Over 8 years ago, the Texas Young Lawyers Association sought to shed light on the harsh reality of Texas child sex trafficking. They desired to build awareness of the global issue of this form of modern slavery. Together with law enforcement, service providers, survivors, and advocates, TYLA continues to fight. They fight for the freedom and restoration for every survivor.
Stellar Media partnered with TYLA to produce this impactful storytelling video. Our team brainstormed the visual concept, and scouted interview locations that fit the feel of the story to be told. This, combined with powerful testimony, made this piece as impactful as it is.
Over eight years ago, in partnership with the Texas Bar Foundation, the Texas Young Lawyers Association sought to shed light on the harsh reality of modern slavery and build awareness on the global issue of human trafficking. Since the initial release of Slavery Out of the Shadows spotlight on human trafficking project, the anti trafficking movement has become more active in awareness, more intentional in its responses, and more victims centered in trauma, informed in its care of survivors through incredible advocacy and leadership of key stakeholders. The anti trafficking movement is adapting to shifting circumstances, disproportionate impacts and new challenges. Including those of the past year with the COVID 19 pandemic.
Together with law enforcement, service providers, survivors and advocates TYLA continues to fight. We fight for the freedom and restoration for every survivor of human trafficking.
Human trafficking is the exploitation for sexual endeavors and forced labor. And it happens in every city and every town and really in every neighborhood and across the nation. It hides in plain sight. The victim of Texas child sex trafficking appears bruised and walked by a leash down the street.
They're going to be presentable. They're going to interact as much as they can. The victim of human trafficking is probably down the street for from you. They are probably your neighbor, probably somebody that, you know, through social media. And similar to domestic violence.
What they what they put on the on their social media is and what's really going on in life.
There are certain things that I think everyone needs to be educated on. There are risk factors, that you should be aware of, that everyone should be aware of. Sexual abuse of a child increases the risk of sexual exploitation.
There's also poor school attendance. There's also been a runaway on runaway. There are a lot of dangers out there that these foster youth are not able to recognize until they're out on their own. And runaway status of homelessness is also an issue. Unhealthy relationships, relationships with young with men and women that are a lot older than them, that raise a big concern. Substance abuse are possible risk factors as well.
That also heightens the risk factor for an individual to be a victim of sexual exploitation.
Traffickers are absolutely going to target individuals across a spectrum, if you're vulnerable.
There's familial trafficking, and that means that a mom and her idea of desperation feels like she has to sell her daughter to the landlord in exchange for free rent so that she can feed her family. So it's it's this desperation and vulnerability of people that a lot of us can't relate to.
Just because a person is saying they're happy, fine, or safe doesn't necessarily mean that they are. If you see somebody that appears to be malnourished, that has injuries that aren't necessarily easily explainable.
They never let you outside. They control the person that they're calling maybe a boyfriend or a friend or something. But that person just is always there with them and always seems to be having a controlling presence.
Those are the kind of things that might make you want to ask a few more questions.
The first most important thing to do is to identify them. And the only way to identify them would be through a tool. Texas presently uses the "See It" tool.
We use this tool to identify youth or other sexually exploited victims. Another tool that the government uses, this is a quick identification tool. Those tools determine whether an individual is their concern for possible sexual exploitation. Once those tools are utilized by someone who is trained, then you can identify whether or not these individuals should be referred for other services.
Victims of Texas child sex trafficking are not prostitutes. They are not criminals themselves. They may have a lot of activity of their own that makes them criminals for other reasons. But at the end of the day, they're victims. They have been brought into this system by a manipulative trafficker. This person probably abused them beyond measure, and they are victims. And maybe that victimization is now led to them victimizing others, which is horrible. But they really are victims. Victims are more than the dregs of society.
We want people to see them as somebody that was manipulated into this life. As someone who was recruited into this life that didn't choose to be in this life. For law enforcement not to criminalize these these victims. We want the legal system not to criminalize these victims. To realize that they need our help and that they didn't choose this life. Victims struggle exiting after recruitment.
When you're looking for a trafficker, there's no way to know if their trafficker or not. The trafficker can look like a normal person. You could see this doctor who's very affluent and he is white and is a supportive person in the community.
But you don't know what's happening behind closed doors because he could be trafficking young boys. And then you swing the pendulum and you have this reality check that it could be a mom and a dad that is trafficking their child, or maybe it's a boyfriend or an aunt or an uncle.
A familial trafficking is on the rise. And that's something that people have a hard time recognizing, because when you look at a family unit, it's really easy to disguise that. But when you close that door, you have no idea what's happening behind closed doors.
And so the reality and the wide spectrum of what the trafficker looks like, there's no way to tell. And so you have to understand what the trafficker does in his master manipulation to understand, oh, maybe he's hanging out with my family too much or why is my child going over to his house by himself or why is he talking to my child on social media? Those different things. Those are the ways that you're able to identify the trafficker. You can't just look at the person and say, oh, you're a trafficker because they look like anybody.
