Houston, We Have A Human Trafficking Problem

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, and January 11th is Human Trafficking Awareness Day. Most of us have at least a baseline level of knowledge around what human trafficking is, but essentially there are two main types of human trafficking – sex trafficking and labor trafficking. The National Human Trafficking Hotline defines human trafficking as, “the business of stealing freedom for profit. In some cases, traffickers trick, defraud or physically force victims into providing commercial sex {sex trafficking}. In others, victims are lied to, assaulted, threatened or manipulated into working under inhumane, illegal or otherwise unacceptable conditions {labor trafficking}.

Houston, We Have A Human Trafficking ProblemDid you know that according to Crime Stoppers and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Houston is the largest human trafficking hub in Texas and among the largest human trafficking hubs in all of the United States? Texas as a whole ranks #2 {only after California} among all 50 states in terms of human trafficking rates, and approximately one-fourth of human trafficking in Texas involves young people forced into prostitution. I don’t know about you, but as a mother of three children those statistics scared the daylights out of me. I started to dig deeper into this issue researching why Houston appears to be ground zero for human trafficking, little known or surprising ways in which our children are targeted for sex trafficking, and what we can do about it.

Why is Houston Ground Zero for Human Trafficking?

There are a number of things about Houston that make it a prime hub for human trafficking activity, including::

  • Proximity to the US/Mexico border
  • Houston is the midway point on the I-10 corridor between California and Florida, making transport of victims very easy. It is also one of the busiest ports in the world with one of the busiest international airports in the world.
  • There is a high volume of brothels and strip clubs in the greater Houston area {it is estimated that there are over 400 active brothels and storefront sex businesses in the area, with an average of 2 new ones opening every month}
  • The city hosts a significant number of major sporting events and industry conventions annually. Anything that attracts men with money, attracts sex trafficking.
  • Houston is a very ethnically diverse city, making it harder for victims to visually stand out in the general population.

Surprising Ways in Which Our Children Are Being Targeted for Sex Trafficking

For years, I was embarrassingly naïve about this topic and thought that sex trafficking victims were mainly runaways and that such things couldn’t possibly occur in suburbia. Boy, was I wrong! People, this is absolutely happening in our nice little suburban backyards and in many cases right under our noses. The more I learned just how manipulative and sneaky traffickers are these days thanks to the power and reach of technology and social media, the more I wanted to place my three children in protective bubbles until the age of 40. According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, “Traffickers often target children with increased vulnerabilities and prey upon a child’s vulnerability and use psychological pressure and intimidation to control, and sexually exploit the child for financial benefit. Traffickers and buyers of children for sex encompass all racial, socio-economic and cultural groups.”

  • Social media grooming:: Sex traffickers often use social media to lure their target into an online relationship, with the ultimate goal of meeting in person. Grooming tactics are very similar to those used by sexual predators and often involve promises of a job or expensive gifts. Traffickers often set up fake social media accounts and pretend to “friend” children to gain their trust until the child eventually agrees to meet the “friend” in person. 
     
  • Classified advertisement boards:: Whether digital or physical, classified ad boards are prime hangouts for sex traffickers. Often “ads” will be posted citing parties, casting calls or employment opportunities for teens with promises of a “good time” or “great pay.” Again, the goal is to establish an in person meeting with the child once a baseline level of interest or trust has been established.
     
  • Strategic friendships:: According to Crime Stoppers, sex traffickers often place recruiters directly into schools, camps, churches, and other youth organizations to identify and target potential victims. Once the friendship blossoms, the recruiter introduces alcohol or drugs to start the process of breaking the child down and creating a wedge between the child and his/her family.
  • Juvenile treatment facilities:: Sex traffickers have unfortunately penetrated the juvenile justice system in many cases and often target children who legitimately need counseling and rehabilitation for either substance abuse or trauma. They lure unsuspecting victims into trafficking traps through typical grooming methods and incite fear into them if they do not do as they are told.

How You Can Protect Your Children from Sex Trafficking

  • Talk to your kids about all types of human trafficking. Teach them about things to avoid and how to spot the signs of human trafficking around them. Inform them about all 4 of the tactics described above that traffickers use with children and make sure they understand when and how to report suspected trafficking.
  • Talk to your kids about pornography. Stop pretending that it is a taboo topic and talk through the facts about porn with your kids. Review the current laws with them and remind them that a minor cannot willingly choose to take a photo of themselves and share it because that is illegal and that children who share or post inappropriate photos of themselves or send inappropriate photos to someone who asks will be held responsible for the creation and distribution of child pornography.
  • Leverage the power of internet security tools and apps on your child’s internet enabled devices and phones.  Some of the top tools and apps for monitoring child safety online include:
    • Bark – an app that connects to 24 platforms to monitor your child’s text messages, emails and social activity for signs of harmful interactions and content. Parents can receive automatic alerts via email and text when Bark’s algorithms detect potential risks so you don’t have to comb through every post and text.
    • Mobicip – an app that tracks browsing history and app usage, sets screen time limits, and blocks content.
    • My Mobile Watchdog – an app that allows you to access your child’s text messages, call logs and location. Parents can remove or block apps, allow or delete contacts, and be alerted of any unapproved communication.
    • Qustodio – an app that allows parents to monitor features for social networking, games and apps, text messages and calls. There is even a location tracking and panic button feature, which offers an extra level or protection for children.
    • TeenSafe-an app that allows parents to view sent, received, and even deleted text messages. The app also allows parents to view their child’s activity on apps such as Instagram, Kik and WhatsApp. 

As parents, we obviously cannot physically or even virtually monitor every single move that our children make in their daily lives. However, what we can do is empower them with knowledge and education on important topics like human trafficking and ensure they understand how to spot it, how to avoid it, and how to report it. Despite the current human trafficking statistics for our beloved city of Houston, city officials and law enforcement are taking aggressive action and investing a significant amount of money and resources into combating the problem. There are a number of anti-human trafficking task forces and Crime Stoppers groups that have been formed with strong backing and support at the city, state, and federal level. Hopefully, we can work together as a community to end human trafficking in Houston. 

If you or someone you know is a victim of human trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888 or test “HELP” or “INFO” to 233733.

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