the issues we previously reported on, though advocates say there’s still a long way to go.

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

Texas officials were failing child victims of sex trafficking in 2017.

As The Texas Tribune previously reported in our “Sold Out” series, state leaders’ bold campaign promises about ending sex trafficking proved hollow on closer inspection. We uncovered state laws passed to create programs for victims that were never funded and identified a pipeline of victims who often came from the state’s foster care program and ended up in jail.

In the three years since, state leaders have made serious reforms to some of the issues we reported on, though advocates say there’s still a long way to go.

Latest in the series: Sold Out

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Texas lawmakers have funded anti-trafficking efforts with millions of dollars and in 2017 and 2019 poured millions of new dollars into the state’s Child Protective Services and foster care systems.

Still, a federal judge recently fined the state for dragging its heels on implementing reforms ordered in the long-running lawsuit over the civil rights of children in foster care. Facilities that care for child sex-trafficking victims say they still need more funding. And law enforcement agencies say traffickers are changing the way they solicit potential victims faster than Texas officers can adapt.

Here’s where things stand in Texas’ anti-trafficking efforts.

What has the state done to combat sex trafficking?

Gov. Greg Abbott said he wants the state to prioritize sex trafficking and signed multiple bills last year to establish a Human Trafficking Prevention Coordinating Council, education courses and victim treatment programs.

But to the dismay of many anti-trafficking advocates, Abbott vetoed a bill decriminalizing prostitution for children because he said it would create “unintended consequences” — such as encouraging traffickers to use underage prostitutes so they would not get arrested. He also vetoed House Bill 3078, which sought to establish a separate clemency panel to review cases of jailed abuse survivors and sex-trafficking victims.

Instead, in February, he announced a new clemency application allowing people convicted of crimes to tell the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles about their experiences with human trafficking or domestic violence. The board makes recommendations to the governor, who can pardon inmates.

“The gubernatorial pardon plays an important role in this redemption process, because it offers a second chance to survivors with criminal convictions resulting from their abuse or exploitation,” Abbott said in a press release.

House Bill 1, the state budget bill, provided more than $58 million to various state agencies to combat human trafficking.

For example, Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation spokesperson Tela Mange said the agency requested about $500,000 but received more than $1.5 million from the Legislature to create an eight-person anti-trafficking unit that will receive specialized training and focus on inspecting massage parlors.

“It was kind of surreal because we thought that we were going to have to beg for what we asked for, and instead they're like, what else do you need?” Mange said. “It never happens.”

Where can sex trafficking victims get help?

When “Sold Out” was published, Texas had just one specialized treatment center for sex-trafficked girls: the 38-bed Freedom Place.

In August 2018, The Refuge Ranch, a 48-bed facility for female trafficking victims, opened in Bastrop County. It offers on-site care and various therapeutic programs, including a charter school, equine therapy, group therapy and one-on-one therapy.

Steven Phenix, spokesperson for the Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking, the nonprofit that oversees The Refuge Ranch, said the group raised $7.2 million to open the ranch, which houses girls ages 11-17 and allows them to stay up to age 23 if necessary. The facility doesn’t disclose the number of girls at the ranch for safety reasons, but it has cared for 30 girls since it opened.

Through the federal Victims of Crime Act, the governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team also provided grants to four organizations to open emergency shelters: Jonathan’s Place RESET Emergency Shelter in Dallas-Fort Worth, SJRC Texas in New Braunfels, La Puerta in San Antonio and BCFS Common Thread in Killeen, which recently ceased operations as an emergency shelter.

In January 2019, Roy Maas Youth Alternatives opened the La Puerta emergency shelter, which provides short-term living arrangements for up to 16 sex-trafficked children for 90 days. In November 2017, the organization also used a grant from the governor’s team to open Centro Seguro, the first 24/7 drop-in center in the United States for boys and girls who are sex-trafficking victims. A drop-in center is similar to an emergency room and typically holds children for 24 to 48 hours; an emergency shelter is a licensed facility where children can stay for longer.

What has changed about the foster-care-to-sex-trafficking pipeline?

Nearly 10 years after a lawsuit was filed against the state of Texas for violating the civil rights of children in foster care, advocates say not much has changed.

The New York-based advocacy group Children’s Rights Inc. brought a class-action lawsuit on behalf of all Texas children in long-term foster care in 2011 against former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the executive director of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, and the commissioner of the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.

“There's a simple reason why the lawsuit was filed. The foster care system in the state of Texas was badly broken, these children were being subject to neglect and abuse, and things needed to change,” said Paul Yetter, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney.

U.S. District Judge Janis Graham Jack ordered the state in December 2015 to hire enough staff to supervise children 24 hours a day in certain foster care facilities and hire more caseworkers.

In a December 2019 filing, the state agreed to reduce the caseloads for Child Protective Services “conservatorship caseworkers,” child abuse investigators and residential child care licensing inspectors.

But about four years after the original ruling, Jack found the state in contempt of court for not providing that supervision and in November 2019 ordered the state to pay fines of $50,000 every day it was not in compliance. State officials paid a $150,000 fine a few days later and told the judge that the state had come into compliance.

The governor’s office referred a request for comment to the Texas attorney general’s office, which did not respond to questions about the lawsuit. Patrick Crimmins, director of communications for DFPS, said the case was complex, and the department was limited in its ability to comment outside of its court filings.

Jack assigned two court monitors to canvass child welfare facilities across the state. In a February phone call among the parties involved in the lawsuit, Jack said the monitors found facilities that still were not providing 24-hour supervision. The monitors are expected to deliver a final report to the court about the state’s progress in May, Yetter said.

“The system is still as broken as it was,” Yetter said, “although with the judge's order, we're very optimistic that improvements are coming.”

“Yelp for perverts”

In 2018, U.S. law enforcement agencies, in partnership with the California and Texas attorneys general, seized Backpage.com, a website best known for its "adult" section that featured escort and stripper advertisements.

“Backpage generated millions of dollars annually on the backs of innocent women and children who were forced or coerced into sex trafficking,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a press release in April 2018. “Taking down this despicable website will undoubtedly save lives and spare many others from the unspeakable horrors of sex trafficking."

But Sgt. Marty Kuehn, who oversees the Harris County Sheriff Office’s sex-trafficking unit, said there are still dozens of sites that are being used to coordinate sex trafficking.

“Obviously, the shutdown of Backpage was a good thing, and there may be some [sex traffickers] out there who just got out of the business, but there’s a whole bunch of other little websites that popped up that basically are doing the same thing as Backpage was,” Kuehn said.

TDLR executive director Brian Francis said the department’s new sex-trafficking unit will use listings of massage parlors on website like Rubmaps, one of the sites he says has replaced Backpage, to find illicit businesses suspected of sex trafficking.

“Yelp for perverts — that’s what Rubmaps is,” Francis said during a Senate Committee on State Affairs meeting in February. “It will be something else in six months.”

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