Texas Confronts Human Trafficking With Its Own Policies

The Lone Star state is one of many trying to combat human trafficking and help its victims with state programs.
by , | August 31, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Her mother prostituted her at the age of six. By age 11, she was addicted to heroin and pregnant. But when local health officials saw her condition, they didn’t ask any questions about the circumstances of her pregnancy. She gave birth to her first child at age 12. It took more than 30 years for her to escape a life of sexual abuse and drug addiction. In her testimony before a Texas legislative committee this June, Debbie described in vivid detail her life as a victim of human trafficking—and the past failures of state and local authorities to address her plight.

“I was 11 and I still got no questions. Nobody,” she told lawmakers. “I didn’t matter.”

Most think of human trafficking as a federal issue: it’s first and foremost a federal crime, and the 2000 Victims and Violence Protection Act has funneled hundreds of millions of federal dollars toward services to aid those victimized by it. But stories like Debbie’s serve as a reminder that state and local governments have a role to play. That’s the position that Texas State Sen. Leticia Van de Putte took this summer as she pushed her fellow lawmakers to develop better support for the crime’s victims.

It’s a particularly salient issue for Texas. More than 2,500 cases of human trafficking were investigated between 2008 and 2010, according to the U.S. Justice Department, and the number of victims could be as high as 17,500. And a quarter of all U.S. human trafficking cases originate in Texas, says Van de Putte, because the state has become a hub for the commercial sex industry and a major highway for drug traffickers.

Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation in 2011 to set stricter penalties for those convicted of human trafficking; the bill also mandated four hours of human trafficking training for law enforcement. (42 other states have introduced similar legislation since 2004, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures). But, as Van de Putte noted at the time: “There is still much work to be done on services for the survivors."

So, she convened two hearings this summer (with a third planned for the fall) to explore ways to improve public services for human trafficking victims. Debbie was one of many survivors and advocates who told their stories to state legislators. Those services could include shelters or safe houses, health care, mental health treatment and remedial training to prepare them to go back into the world. Van de Putte’s staff is in the process of drafting legislation based on the hearings, with the November being the earliest possible date for a bill to be introduced. Texas isn’t alone: according to NCSL, at least 21 states have introduced legislation in the last eight years targeted toward such services.

Work is also underway on the local level in the Lone Star state. One of the foremost concerns is simply raising public awareness about the problem, says Maria Trujillo, executive director of the Houston Rescue and Restoration Coalition, a non-profit group that supports human trafficking victims. “We really needed to make sure people knew it exists in our community,” she says. “It isn’t happening in a far distant land somewhere. It is happening in our own backyard.”

To that end, going beyond the 2011 legislation’s requirement for law enforcement training, Houston Mayor Annise Parker initiated a month-long outreach campaign in 2011 to educate the public and public workers about how to spot signs of a problem. Early indications suggest the effort had an impact: 30 percent of calls to Texas’s human trafficking hotline, the biggest in the United States, came from Houston last year, Trujillo says.

Human trafficking is a shadowy topic, which by its very nature results in incomplete statistics and uncertainty about best practices. In that context, lawmakers must think outside the box, Trujillo says. She points to one specific example: as part of Texas’s 2011 legislation, businesses selling alcohol were required to post 8x11 notices about human trafficking. While it’s unknown how much impact those small signs have had on public awareness, they do allow Texas Beverage Association officials to check for compliance at those establishments. State workers can then use those visits as opportunities to gather new information.

The possibility of training cable installers or building inspectors to look for signs of human trafficking has also been floated. Policymakers have more tools at their disposal than they think, Trujillo says. “These sex traffickers are very creative,” she says. “We need to be even more creative.”