In December 2016 the University of Texas estimated that there are 79,000 minor and youth victims of sex trafficking and 234,000 workers who are victims of labor trafficking in Texas. That means there are at least 313,000 victims of human trafficking in our state. Whether we know it or not, some are in Collin County.
The flight is an hour away from its destination, and the woman next to me is a nervous flyer. That’s probably the only reason she starts talking to me at all. Thick gold eyeshadow glitters like dragonfly wings over her false eyelashes; a matching bra shines underneath an unbuttoned denim jacket. Her fingernails are dabbled with rhinestones. Her confident flash makes it almost hard to look at her in the tin-can atmosphere where most people are washed colorless. The conversation she strikes up is simply a nice distraction from turbulence until I mention that I write for a living. She smiles. She leans in over the armrest.
“I’ve always wanted to have someone write my story. It would make a hell of a movie,” she says in a conspiratorial tone. “Can I tell you my story?”
She buys us little plastic cups of airplane red wine, poured out of fun-sized travel bottles. She doesn’t talk or act like a woman floating around 40 and as we drink, she seems to grow younger, relaxing enough that she forgets her fear of flying. We knock rims for a toast, stifling laughter so we don’t wake up the toddler napping in the row behind ours.
While she’s still laughing, she begins, “When I was 13, my mom sold me to this guy for drug money.”
Over the hour we spend together, she vacillates in her own portrayal of herself. Sometimes she talks about fighting drug addiction and ancient, cavernous hurts. Most of all, she says how glad she is to be free. She shows me her Instagram, a strange mix of uplifting selfies and pornographic images of herself twisted in bondage. Her original buyer remains a shadow at the center of her story. Sometimes she calls him her boyfriend. Sometimes he’s her pimp.
“When I was 15 we started having sex because I loved him and he said he loved me too,” she recalls as the peanut cart rolls by. “I lost my virginity to him. Then I turned sixteen, too old for him. He didn’t love me anymore and sold me.”
Since her first pimp, she was bought and sold enough times that the years have blended together. Now she’s a middle-aged woman. She only broke free of the cycle two years ago. Today, she lives with a man who she loves. She jokingly calls him her sugar daddy although I worry it isn’t a joke at all.
I wonder how free she can ever be after years of being a commodity. I honestly don’t know how she survived to tell her story.
In December 2016 The University of Texas at Austin (UT), School of Social Work, Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault released a report on human trafficking in Texas. “Human Trafficking by the Numbers: The Initial Benchmark of Prevalence and Economic Impact for Texas,” is a groundbreaking study. It is the first and only report of its kind.
The study defines human trafficking as: “A broad umbrella term that encompasses trafficking of persons of any age, nationally or internationally, for sex or labor purposes.”
The day Janet Collinsworth got the call must have been a normal one. The founder of Agape Resource and Assistance Center, Janet works with a small staff out of a cozy office, caring for homeless women and children in Collin County. She has seen people at their most desperate—lost in drug addiction, fleeing abusive spouses, living penny to penny. And yet, she’d never gotten a call quite like the one she received two years ago.
It was a local police officer calling Janet in desperate need of safe shelter for a woman who had been brought to the hospital in critical condition, bleeding, covered in bruises like crushed tomatoes. Both the police officer and the doctor had a terrible suspicion about what had happened to her.
“If she goes back on the street, she’ll be killed,” the officer said.
It wasn’t the first time Janet had been asked to help a woman who had been trafficked in Plano. A year earlier a young mother sought shelter and help. She had been sold by her sister into trafficking and had practically vanished off the face of the earth for three years. She came to Agape with her two children, determined to build a better life for them.
Now, another woman was in desperate need of a life where she could sleep at night without fear, without being beaten by her johns until she was clinging to life. Later, she told Janet how she ran away from home at age 15. She had been looking for shelter in a city of strangers, everything she owned carried in a trash bag. She was taken in by a stranger who was kind, giving her food and a place to sleep for a few nights. Slowly she began to trust the stranger. After a while, the stranger told her about a man and his wife who owned a big house and would gladly take care of her. They took her in and gave her a bedroom of her own.
