CORRECTION AND CLARIFICATION: The original version of this story indicated a number of victims per year. However, the proper context would have been a total figure instead of an annual figure. Also, we should have quoted the study as using a category of persons up to age 24 as children and youth.
LUBBOCK, Texas– As of 2016, there were roughly 79,000 children and youth (which includes persons up to age 24) who were victims of sex trafficking, according to a study from The University of Texas at Austin.
Voice of Hope and DePelchin Children’s Center, non-profits in Lubbock, hope to raise awareness about the dangers and realities of child sex trafficking in the community. Prevention and support for survivors remains a top priority.
Jesse Booher, the chief operations officer at the Children’s Center said the problem is most prevalent in the Houston, Lubbock and Amarillo areas. Identifying warning signs starts with paying attention to differences in children’s behaviors.
“When you start to have major discrepancies about what’s going on at home, what the children are wearing or carrying, or if they have a new, expensive phone, you can start to see some of the trends we call ‘grooming’,” said Kristin Murray, the Executive Director for Voice of Hope.
Grooming can be hard to identify, because the behaviors often look like things “we would want to see from adults taking interest in our children,” said Booher. Behaviors like, helping a child with their homework, giving them small tokens of appreciation, and verbal praise.
The affectionate behaviors can feel normal, but when they occur over long periods of time in conjunction with other red-flags, parents should trust their gut and ask their children questions, Booher explained.
Some red-flag behaviors include secret-keeping, isolation from friends and family, and running away.
Pimps often look for children between the ages of 11 and 18, but the two non-profits have seen children as young as 6. The Children’s Home of Lubbock, however, has seen toddlers affected by child sex trafficking. Some of those children have been trafficked by their parents, who often sold their children for drugs.
Many of those children have ended up in Lubbock’s foster care system, left more vulnerable to traffickers as they try to cope with unfathomable traumas.
Booher said Texas law enforcement agencies have improved over the last five to ten years with trauma-informed training. Instead of criminalizing sex trafficking survivors, they go after the “buyers,” who perpetuate supply and demand for children.
Murray said the issue can be more complicated. She has seen survivors charged for various crimes, like substance use, theft, fraud and money laundering. Some pimps make purchases in their victims’ names without providing payment, but law enforcement agencies in Lubbock have been trained to know child sex trafficking survivors are never in the wrong.
Both Murray and Booher talked about the importance of having conversations with their children as early and as often as possible. Using biologically, accurate terminology to describe body parts gives clarity to young kids, as well as adults who may be approached by children vocalizing discomfort.
Murray also explained the dangers of not having basic needs met. When a person needs resources to survive, like food or housing, they may put themselves in harm’s way. The term is called “survival sex,” and it has lead to human trafficking, she shared.
Like many adults, children unfortunately do not always have the resources needed for survival, which makes them, too, more vulnerable to sex trafficking, said both Booher and Murray.
Voice of Hope and DePelchin offer assistance in these areas, and Murray encouraged anyone who may be near their breaking point or simply wants to talk, to reach out for resources. She expressed a desire to help find food, housing and medical care for people and children who may consider dangerous situations.
Foster agencies in Lubbock take in trafficked children, but in some areas of Texas, not having enough placements has lead to unlicensed fostering, sexual abuse and other dangerous situations, according to a Texas Tribune article.
There are many ways to help strengthen the Lubbock non-profit, child welfare sector, Booher explained, “like giving to donation stations, supporting foster families, and volunteering.”
Booher and Murray hoped shedding light on these issues will lead people to reach out to agencies near them and offer help. Booher said there are always opportunities for you to give back in ways that work for you.