Houston area officials are fighting tooth and nail against human trafficking, a form of modern-day slavery that’s alive and well in Texas.
Roughly 300,000 people — many of whom are young children —are the victims of human trafficking across the state. They represent a sea of invisible workers forced to labor or prostitute themselves for little or no pay.
Some are hiding in plain sight in massage businesses and strip clubs in both wealthy and low-income neighborhoods – and near public schools.
“These criminals are very, very sophisticated,” Fort Bend District Attorney Brian Middleton said of traffickers at a panel discussion Tuesday hosted by Big Hearted Texas, a Houston-based progressive change organization.
“They tend to manipulate their victims and convince them that they have no way out, or if they try to turn against them they will suffer some irreparable harm or injury,” he said.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who sat on the panel said law enforcement and local government have come a long way in how they handle those complicated human trafficking cases.
“When it comes to offenders, traffickers were typically not prosecuted. I know that seems strange,” Ogg said.“Part of the reason is the prostitutes themselves. They sometimes believe they’re in love with the individual, sometimes they’re financially dependent, sometimes they’re physically dependent upon drugs provided by the trafficker or pimp.”
As a result, Houston area officials in recent years have been leading the way in developing an approach that focuses more on making sure that human traffickers are brought to justice while victims receive the help they need.
Police units have been focusing more on arresting the buyers of prostitution— known as “johns.”
“It used to be [we arrested], say, 70 percent buyers and 30 percent women, now we’re looking at arresting more buyers than women engaged in prostitution,” Houston Police Department Commander James Dale said of the shift in law enforcement.
Outside of the Houston area justice system, elected officials have been busy working on ways to chip away at Houston being perceived as a “hub” for human trafficking.
For example, the City of Houston trained its 1,200 Health and Human Services Department employees to recognize signs of trafficking. Firefighters, police and even cab drivers in the area also received training to better spot victims.
The training and education efforts were also taken to the public with a marketing campaign that recieved 93 million impressions across TV, radio, billboards, METRO buses, and taxis, according to Mayor Sylvester Turner.
The work hasn’t gone unnoticed. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Houston boasted “one of the most comprehensive and forward-leaning anti-trafficking programs anywhere in the United States.”
One of the most innovative strategies for bringing more traffickers to justice is the new inclusion of forensic nurses, or trained medical professionals that serve as a sort of first responder to victims of human trafficking.
Khara Breeden, the CEO of Texas Forensic Nurse Examiners, developed Houston’s forensic nursing programs.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to meet patients where they are. It’s not to make them jump through five hoops to find the right place to go,” Breeden said during the meeting.
She said her organization works with Houston police and local family crisis centers to interview and medically examine victims of human trafficking.
“Right after a trauma, where they’ve been hurt, [victims] are more likely to explain to a medical expert what happened and how they got their injuries,” Fort Bend District Attorney Middleton said, praising the forensic nursing program and its contribution to building cases against traffickers.
“A lot of what we’re doing is cutting edge because we’re on the forefront of this battle, and things like providing forensics nurses at the scenes–– all of this is innovative,” Middleton said.
Big Hearted Texas, the sponsor of the panel, was founded as a non-partisan organization with a mission to improve the community. The group has organized forward-looking panel discussions on flooding, health care, school finance, and transportation issues.
Photo: The Associated Press