Later she told Janet, “Every day they told me I was loved. They were kind and gave me everything I needed. It took a long time but on the very day I finally felt safe—he came into my room that night.”
By the time she was brought to the hospital where Janet met her, she was over 30 years old and had spent most of her life under his thumb.
“Everyone believed he was a good man and a model citizen. No one would ever believe that he did any of this,” she explained when asked why she never sought help. He sold her on sites like backpage.com as an underage girl, pocketing every cent. She never held an entry level job. She never finished high school. Even years later, now that she is physically free, she loves and fears him too much to give his name up. But she refuses to return to him.
“My choice is freedom or death,” she once said. “I’m never going back.”
The women Janet has helped escape traffickers were trapped in the cycle as children. They were vulnerable, either runaways or “throwaways,” foster kids from low-income areas. Boys are just as much at risk as girls.
Over time, Janet noticed that the methods their pimps used to control them were strikingly similar: affection that turns viper-quickly into abuse. She realized with a punch of horror that the threats pimps used followed the same basic logic as schoolyard bullies—“Hand over your lunch money or get beat up.” Only now, it wasn’t over quarters and dimes, but human lives.
In her mind the traffickers that plagued and stalked the women who found safety at Agape are part of nationwide trafficking rings that find and traffic vulnerable people in our own community. After all, the demand is there and the money is there. Someone wealthy with the inclination to harm a child wouldn’t dirty their own hands. They’d pay someone to assume the risk and provide the “product.” Furthermore, people are not one-time purchases like drugs. A person can be sold and used again and again.
Out of every state, Texas has the second-highest number of human trafficking reports. In 2008, 38 percent of the calls to the National Trafficking Resource Center came out of Texas. DFW, San Antonio and Houston share the burden of the heaviest density of trafficking issues due largely to their proximity to international airports and major highways. I-10 which connects El Paso and Houston on its way through Texas, is a particularly notorious trafficking route.
Trafficking is a short walk away from Janet’s workplace. It is in her local schools. Traffickers did not stay on the roads, in the shadowy crack houses near downtown Dallas or in small towns whose names she doesn’t know.
Human trafficking is in her hometown. It is in Plano.
Janet admits that she is frustrated by how slowly the community has responded to the threat of trafficking. But then she remembers that most of us don’t know. Three years ago, she didn’t know either.
UT’s “Human Trafficking by the Numbers” report refers to survivors and victims as “a hidden population” because any existing data on human trafficking—including their own—can only account for identified victims, not the slew of people who have yet to be found and perhaps don’t want to be. Any measurement is the tip of a very large iceberg, an underestimate of a much greater population of victimized and enslaved people.
As far as misconceptions about human trafficking go, Officer Rivard has encountered them all. She is a Fort Worth police officer with a background in nonprofit social work, a rare but invaluable combination. She works in one of the few designated human trafficking police units in the state.
Fort Worth owes its human trafficking unit largely to the highly publicized Polywood Crips case, which unfolded in 2016 in the Polytechnic neighborhood of the city. In a single raid, eight people with ties to the Polywood Crips gang—six men and two women—were arrested and charged with sex trafficking of children and adults. They beat, sexually assaulted, and gang-raped those who didn’t follow their rules and bragged on their publicly visible Facebook pages about making money through “pimping,” even posting “How to pimp” videos.
As an officer, Rivard runs into far too many people who still think human trafficking looks like the 2008 abduction thriller Taken. But her days aren’t spent kicking in doors and rescuing people who are desperately grateful. Most days, she doesn’t feel like Liam Neeson.
She spends her life tackling juvenile prostitution, talking to kids who are coerced or forced into the trade. Some of the kids she meets have never left Fort Worth, but have been sold for sex by someone else, sometimes while they lived at home and attended school. Others were international, brought over legally or otherwise and stranded. She has seen men and women trafficked all over her city: in the sketchiest roach motel all the way up to silken suites in the ritziest hotels. As for labor trafficking, she has found it in private houses in the tamest of neighborhoods. She has caught it in restaurants and truck stops, gas stations and galas.
