2021 is finally upon us and allows us the opportunity to set new goals, renew perspectives, work on ourselves and remain attentive to things going on around us. If anything, 2020 brought awareness. Awareness of ourselves, the world we live in, current events, how good people are, and unfortunately, how bad people can be. While the darker happenings of the world don’t often seem close to home, it’s important to understand that oftentimes they’re closer than we think.
January is National Slavery & Human Trafficking Prevention Month and January 11 is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. In light of this day, the hope is to be diligently aware of a very real problem in which more people than we know are involved. Regardless of personal, political or religious beliefs, human trafficking is a topic that has had more light shed on it recently, and we can only hope that the light can remain as bright as possible to continually raise awareness.
According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, human trafficking is the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of persons through threat or use of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception, abuse of power or vulnerability, or giving payments or benefits to a person in control of the victim for exploitation, which includes exploiting the prostitution of others, sexual exploitation, forced labor, slavery or similar practices and the removal of organs. There are many types of trafficking that include forced labor, bonded labor/debt labor, child slavery, domestic servitude and sex slavery or trafficking. Addison-based Traffick911’s mission is to free youth from sex trafficking. Of sex trafficking, specifically, Lindsey Speed, executive director of Traffick911 explains further, “Trafficking can look many different ways, but at its core, trafficking is the exploitation of vulnerability. Sex trafficking typically involves a sex buyer (the demand), a victim (primarily women and girls) and a trafficker (providing the supply). Traffickers often take advantage of a girl’s vulnerability, such as an unstable home life, and lure them into a ‘better life.’ Once lured, the trafficker asserts psychological control over the victim, buyers purchase sex from the victim and the trafficker takes the profit. Sex trafficking is right here in our North Texas communities – often happening at hotels, motels, apartment complexes or Illegal Massage Businesses (IMBs) – because there are men in our communities who believe it is ok to objectify and commodify women and girls.”
Globally, the most common form of human trafficking is sexual exploitation and the victims of such exploitation are largely women and girls. Surprisingly, in 30 percent of countries that provided information to the United Nations, women make up the largest proportions of traffickers. The second most common form of global human trafficking is forced labor and though trafficking seemingly implies people moving across continents, most exploitation takes place close to home. The United Nations’ data shows that intra-regional and domestic trafficking are the major forms of trafficking in persons. Texas ranks second in the country behind California for trafficking frequency, with more than 300,000 annual victims statewide, approximately 79,000 youth and minor victims of sex trafficking in Texas. In Dallas, it’s estimated that 400 teens are sold for sex every night as part of a $99 million illegal industry. Program Director Letetia Smith of Treasured Vessels Foundation, a Frisco-based foundation that provides safe communities that restore survivors of sexual exploitation to achieve their true potential adds, “We think that it happens overseas and not in our back yards and that it doesn’t happen in Frisco, Dallas, Plano, McKinney. That’s probably the biggest misconception. We want people to know that it is happening in your backyard. The other misconception is that kids are kidnapped. There’s a one percent chance of that happening, but a lot of it happens in a variety of different ways, such as online and even families trafficking their own kids. I want the community to know that it is happening in your neighborhood.”
Ms. Speed says that there isn’t necessarily one demographic that’s targeted for trafficking. “Since trafficking is basically the exploitation of any vulnerability, that means anyone could be trafficked. However, people with the most vulnerabilities are most likely to be targeted through psychological manipulation or the promise of a relationship. This means kids are vulnerable in their very essence, but they are especially vulnerable to the manipulation tactics of predators if they don’t have stable, loving relationships in their homes, if they experience abuse or neglect from people they trust, or if they are affected by poverty or other instability in their childhood. Statistically, victims of trafficking tend to be women and girls disproportionately of color.” Factors that increase vulnerability include a history of physical, sexual, or verbal abuse, homelessness, poverty, chaotic home life and substance abuse.
