Stopping underage sex trafficking in the Panhandle
Amarillo, Texas —
It is a crime many don't see. It happens behind closed doors in hotel rooms and homes. No community is immune to underage sex trafficking.
The numbers, when you think about them in terms of people, are staggering. The FBI said human trafficking, which includes minor sex trafficking, is the third largest criminal activity worldwide. It's important to note that underage sex trafficking is not prostitution and not a choice for children.
They cannot give consent. They do not work for pay. It is a form of slavery that can damage children for life.
One sex trafficking victim recovering in Amarillo, who wishes not to be identified, shared the struggle she faced to heal with ABC 7 News.
"There's so much baggage and stuff that comes with it. Almost seems impossible to live a normal life,” she said.
It is happening here in Texas, the Panhandle and in your town. Patrick Bernson is the co-founder of One Amarillo, a nonprofit group that does outreach to sex trafficking victims. He said most of the minors are students.
"They are going to school,” said Bernson. “This is happening outside of school. It's happening in the evenings and weekends."
Traci Rogers with No Boundaries International, another nonprofit that serves victims, goes out with her team trying to established relationships with people in the sex trade by offering them bags of food and toiletries. She said many sex trafficked minors are local kids.
"We see a high number of girls and boys that are from Amarillo that are being trafficked directly out of our high schools and middle schools,” she said. “Since school started back, the number of ads online has decreased well over half. That lets us know there were a lot of minors working off BackPage. So many that we work with have been in Amarillo their whole lives."
The average age for girls to get involved in sex trafficking is 12 to 14. It is not just young girls traffickers recruit. Boys and transgender youth are also at risk. They enter into sex trafficking younger, between the ages of 11 to 13.
"Those populations are even more hidden and stigmatized when it comes to sexual abuse and sexual exploitation in such a way that we are not identifying those victims,” said Dixie Hairston, the research project manager for the Statewide Sex Trafficking Study of Texas.
It is a crime that is mostly low risk and high reward.
“If a man has an ounce of cocaine, he can sell that one time,” said one undercover officer in Amarillo with a federal taskforce. “If he has a young girl to sell for sex acts, he can sell that girl for a sex act over and over again.”
“If you are engaging in weapons trafficking or narcotics trafficking those things are typically contraband,” said Chief Ed Drain of the Amarillo Police Department. “Just being in possession of those things is a criminal offense. But if you have a victim, it’s not a crime to be with another person.”
Hairston helped study underage sex trafficking for the University of Texas. Results shows 79,000 minors are victims in Texas in 2015.
"These are actually conservative estimates," said Hairston.
In the Panhandle, an undercover officer in three years has rescued 20 girls from sex trafficking and made 32 arrests. Again, these numbers are just a peek at the problem.
"Those numbers are based on the cases we were able to prove and file charges on,” said the officer.
He is unable to prosecute all of the traffickers, but he's helped many girls escape.
"Those numbers would be in the hundreds,” he said.
One case shows how traffickers go about finding children. Deswan Newsome was arrested in 2015 for attempted sex trafficking of a child. Court documents show he was using Facebook to recruit teenage girls by telling them they could make $2,500 a week. He's now serving 11 years in prison.
"Our goal is to put you in prison for as long as we possibly can,” said the undercover officer. “This is a horrific crime."
Many experts said recruitment happens both online and in person. There are no standard ways to identify a child trafficked for sex. It can happen to children of any age, race, class or gender. Adults can protect their children by knowing what they are doing online, on their phones and with their friends.
"There's all different kinds of apps now that kids are using and a lot of those have features that you can hide that app on your phone and your parents don't even know it is there,” said Bernson.
Demand must also be addressed.
"The reality is law enforcement could arrest every trafficker today and tomorrow there would be brand new ones because the demand would still be there,” said Rogers.
Experts say there are no easy fixes, but Rogers said solutions begin with the community.
“As a community we can say it is not O.K. to buy and sell people,” she said. “It is not O.K. for sex to sell. It is not O.K. to look at porn. But do it from a point of let’s get people help.”
Recovery for victims can take years. Experts said many people sold for sex do not see themselves as a victim. Many do not come forward because of the shame involved in being in the sex trade. Family Support Services in Amarillo has been serving victims for more than 100 years. Brandi Reed, the facility’s education director, said most sex trafficking victims come to them when they are older seeking services but they often started being sold for sex at about 12 years old. She explained many victims continue in the life because others see them as prostitutes with a choice to do work in the sex trade, which is not always accurate. Recently, attitudes have started to change.
“We know that more victims are going to come forward because they feel like people are finally hearing their voice and they might have other options they never felt they had before,” she said.
U.S. Senator John Cornyn from Texas is working to fix the problem with legislation. The Abolish Human Trafficking Act co-sponsored by him recently passed the senate. It strengthens program support for trafficking survivors.