“If these pimps were pulling up to schools and neighborhoods and snatching people off the street, throwing bags over their heads and dragging them into vans, the police response would be huge,” she explains. If that were the case her unit would be larger than just a few officers. She has rarely seen traffickers function that way. It’s not good “business.”
Instead they groom—effectively brainwash—their victims with a mixture of compliments, promises of safety, threats and violence. Traffickers are highly skilled con artists who make a living off of vulnerable kids by charming them into a relationship before coercing them into exploitation.
As one survivor said, “Pimp life is not normal but it’s hard to get away, especially when you think you’re in love.”
The hierarchy can be very complex. One of the oddest roles in play are “bottom girls,” women in the trafficking circle who lure young girls and boys into the trade and act as their caretakers, keepers of the brothels. Bottom girls start as victims themselves and usually have been trafficked before becoming traffickers themselves. They are both punisher and punished. Pimps will frequently beat bottom girls in front of their victims to keep them in line. Drug addiction to meth and heroin is also a powerful tether. People in the life call it the “leash.”
Human trafficking hides under names like “pimp”, “john”, “bottom girl” and “whore”. Colloquially it’s cool to be pimpin’. But our everyday use of the word has distanced us from what it actually means, a culture where sex is offered as currency and as a means of survival.
“Survival sex” is defined as someone engaging in a sexual act to get something in return that equates to survival to them—water, money, a meal, drugs or shelter. It’s a last-resort transaction done out of desperation. Make no mistake. Survival sex is not sex but rape.
Even long after trafficking ends, the mental brands remain. Children who are trafficked young don’t know how to be adults. Most have never opened a bank account or completed their education. They don’t have basic life skills and fall back into prostitution because a better life is unimaginable. Legally they may be adults, but mentally and emotionally they are children who have been conditioned to believe they have nothing else to offer. Some never realize the way they are being exploited.
“I’m not a victim,” fierce-eyed girls with livid bruises on their necks say to Officer Rivard. Sometimes they only go to the police for petty reasons, perhaps because their pimp took their phone, not because they are being trafficked.
Every time Officer Rivard drives by a hotel, she wonders what could be happening behind closed doors. After all, an average slave today is sold for $90. That’s about the price of a nice steak dinner.
She doesn’t believe that human trafficking will ever end and she knows she can’t save everyone. Especially when she runs into so many who don’t want to be saved.
But she can save some.
Concerning labor trafficking, “Human Trafficking by the Numbers” reports that: “Many immigrant laborers themselves are unaware of the law or their rights, and believe that they should stay silent and hidden rather than risk any consequences.
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“However, being an undocumented presence in the U.S. is not a criminal offense, and all workers (with minor exceptions), are covered by basic labor rights in the U.S. regardless of immigration status.”
They estimate that labor traffickers have exploited approximately $600 million from victims in Texas.
Mosaic Family Services is a nonprofit for survivors of human rights violations. Their outreach program spreads awareness about the pervasive problem, teaching people how to spot it and what to do—school counselors, teachers, paramedics, ER, law enforcement officers, hotel staff, pastors and imams are all on the shortlist of those most likely to come across trafficked people.
Mosaic has reported that out of the entire country the City of Dallas ranks second in numbers of reports of human trafficking. If it rains, Collin County is under the same raincloud.
One of their key concerns is labor trafficking, which more often than not, slips under the radar.
Picture this: You answer an ad for a nanny working eight hours a day. The pay is good and room and board is offered. But once you answer the ad, you find yourself working 14-hour days as a maid as well as a nanny and the promised room isn’t a room, but a cot in the corner of the kitchen. Your salary is funneled directly into an account that your employer manages on your behalf. You can’t make withdrawals without permission.
Immigrants—particularly illegal immigrants—commonly find themselves trapped in situations like these. They are forced to live as slaves, fearing that if they turn to law enforcement for help, they will be punished and deported. They have nowhere to turn in a land where they don’t know the laws. Their employers even convince themselves that they’re being kind by keeping them instead of turning them in, which entitles them to as much free or discounted labor as they want.
