The Runaways: Foster Youth & Sex Trafficking in Houston, TX

I can say without controversy, and as a die-hard Houstonian, that the streets of Houston are not an ideal place for unaccompanied minors— especially those without adequate resources and support—to have healthy, formative experiences. And yet, thousands of children find themselves in this situation every year. The Texas Department of Family & Protective Services reported that 1,707 youth placed under their conservatorship ran away from their placements in 2017. In its annual Foster Youth Runaway Report, DFPS noted that being a runaway or homeless youth constitutes the number one risk factor for exploitation. A total of 35 young people reported having been sex trafficked while on runaway status in 2017, per that same report.

Establishing a causal link between homelessness and exploitation in young people might seem straightforward or even obvious given the lack of resources, familial support, stability, and guidance inherent to being unhoused. But unpacking the concrete reality of the situation reveals even more distressing truths. According to several studies cited in a 2013 report by the HHS Administration on Children, Youth, and Families (ACYF), anywhere from fifty to more than ninety percent of children who were victims of sex trafficking had been previously involved with child welfare services. What do we make of this unsettling correlation? How are we failing foster kids by allowing them to fall victim to trafficking?

Last week, I attended a Zoom panel hosted by the Juvenile & Children’s Advocacy Project (JCAP), United Against Human Trafficking (UAHT), and Unbound Houston, an organization centered on human trafficking awareness and prevention. One of the panelists, NH, spoke on the harrowing experience of foster care and surviving human trafficking. She pointed out that, when dealing with trafficking allegations, DFPS focuses its investigations on the child’s household; that is, the Department only has the legal authority to investigate the people directly responsible for the child’s welfare, like a parent or legal guardian. Traffickers don’t typically target members of their own households, let alone their own children. But the 2013 ACYF report noted that sex traffickers often recruit foster kids from group homes. And in NH’s case, the Department actually approved placement for her—a pregnant minor at the time—in a home with the man who would be her trafficker. Such a complete oversight shocks the conscience and makes one wonder: What, if anything, is being done to prevent this from happening?

In 2017, DFPS established the Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Division (HTCE); two years later, DFPS implemented a screening tool, called the Commercial Sexual Exploitation – Identification Tool (CSE-IT), developed to help caseworkers identify potential victims of trafficking among the kids who come under the care of the Department. The State is taking steps toward ameliorating the issue of child sex trafficking, largely due to widespread criticism—and legal action—regarding its previous methods. However, in 2019, DFPS reported that 2,122 kids under their conservatorship had run away at some point in the year and that 46 of those reported being sex trafficked—an increase in both the number of runaways and in trafficking instances compared to 2017. (Although this could be due to improved tracking/reporting systems). Also, data shows that sex trafficking cases (both of adults and youth) in Harris County actually doubled in 2019, with no indication of these numbers decreasing. Naturally, the 2020 pandemic has had some impact on these statistics, and perhaps it is still too early to determine whether the efforts of HTCE and DFPS’s improved screening techniques will help kids in situations like NH’s. But there is still the issue of the runaways.

From what I’ve learned working with trafficked youth over the past few months, part of the problem lies in the fact that many kids prefer the streets to foster placements, which often impose strict rules and services the kids just aren’t interested in. The teens (particularly the older ones) may struggle to connect with their caregivers and advocates, and would rather be among their chosen folk in a looser, more familiar environment. Overcoming the effects of grooming is also a major challenge; as I’ve unfortunately witnessed, recovered runaways are prone to return to their traffickers at the earliest chance they get. This is where HTCE and organizations like UAHT, Unbound Houston, and Harris County Youth Collective (HCYC) get it really right: by focusing on community awareness and offering resources for kids involved with the system outside the system. 

Part of HTCE’s efforts—like those of other worthy local organizations—have involved providing outreach and education on human trafficking at the community level. Over the past year, these groups have trained thousands of people on how to recognize and prevent trafficking in their communities, established safe spaces for victims and families, and built databases for connecting individuals with the resources they need most (See: the 2020 Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force Report). HCYC’s Youth & Community Specialists offer mentorship and counseling to young people from a lived-experience perspective; they understand what these kids are going through (and what their particular needs may be) because they’ve actually been through it themselves. This community-based work is vital to harm prevention and improving outcomes for kids in foster care, especially those most susceptible to exploitation. 

It’s about empowering youth to commit to their own futures and creating environments conducive to staying on that well-lit path. That means giving these kids resources they’ll actually want to partake of, equipping locals with the necessary tools, and creating a community prepared to fight to keep their young people safe. In this way, we can work toward making the mean streets of Houston a better place to be.

10 Missing Children Cases Potentially Linked to Greek Mystery Girl

http://news.yahoo.com/mystery-girl-greek-roma-camp-abandoned-mother-lawyers-181620606.html

From Elinda Labropoulou and Laura Smith-Spark at CNN:

About 10 cases of missing children are “being taken very seriously” in connection with the suspected abduction of a girl by a Roma couple in Greece, a spokesman for a Greek children’s charity said Tuesday.

“They include children from the United States, Canada, Poland and France,” said Panagiotis Pardalis of the Smile of the Child charity.

In a case that has generated huge interest in Greece, authorities have charged the Roma couple with abducting the child they call “Maria.” They appeared in court Monday and were remanded into custody pending a trial.

A lawyer for the couple says the pair adopted the child from her biological mother.

The Smile of the Child said the girl, who was found Thursday in a Roma community near Larissa, central Greece, is now being cared for in a group home.

Medical tests carried out on the girl since she was found indicate she is between 5 and 6 years old, slightly older than initially thought, said Pardalis.Police have said they are suspicious of the records the couple provided for the child and for other children in their care. In addition to the abduction charge, the couple is accused of falsifying official documents.

