Juvenile Probation Takes on Child Trafficking in Houston

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On September 4th, the Harris County Sheriff's Office gave the Juvenile Probation Department a check for $300,000 in an effort to help victims of child trafficking. Houston is often called a hub for trafficking victims, both domestic and international, but to no one's surprise, these numbers are far more complicated, and so are the victims' experiences.

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 20% of nationwide child trafficking victims come through Houston alone and consistently, year after year, more than 30% of the calls received by the National Trafficking Resource Center hotline come from Texas. But according to Edward Chapuseaux, an investigator for and founder of the Human Trafficking Rescue Alliance (sheriff's office) task force, these statistics aren't an incredibly accurate assessment of the trafficking problem here.

"I can count on one hand the number of tips from the hotline that turn out to be an actual case," said Chapuseaux. "A lot of people don't have enough knowledge about what human trafficking is. They'll call and report smuggling, but they see it as trafficking, at least on the international front." The distinction between smuggling and trafficking, according to experts like Chapuseaux, is a critical one.

Because of the similarities between drug trafficking and what is called human trafficking, there's a misconception that the latter involves the physical movement of victims from one country or state or city to another, when no movement is necessarily involved in human trafficking. What people think of as human trafficking, for the most part, is really just migration. This makes the job of identifying trafficking victims for people like Chapuseaux all the more difficult. "It's a civil rights violation of an individual. Human trafficking is slavery. It's that simple. You have to be forcing people to provide labor or services against their will in order for them to make money, but it's hidden and hard to detect," said Chapuseaux.

Though most of the international trafficking cases reported to the hotline end up being false leads, it's a different story when it comes to domestic trafficking within Houston.

Until the fall of 2011, the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department (where the Sheriff's Office's $300,00 went) only suspected that minors brought in on charges of prostitution were victims of trafficking. They found about 8, maybe 10 victim cases per year, out of the thousands of minors they deal with. Once Dr. Diana Quintana oversaw the implementation of a GIRLS court and urged the department to start asking minors the right questions, those 8 or 10 cases turned into more than 250.

"I honestly did not think we had that many victims of human trafficking, primarily because I did not see a lot of girls come in charged with prostitution," said Quintana. "I was wrong. As we started working on identifying them, we found out that we had these girls in the department for a long time and we were just not identifying them, because they don't necessarily come charged with prostitution." In fact, most of the minors that turned out to be victims were brought in on charges of small misdemeanors, like trespassing or failure to present ID to a cop, who were later interviewed and identified. It was once everyone in the department became more educated on the signs of a potential victim, and once they started learning what it means when a preteen tells them that they ran away from home with their 34-year-old boyfriend, that the truth about child trafficking in Harris County started to unfold.

"These girls don't see themselves as victim because, oftentimes, what gets them involved with trafficking goes like this: they come from very dysfunctional family situations, they have been abused, and then they run away and end up running into a pimp that says 'I can take care of you, I can feed you and clothe you,'" said Quintana. "[The pimp] becomes a rescuer in their eyes, so they don't necessarily see themselves as victims. They've almost been brainwashed."

According to Quintana, who also oversees the medical and mental health services at the probation center, this close-to-300 figure doesn't even include the male victims of trafficking within the department. They've found a few, but these kids are a lot harder to identify. They're a lot less willing to share their history with pimps, who are usually male--a source of shame for many of them.

While the probation department is reaching out to the Montrose Counseling Center for help with their male victims, efforts to help even the female victims are so new that it may be a while before substantial progress is made.

And the probation department's efforts are being echoed elsewhere in Houston: HISD, at a board meeting last Thursday night, voted to approve a partnership with the Houston Federation of Teachers to educate and train staff and faculty on how to identify and deal with human trafficking.

As for the money given to the probation department, it will fund the intensive therapy victims of trafficking must undergo.

"They get an average of 16 hours of intensive therapy a week at county facilities, with an average stay of 6-9 months," says Quintana. According to Quintana, the whole point of all this therapy is to prevent these victims from reentering the system as adults. "The average age that women who get charged with prostitution get started is 12-14, so they basically start as child victims," she says.

There are still a lot of unidentified victims in the department's system, and a lot of victims flying completely under the radar in Harris County. So while numbers like Texas's 30% and Houston's 20%, like most statistics, aren't comprehensive, Quintana warns that "a lot of these girls that we see are just girls from your neighborhood--girls from any neighborhood. They're not just girls from low socioeconomic status, they're your girls-next-door."

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