Traffickers understand vulnerabilities. They offer immigrants VISAs. They often smuggle them across the border and then confiscate their papers or keep them paying off fictitious, ever-mounting debts forever, refusing them pay until their “debt” is wiped out.
“I think of it as where need meets greed,” Kristen Sunny, the former director of Mosaic’s outreach program, says.
Industries where they are most vulnerable include agriculture, domestic services, construction, restaurant and foodservice industries and landscaping/groundskeeping.
Mosaic has helped clients who have been in-house nannies for more than 20 years, who loved those families like their own. But they weren’t allowed out of the house. They weren’t paid. They were enslaved.
The strangest case Kristen has ever heard of unfolded in Fort Worth a few years ago when a couple of women from Mexico were controlled by a female trafficker and forced to clean houses every day. They worked impossible hours with no breaks and no pay. She confiscated their documents, forcing them to clean her own house as well.
The female trafficker told these women that she was the voice of God. She recorded herself philosophizing on CDs and forced them to listen while they cleaned. By the time Mosaic intervened, the women were convinced their trafficker really was the voice of God and that if they disobeyed her they would be sent to Hell. She kept them prisoner for over 10 years.
The largest labor trafficking prosecution ever brought by the Department of Justice was U.S. v. Kil Soo Lee in 2002. Kil Soo Lee, the owner of a garment factory, held over 300 trafficked individuals captive in a sweatshop in American Samoa. When they were brought to the island their passports were confiscated and any noncompliance or refusal to work was met with food deprivation, physical and sexual abuse and deportation. It was the largest labor trafficking case of its kind, and 15 of the 300 survivors were eventually sent to Dallas where Mosaic helped them return home or rehabilitate in the States.
Sexual assault is commonly used as a method of coercion—sex and labor trafficking go hand in hand. Sometimes workers are forced to labor all day and are trafficked for sex at night. Massage parlors are a classic example. As a rule, labor trafficking is harder to identify than sex trafficking. Yet Kristen fears it is much more common than we know. Most of the victims have no idea that U.S. law actually protects them, documented or otherwise, in cases of human rights violations like trafficking.
The U.S.’s youngest prosecuted case of human trafficking was a three-year-old girl. The oldest was 91.
“Human Trafficking by the Numbers” calls law enforcement responses to human trafficking “varied and complex.” Experts have found that many law enforcement professionals have viewed human trafficking as rare or even nonexistent. They cite a 2006 study sponsored by the National Institute of Justice which said that one-third of the known trafficking cases were discovered by officers investigating other cases entirely.
Officer Yount pictures the human trafficking enterprise as a corporation as organized as Walmart. There is one central office, a headquarters, regional headquarters scattered throughout the country, and hundreds of neighborhood “stores” branching off in major and minor cities along with massive distribution centers. In his mind, it’s one of the biggest businesses in the world, flush with enough cash to crash the stock market. But it isn’t run by businessmen.
“People have this belief that if you’re on a lower socio-economic scale, you have a proclivity for doing this and that’s just not what we see,” Collin County Sheriff Jim Skinner says of trafficking. “People traffic children because people who victimize children pay a lot of money. Wrap your head around that concept … these people have enough money to buy whole countries.”
People who buy and sell other people are well-compensated for the risk.
“From the poorest of the poor to the richest of the rich, it affects everyone,” Officer Yount, an interdiction officer who specializes in spotting traffickers in transit, says. He is a recent addition to the sheriff’s office. When he investigates human trafficking—with a specific interest in trafficked children—he does it on the road.
While online forums have made it easier for traffickers to find and sell people, traffickers still need to transport them. To do so, they have to burn rubber on the same highways the rest of us use, buy gas and McDonald’s at the same roadside stations. They are most vulnerable on the road. Geographically, we live in a major metropolitan area with large, convenient interstates that are major trafficking corridors. The sheriffs of North Texas are well aware.