Four officials, including the head of the registry office from which Maria got her birth certificate, have been suspended while a police investigation is under way, the media office of the Athens municipality said Tuesday.

The girl received the document this year, it said. It is unusual for a birth certificate to be issued years later.

1,000 years of Roma discrimination

Authorities asked questions about Maria because she has fair skin and blond hair, while her parents have darker complexions typical of Roma, a race descended from Indian nomads who face widespread discrimination in Europe.

Haralambos Dimitriou, head of the local Roma community, said the couple took the girl in because her Bulgarian mother couldn’t keep her. He said Maria was raised like a “normal” child.

Pardalis said Sunday that she was found in “bad living conditions, poor hygiene.”

Calls about the girl

Thousands of calls poured into Greece after authorities released photos of the girl last week.

Deborah Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, whose daughter Lisa Irwin vanished from their home in Kansas City, Missouri, two years ago aged about 11 months, asked the FBI to get in touch with Greek authorities when they heard about the case.

“There is no such thing as a tip too small,” said Bradley, whose hopes were raised despite the apparent disparity in age between their missing daughter and the girl found in Greece.

Authorities released photos of the two adults charged in the case Monday — Eleftheria Dimopoulou, age 40, and 39-year-old Christos Salis — in the hope that the publicity would reach someone who can provide more information about them.

Police said the blond child looked nothing like the man and woman with her, and DNA testing confirmed that they were not her biological parents.

A police statement said the couple “changed repeatedly their story about how they got the child.”

A government news agency said police found suspicious birth and baptism records as well as family registrations that claimed the woman had given birth to 10 children and the man was the father of four more.

Prejudice against the Roma

Prejudice and discrimination against the Roma are widespread in Greece and elsewhere in Europe, Amnesty International says.

Maria’s case plays into old prejudices about them stealing children for forced labor.

Pardalis mentioned such a possibility, saying, “We don’t have any other information if this girl was forced to work or to beg on streets.”

And the government news agency raised “the possibility of the existence of a ring bringing pregnant women to Greece from Bulgaria and then taking their children for sale.” The agency also cited past “reports” that empty coffins were found for infants who supposedly were stillborn to foreign mothers in Athens.

While there is a risk that old prejudices are at work here leading to these suspicions, DNA tests can prove who her parents are as well as the other 10 missing children. This story has given more light to the grave issue of human trafficking. Not only is human trafficking prevalent in the rest of the world, it is sadly all too common in the United States, with Houston, Texas as a hub for trafficked victims.

Shine a Light on Human Trafficking

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

Many people believe that slavery ended in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  While this is of course true and helped to close the door on a dark period in American history, slavery is in fact still a harsh reality in today’s world.  Regarded as a form of modern day slavery, human trafficking, the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring or receipt of individuals for the purpose of exploitation, is the fastest growing and most profitable area of organized crime in the world.  With approximately 20.9 million victims, human trafficking impacts children and adults alike in cities, countries, and continents all around the world.

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300x394.jpg

photo courtesy of: http://www.houstonrr.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/ShineALight-KS-300×394.jpg

The severity and continued growth of the human trafficking industry caught the attention of Congress and in 2000 they passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which declared all types of human trafficking a federal crime.  The TVPA wasn’t enacted for only prosecutorial reasons, but is also aimed at prevention through public awareness programs.  In 2003, 2005, 2008, and 2011, increasing knowledge and awareness of the issue led to developments in the act and in 2013, President Obama signed the reauthorization of the TVPA, recognizing the magnitude of the international human trafficking problem and reestablishing the important role the TVPA plays in combating it.

While the U.S. government has taken a stance against the human trafficking problem through legislation, campaigns for public awareness and educating citizens on reporting tips can urge individuals to take a stance as well. One such initiative is underway in the city of Houston, one of the principal supply and transport sites for children and adult trafficking victims due to its proximity, demographics, substantial immigrant labor force, and easy access to I-10, the number one route for human trafficking in the United States.  During the month of September, Houston’s Human Trafficking Awareness Month, Mayor Annise Parker vows to provide the pubic with informative facts about the global dilemma as well as educate individuals about ways they can help combat the problem.  Houston’s public awareness campaign, “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” is aimed at educating the public on how to recognize signs of human trafficking and encouraging them to report suspicious situations to the appropriate authorities.  Other states, such as Ohio, have recently pledged resources and manpower to establish public awareness campaigns in order to educate the public on the problem of human trafficking.

Long-term education and awareness campaigns like “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking” can play a big role in combating modern day slavery.  With numerous businesses such as massage parlors, escort services, salons, and modeling agencies acting as fronts for the human trafficking industry, increased awareness of the warning signs and recognition of the types of establishments that have been known to be involved in the industry can help authorities put an end to this epidemic.  Often hidden in plain sight, law enforcement agencies often rely on the public for tips to locate, dismantle, and prosecute individuals involved in these organizations.

Modern human trafficking presents the most widespread global slave trade known to mankind, with more people enslaved today than at any other time in human history. A violation of one of the most basic human rights, efforts to combat this epidemic should be tailored towards the restoration of that fundamental human right—freedom.  It is a common misconception that human trafficking presents only a vast international problem; the U.S. State Department estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 individuals are purchased and sold across international lines and borders every year, the United States included.  Making people more aware of this fact alone can help combat the human trafficking dilemma.  Awareness campaigns are invented to provide the tools needed to help bring the victims to safety and individuals involved in the human trafficking industry to justice.

For those who live in Houston and would like to take part in “Shine a Light on Human Trafficking,” the campaign will kick off at City Hall on September 24 at 6:30 p.m.