While Frisco is a largely affluent area, residents must remain diligent in educating themselves as there are many misconceptions and preconceived notions regarding human trafficking that hinder our understanding and the reality of the issue. Ms. Speed wants citizens to know that “if you have a steady income and stable people in your life caring for you, you more than likely will not be targeted by a trafficker. Traffickers are smart and they know how to prey upon young people who are already invisible. While it’s true that anyone can be a target for trafficking, it’s a grievous misconception to believe that women being kidnapped and smuggled across borders is the most common trafficking situation in the U.S.”
Ms. Speed continues, “Of the 1,700 victims Traffick911 has served, the vast majority were coming from an impoverished community, running away from neglect or abuse, or fleeing the foster care system. Most have experienced deep relational brokenness in their own families or homes, making them more vulnerable to the manipulation tactics of traffickers. Many were sold for sex mere miles from the homes where they grew up. However, young people who have unsupervised access to the Internet can be vulnerable (no matter their socioeconomic status) as predators often seek to build a relationship with youth online. We have served teenagers who were groomed via social media, only to find out their ‘friend’ on the other side of the screen is someone other than whom they claim to be. To effectively work toward a solution, you have to understand the social dynamics of your own community, be aware trafficking happens in every city and invest in organizations who are utilizing research and specialized training to serve victims and arrest perpetrators.”
While many might think that human trafficking would seemingly be easy to spot or literally see, Ms. Speed wants citizens to know that it can be difficult to spot because victims are walking around in plain sight and certainly may not ask for help, or even look like they need help. “We try to be mindful of sharing with the public a certain list of signs because it’s not that black and white. Instead, we like to equip professionals such as teachers, social workers and medical professionals with tools and in-depth training because someone is more likely to identify a victim once they’ve built trust and/or have an established relationship to understand the complexities of what may be going on,” she concludes.
Unfortunately, there isn’t any one specific thing we can do to put a hard stop to human trafficking but, according to Ms. Speed, knowledge is power. We can educate ourselves and others given that, like any social issue, trafficking is much more complicated than most forms of media make it out to be. “For example, trafficking very rarely happens in the form of a kidnapping,” Ms. Speed admits. “For every kidnapping case you hear on the news, there are many more cases of coercion or fraud by someone the victim knows. The difficult thing is that because traffickers groom and manipulate their victims, youth who are being exploited most likely will not ask for help,” she explains. Ms. Speed believes sharing the truth about the issues is vital as well. Additionally, we must not share sensational stories. Ms. Speed encourages residents to ensure that the source of the story is reputable, that a victim’s abuse isn’t being exploited for drama or personal gain and that the story is advocating for the voices and dignity of survivors before sharing. Lastly, we can invest in vetted organizations that are doing the work on the ground.
While community members and area residents can work hard to educate themselves and raise awareness, there are incredible programs right here in North Texas that are dedicated to education, awareness and serving those rescued from human trafficking. Traffick911’s mission lies in freeing youth from sex trafficking through trust-based relationships and through the utilization of a 24/7 crisis response team, advocates and community volunteer mentors who walk along with child sex trafficking victims with multi-disciplinary team partners. “We believe our communities are most likely to see trafficked youth heal from trauma and reclaim their lives when they are given the tools and stability to build healthy and safe relationships,” states Ms. Speed. The Treasured Vessels Foundation (TVF) provides safe places for victims of human trafficking to be restored to their full potential by way of a residential living facility in North Texas and operates as a clinically therapeutic aftercare program for survivors of domestic sex trafficking. “Our residential program consists of life skills, financial literacy, leadership development, education and S.T.E.M. (Science Technology Engineering Math),” Ms. Smith explains.
“We also offer in-house counseling service for our residents to continue their healing.”
It’s not easy to talk about, and it’s even harder to grasp that it’s happening so close to home, but the reality of human trafficking both globally and right here in North Texas is that it’s happening and it’s happening more than we think. While there isn’t a magic-wand-waving solution to make it disappear, we can help. We can make a difference. We can be educated. We can remain aware. When it comes to addressing the issue, Ms. Smith sums it up perfectly: “Trafficking is an issue at the community level. Therefore, the solution has to come from a community level. The extent to which individuals understand the issues and take informed action is the extent to which the existence of trafficking will be challenged.”