Victims or Offenders? Young Women and Sex Trafficking in Houston

If we refer to young women in Houston as sex trafficking victims, why are so many of them arrested and put in detention on prostitution charges?

 

One of Houston’s “worst kept secrets” is slowly becoming a known and accepted fact. Victim advocates say sex trafficking is a $99 billion a year industry. In the Lone Star State, a study from the University of Texas states 79,000 trafficked victims are minors. No matter how they got into “the life,” as so many call it, getting out is never easy. Read that full article here.

There are even services sprouting up, one titled the “Anti-Trafficking Alliance” (aka ATA.HTX) to find these young women and get them out of the grips of this life.

Many of these young women advertise their services on a cite called backpage.com. As of April 6, 2018, the website was seized by the federal government. You can read more about the charges against the founders here.

Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said the seizure of the site was “an important step forward in the fight against human trafficking. This builds on the historic effort in Congress to reform the law that for too long has protected websites like Backpage from being held liable for enabling the sale of young women and children.”

With all of this positive change and reform surrounding sex trafficking, the question still remains: why arrest and charge these girls? If the men and women who force them to perform these services are only receiving probation: why arrest and charge these girls?

To their credit, Harris County has formed CARE court (formerly referred to as “girls court”) to help these types of girls. However, there are only limited spots and it is difficult to get accepted. The majority are left to the regular juvenile court. Many are kept in detention, or sent off to placement. Placement can help, as there are therapy and support groups. However, many girls run away to go back to “the life” for many reasons.

Some enjoy it, some like the money, some like the freedom, some trust these “groomers” more than their own family, some are just scared.

But why should they be punished because a “groomer” got to them at their most impressionable age? An age where they have trouble standing up against peer pressure? An age where they are both pleasure and thrill seeking? An age where they rebel against their parents? An age where they have no income of their own and might see this as an opportunity?

According to Fort Bend Co. Pct. 3 Constable Wayne Thompson, groomers “lure young people into these environments and start them off by gaining their friendship and then introducing them to alcohol and drugs. The next thing you know, you end up in a different city and you don’t know where you’re at or how to get away.”

As recently as February 20, 2018, there was an article about Houston entitled, “How to protect your child from sex trafficking predators in the suburbs.” Read all about it here.

If the majority of the reporting on all of this talks about this young women as victims, why are we still arresting them? Hopefully, the shutting down of backpage.com is a step in the right direction.

If you yourself have been a victim of sex trafficking or know anyone who needs help: here are some local (Harris County) resources.

Anti-Trafficking Alliance HTX specializes in investigations to locate and recover trafficking victim. You can contact them at 713-714-6612.

Rescue Houston, a 24/7 hotline for victims in Houston. You can contact them at 713-322-8000.

Elijah Rising, a Houston-based group working to combat sex trafficking through prayer, awareness, intervention and aftercare.

Weekly Roundup

Nine Groups Call for Gov. Abbott to Appoint Task Force to Address School Policing, RGVProud

Citing recent police use of force on students in Texas schools by school resource officers, [on May 17th] nine advocacy organizations called on Governor Greg Abbott to establish a task force to examine school policing issues in preparation for the 2017 legislative session and school year.

Dear Decaturish – Georgia juvenile justice reform is model for the nation, Decaturish.com

In recent years, Georgians have quietly and decisively transformed the criminal justice system for adults and children alike. It’s a remarkable story of bipartisan cooperation and consensus-building . . .The process began more than four years ago when Gov. Nathan Deal set into motion a determined dialogue about how to reform the state’s criminal justice system.

[. . .]

In 2011, the governor created the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform to address the problems.

[. . .]

Although it’s premature to offer conclusive data on life outcomes for adults and children affected by the new reforms, early data is strong.