And these individuals, what they do is they find ways of reaching these particular victims through social media, through other individuals that could be through a friend of theirs who perhaps was already a victim of Texas child sex trafficking. And what happens?
They recruit others for that individual. This helps that trafficker find others to victimize. Traffickers know exactly what to say, they say the right words.
They offer them the perfect things. If it's friendship they're looking for, they'll offer them friendship. Or if it's a companion they're looking for to offer them companionship. If it's a home shelter, they'll offer them a homeless shelter. If it's drugs, because these individuals are perhaps engaged in substance abuse, don't offer them substance, offer them illegal substances.
That's what these traffickers do. They know exactly how to reach these individuals and they target certain individuals who they know are the individuals that would be able to become a victim of sexual sexual exploitation. These children don't know.
These children have no idea this is going on, nor adults know that this is going on. It is not until they're already deep into this sexual exploitation that they've come to realize traffickers do what they do. Nine times out of ten hurt causes this. They cannot handle the intense darkness that they have inside of them. And so it's almost like it's a release.
To make money, there's so much of it that that the money aspect of it is evil. And it's this reality of I can I can push my pain down because I can elevate myself with money and shiny things and all these people around me that are glorifying me and traffickers.
I hate to give them any credit, but they are master manipulators. They know how to pull out somebody who is vulnerable from a crowd and target them and promise them things that that they would have never thought they could have had.
And so they do this master manipulation to pull you out and they kind of really you into this false reality. Then they may date you for three or six months thinking that he's just your boyfriend. And then the switch flips and you're now a stripper.
Like you are sort of like surviving in the moment. You are a victim of human trafficking and you don't even know how you got there.
Victims travel from Texas to New York to Kentucky. And a lot of big events play into that. Expect that whenever a huge event like the Kentucky Derby or Super Bowl come to a city. Traffickers are organized enough to know that they can work with their counterparts in other cities and states to ship all the victims to wherever the Super Bowl is happening, wherever a big events happening, and they'll know that they just have business that entire weekend.
So definitely an organized activity, definitely a lot of the organized crime elements of that.
If you are participating in pornography or you know, anything that is related to the sex industry, you are participating in modern day slavery. We need to not just say boys will be boys.
And also then there's the other piece of it of actually producing those images and videos of child sexual abuse. We use the term "child sexual abuse material" more than child pornography now.
But when you're talking about Texas child sex trafficking, you know, the entire idea of posting an advertisement of the minor often comes with producing and posting pornographic images of that minor. And then that is is a way that the minor thinks they have to sell themselves.
They have to embrace that. They have to make those pictures, those videos, so that they could be liked and be bought and all the things that go along with feeling like when you're really being trafficked, feeling like you have some control over it.
Technology has probably been the biggest change over the last 10 plus years and just the nature of human trafficking. So many people are able to get a hold of teenagers and younger people through technology, through phones that are being given to younger and younger kids today.
And with that comes social media and different applications. There are countless applications that are used to communicate with people. And it's very, very easy to find kids on there. And as sad as that is, it's just what's happening every day.
We see cases all the time where, you know, you get kids on line that think it's just Facebook, it's just kick. It's just whatever it is. All of a sudden they're getting messages about coming to work for a job.
Then the job leads to pictures and the job leads to not being fed, not being given money, being forced into hotel rooms to do things with people they never imagined they'd be doing. And that's just because they had an innocent little profile on whatever social media application.
One of the other big changes from the world we're in today versus just a couple of years ago was in April of 2018. The federal government took down Backpage. And for many years, Backpage was seen as pretty much the end all be all of sex trafficking.
It was very, very hard to get posts taken down. It was very hard to do much of anything investigation wise with Backpage. And it was an easy place to go to find minors for sex trafficking. The federal government was able to take it down.
And so now what that's caused is a very fractured. World of social media and other Web sites and localized Web sites being used for sex trafficking instead of just kind of this one main hub Web site, and that has good things and bad things with Backpage not being around anymore, there's not one clear place to go to. But also, with all these smaller websites and methods of finding victims, you know, traffickers are still finding ways to advertise. It's just a matter of investigators knowing where to look to try to take them down.
As I have been a child protection court judge and in my years as a child protection court judge, I have had the experience of sitting down with foster youth and really talking to them about certain behaviors. And sometimes what happens is the behaviors that they'll tell me.
We look at them in a microscope. We look at them as that certain behavior. But it isn't until you actually go back to what exactly happened in their life, either what brought them into foster care or what happened prior to foster care involvement.
And when you look into that, you start realizing exactly what has occurred in their life. You realize the trauma that they have experienced by their family members, by other individuals and individuals that they trusted. And so they have an inability or difficulty to trust again.
And what we should do as judges and as a community is understand that these victims may not trust answers, they not trust teachers, may not trust doctors or even judges or providers. So we need to understand that we need to be there at all times.
Whether or not this victim is wanting the services or wishing to pursue services. But I understand that there's going to be that issue of trust and continued to show that unwavering support for these victims.
