What’s the fastest growing business of organized crime? It might not be what you expect: sex trafficking. By some accounts, sex trafficking is the third largest criminal enterprise in the world — more lucrative than the illegal arms trade.
And Texas plays an important role in that trade, both as a destination and thoroughfare for traffickers. It’s impossible to know just how many men, women and children are being bought and sold in Texas — there’s no census or official reporting requirements. But we do know most victims of trafficking end up working in the sex trade. We also know children make up anywhere from 100,000 to 300,000 of those caught up in the sex trafficking industry across the country.
A new law goes into effect September 1 meant to help victims of trafficking. It provides guidelines to law enforcement and Child Protective Services workers about how to deal with children suspected of being victims of sex trafficking.
Noël Busch-Armendariz is a professor in the School of Social Work at UT Austin, and she says the new Texas law will provide much better support for victims. “It shifts our thinking about who these kids are and it changes the philosophy from these children being criminals or juvenile delinquents, to these kids being victims,” Busch-Armendariz says. “We thought that they should be detained as juvenile delinquents and now what we’re realizing is that, as we understand their stories of exploitation, we are responding to them much more appropriately as victims of exploitation.”
For many people, news stories about child prostitution and human trafficking seem like they’re happening half a world away. But Texas does in fact play a large role in this criminal enterprise, so why such a disconnect? “It seems unbelievable to us that this could happen to… our children in Texas, because it’s an unbelievable crime,” Busch-Armendariz says.
“I think that caution and arm’s length is healthy in some degree, [but] we also need to tell ourselves the truth about what happens… it is happening to these children, even though we don’t want to believe that this kind of sexual exploitation can happen to children, it is indeed happening,” she says. “And so our response — morally, ethically and from a legal standpoint — is to respond to these children in the ways that we can give them justice and make them whole. They’re part of who we are as Texans and they deserve that justice.”
With such alarming statistics about human trafficking in Texas, who is most at risk to be exploited in this way? Are there certain types of children who are more often victimized by human traffickers? “They could be any child, but primarily what we think from the research is that they’re children in the foster care system,” Busch-Armendariz says. “They’re children who have already come from difficult home situations where there is parental difficulty parenting them, and so that’s part of what makes them vulnerable to being exploited by traffickers.”
While not all trafficking occurs with children in the foster care system, traffickers tend to target individuals who don’t have strong support networks and who are more desensitized to abusive behavior.
So what are the consequences of being exploited in this way? “We know that sexual exploitation can lead to all sorts of negative consequences for children — both health and mental health,” she says. “We have known that for a very long time… so we really need to attend to what their needs are now.”
Busch-Armendariz says that an individualized approach will help each kid get the services and support they need.
“Those needs will vary according to the length of exploitation, who exploited them and the magnitude of that exploitation,” she says. “Part of our responsibility is to understand the scope of what’s happening in Texas, and get the services that these kids need.”
If you, or someone you know is a victim of sex trafficking please contact the National Human Trafficking Resource Center or your local law enforcement.