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Making a Murderer: Children’s Susceptibility to Giving False Confessions

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During the last few months, many have watched the Netflix series Making A Murderer, which was released last December. The documentary project chronicles the story of Steven Avery, who was imprisoned for an incident with convictions in both sexual assault and attempted murder. After 18 years of being confined, DNA advances helped prove Avery’s innocence, leading to his exoneration in 2003. Two years later, however, Avery was arrested and eventually convicted for a different crime, the murder of Teresa Halbach. Making A Murderer follows the progression of that second crime and questions the validity of the criminal justice system.

A key component in securing Avery’s conviction for Halbach’s murder was the alleged confession of his then 16 year-old nephew Brendan Dassey. For his first interrogation, Brendan was pulled out of school. He was then questioned alone for hours by Department of Justice investigator Tom Fassbender and Calumet Sheriff’s Sergeant Mark Wiegert, without access to a parent or an attorney. Clips from several different interrogations of Brendan by those two individuals and an additional investigator, Michael O’Kelly, are included within the series. The snippets not only raise questions regarding the validity of Brendan’s confessions, but they also pose concerns about the examination tactics used on minors.

During the course of several interviews, the video clips reveal that Brendan changed his story several times. Sometimes he denied any wrongdoing, while other times agreeing to his participation in Halbach’s murder. Part of this wavering might be attributed to the investigators’ leading questions. An example is when Fassbender and Wiegert were trying to elicit an important detail of the murder: that the victim had been shot in the head. After continually asking Brendan what he and Avery did to Halbach, the investigator becomes more specific and asks what was done to her head. Brendan appears to be guessing at what he is supposed to answer, first offering that they punched her and cut her. However, after growing impatient, one of the detectives bluntly asks Brendan who shot her in the head. After Brendan blames his uncle, he is asked why he had not just stated that, to which he responds, “[be]cause I couldn’t think of it.”

At a separate interrogation with O’Kelly, Brendan is again pressed for details. Although he initially denies any wrongdoing, Brendan eventually begins to “cooperate.” During that time lapse between Brendan’s denial and confession, O’Kelly stresses that Brendan cannot be helped unless he tells the truth, asks whether Brendan wants to spend “the rest of [his] life in jail,” and emphasizes the need for Brendan to be sorry for what he did. Additionally, O’Kelly not only laid out photographs related to the crime on the table in front of Brendan, but he also instructed Brendan to draw pictures about what allegedly occurred during the crime. All of these actions, especially in the aggregate, create great pressure for a child to provide his “confession.”

One might contend that a 16-year old teenager is old enough to understand the repercussions of such grave admissions and thus will not divulge any false information. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Rather, young and even teen-aged children are more susceptible to giving false confessions than adults. In addition to being more vulnerable to succumbing to interrogation tactics, they are also more likely to want to please authority figures by telling them what they think they want to hear. Furthermore, many times children’s desire to go home or talk to their parent is leveraged against them. In one of his examinations, one of the interrogators begins by stating Brendan’s mom had told him her son would be honest with them and that Brendan should not “let [his] mom down.”

Other factors may further increase a child’s propensity to give a false confession. For example, a child’s ability to understand what is happening may greatly impact their willingness to participate. Kids who look exactly the same may have completely different capacities to understand the situation. Age alone does not accurately indicate a child’s comprehension. Children vary widely in their past experiences and their education, which can greatly alter their experience in an interrogation by limiting their comprehension of the interrogator’s vocabulary, for instance. Brendan reportedly has a below average IQ and had never been in trouble of any sort prior to this incident, indicating he was not likely to be savvy with questionings about alleged wrongdoings.

Fortunately, Brendan’s interrogations were videotaped and thus help illustrate the pitfalls of questioning children fairly. When undertaking this feat, it is not only essential to ensure that the child understands his or her Miranda rights—to remain silent and obtain an attorney—but it is equally important to question a child in a manner that does not impose unfair pressures.

Brendan Dassey’s case consequently serves as a reminder that although filming the questioning of a child is extremely important, it is an insufficient safeguard to guarantee that children are protected against self-incrimination or against giving false confessions that are later used against them for their prosecution.