A good prevention strategy for preventing sexual trafficking, sex trafficking or sexual violence of any kind is realizing that it's a problem that can be solved and addressing these issues that have been deep seated in our community for a long time.
Objectification of women, that is a big, big issue. People think that some people think that you can purchase a human being. So we have to change our perspective. We have to change our attitudes and our way of thinking.
So as we all know, Texas child sex trafficking cases can be very difficult in large part because you have victims that are sometimes also defendants themselves. They're the criminals themselves. They don't want to be identified as victims. They don't want to get out of the situation sometimes or they just don't know how.
So a task force approach to human trafficking is very important to just bring all the players together so that we can talk law enforcement about the investigation. Prosecutors about the potential prosecution and where we need to go to get the case in the right order before we even get there, but also bring in counselors and nonprofits in to try to see what the best victim centered approach is so that we can really take on the case from from a victim perspective in hopes of helping victims get out and become survivors, as well as put the traffickers behind bars.
And relationship is key. However, we do this work, so it's important that we have healthy relationships with the other organizations in our areas. It's important that we're not competing against each other. We have to show people what we're trying to cultivate and grow in those communities.
And so if we're fighting among each other, if we're not healthy, if we're doing this for the wrong reasons, the survivors that we're there to try to mentor and support are going to pick up on that. And they're not going to want to be a part of that.
That's like the old world. We're here to build a new life and to build something that's going to outlast these old things that are dark and destructive.
Survivor health is the most important thing to anyone doing this work. And when you hear the phrase holistic or wraparound services, that means that you are looking at the individual, just one individual. You're not looking at 10 of them.
You're looking at just one of them, and you're providing the care that that individual needs. You are fully wrapping her around them. So if they need equine therapy, you provide equine therapy. If they need art therapy, you provide art therapy.
If they need a source of joy, because so many of these young people were robbed of their childhood. So you're creating new memories and you're creating joy and fun and opportunities for them to figure out what their career is.
So you're basically fully wrapping around them and coming at every angle of what they need and how they need to take their next best step in life, the same as you and I or anybody else on the face of the planet. We're all different people. We've come from different experiences, different cultures with different personalities. So it's really important that whatever Texas child sex trafficking program that you're a part of that's reaching out to survivors, that's walking alongside survivors, that you treat that person as an individual person and you work their plan around them and about what their goals are, not what you have for them, but what they have for themselves.
And that, again, you're a supportive collaborator coming right next to them to say, hey, I'm on your team and I want to help push you to where it is that you're wanting to go. I might know some resources that maybe you don't know, maybe you haven't had the opportunity to know or have. And so that's kind of my role is coming alongside. It's not me saying I'm here and I'm going to drag you along, but instead that we're going to, again, do this together.
And the reality is, is that that growth sometimes is slower, but it's more sustainable and it's long lasting. And that's what we want for people. That's what I want for my life. I want to continue growing throughout my entire life.
And that's what I would want for anyone else that I care about in the last five to 10 years. A lot of the movement really has has changed. And at the same time, we're in the same place and a lot of ways.
So I think there's a greater awareness just in general in the world and in the United States that domestic trafficking happens often, which is awesome that we've had such great awareness movements. But I think what we're lacking is that continuation of that journey, that awareness is a really good place to start.
It's incredibly important. But if we don't have long term spaces for people to really heal and be able to get back to that life, that's not about being a trafficking survivor, but about really living, then we're really doing people an injustice.
There are a lot of people that don't want to talk about human trafficking, specifically Texas child sex trafficking. It's very taboo. It's a very hard thing to talk about. And so it's important for you to raise awareness that this is real and this is valid and this is a thing that's happening.
And it takes the entire community coming together, wrapping around survivors of Texas child sex trafficking because everyone plays a role. But the biggest challenge is communities recognizing that this is this is real.
And through that awareness, then people start to decide, well, maybe I can support survivors in my community, maybe I can give more money and give more resources to be able to support these groups of people in my community.
And so to me, I really think, you know, we're not all going to do all of the same things, and that's OK. But what is it that you're gifted in? Where are your resources and how will you connect and contribute that to some of the people in your community that are the most vulnerable.
You know, coming out, just having that person believe me, and really just loving me because I'm worthy of love, not because of anything that I can do for them or anything, you know, anything like that, just because I am human and I deserve love. You know, it took that one person like being consistent with me, you know, saying they were going to be there.
And when the time came for them to be there, they were there.
We don't need to be fixed. We want you to be here while we fix ourselves. And. Please, please, don't treat us like victims. We know that we have been victimized because of what we've gone through, but we didn't come out as victims.
We came out as survivors.
And we want to be seen as that. I recently learned that once entering the life that we had, like a life expectancy of seven years and sometimes even being so far out now, like it's been 10 years for me, and I'm like, damn. Every day was life and death. My worst day out of the life is one hundred percent better than my best day in the life.