Texas Legislature Looking at Increasing Help for Sex Trafficking Victims
By Margaret Nicklas
For Reporting Texas and the Dallas Morning News
AUSTIN — As Dallas builds a locally funded treatment center to provide services for victims of sex traffickers, a state legislative committee is looking at whether Texas needs to do more to help others statewide.
Dallas police said they identify more than 100 underage girls annually who have been coerced into prostitution. Those who prostitute them face criminal charges.
But officials believe the young women need time, space, and professional help to recover. Dallas broke ground this month for the Letot Girls’ Center, which will provide residential treatment for as many as 96 victims a year.
There are no similar programs at the state level, but the Legislature’s Joint Interim Committee to Study Human Trafficking is looking at possible changes in state law and programs to help victims. The committee meets Tuesday in Houston to hear from nonprofit groups, cities and counties about their programs and unmet needs.
Sex trafficking has been reported statewide. A recent state attorney general’s report, while acknowledging difficulty identifying victims and a lack of standardized reporting, confirmed 369 cases over four years. More than 95 percent of those dealt involved forced prostitution.
A 2011 report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice produced similar findings. The Congressional Research Service found last year that organizations that work with trafficking victims had fewer than 50 beds nationwide in specialized treatment facilities.
The interim committee is studying how to provide better services for trafficking victims and modify laws to better reflect their needs.
Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, said the committee she co-chairs will look at “what laws that we can enhance, and how we can take a bigger bite out of this serious problem.”
The committee is focused on young American women, who have few services and resources available. Immigrants are often served by federal programs.
Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio, the committee’s other co-chair, said trafficking victims need housing, mental health services and medical care. The Legislature toughened penalties for sex traffickers in 2011, but Van de Putte said victims need more attention next year.
“Human trafficking has now surpassed drugs worldwide for profit, second only to arms dealing,” she said. “You can only sell drugs one time. You can sell a human 10, 12 times a day.”
The committee heard previously from Bexar County, which recently implemented a screening process to detect trafficking victims in juvenile detention. Since 2010, the program has identified 200 children at high risk, including 40 who reported being sexually exploited, said John Moran, gang unit supervisor at the Bexar County Juvenile Probation Department.
The county has partnered with nonprofits such as the Rape Crisis Center in San Antonio to provide counseling that wouldn’t otherwise be available, he said.
The $9.4 million Letot Girls’ Center also was highlighted in one of the committee’s hearings this year. The facility, under construction now, will provide victims ages 13 to 17 with up to a year of residential treatment. Money for the center, which Dallas County will operate, came mostly from private sources.
Roddrick Armwood, superintendent of the Letot Center, said about 80 girls are transferred out of Dallas County each year because local, long-term facilities are not available.
“We’re just making sure we bring it back to Dallas County and serve the girls properly here,” he said.
Dallas Police Sgt. Byron Fassett said between 100 and 150 girls are identified each year as being trafficked for sex. They tend to be runaways who have been abused and might not trust others, he said.
And some don’t get help because they don’t consider themselves victims.
“These children have to be seen as their own class of victim,” Fassett said.
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