Traffickers on the highway aren’t driving nice cars with flashy rims. They aren’t speeding. They’re driving sedate, suburban Camrys and Corollas. They’re blending in. They know how to play mind games and all the best ways to hide. They won’t risk a speeding ticket with a trafficked child in the backseat.
Traffickers particularly want to blend into the suburbs, where they are least expected. For example, labor trafficking takes place every day in the safest and nicest of neighborhoods where people pay for manual labor without ever suspecting that the person mowing their lawn might be under the thumb of a trafficker.
Officer Yount is consistently surprised by how many officers are shocked by the prevalence of trafficking. But in just five years he has seen awareness in law enforcement skyrocket.
Officers and traffickers watch each other closely. When a trafficking case is prosecuted, traffickers will hire an expensive lawyer and let it go to trial, just to get the arresting officers on the stand so they can learn their tactics and adapt.
Yount isn’t intimidated. He’s testified before and he’ll do it again. He knows they are learning from his testimony, so he considers his methods outdated before a case even goes to trial. It’s an evolving game with constantly moving pieces. Innovation is key because the moment they bust a trafficker’s route, that route changes.
But the more people who are on the lookout for them, the more people who know how they operate, the smaller their ring of safety becomes.
“Human Trafficking by the Numbers” included a report from the National Human Trafficking Hotline with this disclaimer: “The data is not intended to represent the full scope of human trafficking, but to help identify trends.” In 2015 the hotline received 1,731 calls in Texas. Most of the tips came from everyday people who see something suspicious. Only one in four calls actually came from victims and survivors.
Cheryl Brasuell doesn’t have the luxury of off-hours because she never knows when someone might cry out for help. At Traffick911, she focuses on trafficking prevention, as well as the identification and empowerment of trafficked minors. Sometimes, survivors aren’t ready to leave their situations right away but when they are ready, knowing they have a place to go makes all the difference. Waiting for those calls keeps her up at night.
“Everyone involved in exploitation are really broken people,” Cheryl says.
Traffick911 devotes long hours in schools and juvenile detention centers, teaching kids about the traps traffickers use to ensnare them. Traffick911 receives letters from kids who have been through their courses at juvie. Some come to understand during the prevention presentation that they have been trafficked without even knowing it.
“I have to realize I am worth it and the past doesn’t define me,” one survivor writes. “I thank God I’m still here … I’m not the only one.”
Even once they are removed from a dangerous situation, healing is a long road. The key is to be there with them every step of the way. But for all their preventative measures, Cheryl believes that there is only one way to end trafficking: end the demand, which is always growing. And it’s all too easy to buy someone online.
It is widely agreed that all roads lead to the escort section of backpage.com. In a Nebraska-based report conducted through Creighton University, the Human Trafficking Initiative found that 80 percent of the online sale of humans is conducted on Backpage. It is widely notorious for refusing to admit culpability for postings of underage boys and girls on their site. remove posts selling underage girls and boys and denying any culpability. Backpage is based in Dallas.
A Senate subcommittee investigated Backpage in January 2017 and discovered that Backpage had edited ads that indicated underage people for sale, removing the questionable terms like “teenage” or “rape,” but kept the ads online. The Senate ruled that they “knowingly facilitated” online sex trafficking of minors.
Traffickers know how to phrase their posts so that they’ll stay under the radar and meet standards for what terms may or may not be used in an escort ad. Law enforcement and nonprofits alike report that traffickers have built their own language with emojis and euphemisms that change on a daily basis. Umbrellas could stand in for condoms. Roses might stand in for virginity. These codes don’t take a genius to decipher them.
I went on Backpage myself. I didn’t need a password, or some secret link into the dark web. Despite the highly publicized closure of their adult section earlier this year, I found myself trolling for sex on Backpage within two seconds.
One entry particularly disturbed me:
“New. Fresh, and natural blonde. Leave reality and come to enjoy your fantasy.- 22 (Carrilton(sic),Addison,Frisco,Plano, & other)”
Terms like “new” and “fresh” and even her advertised age—early 20s—could all be trademarks of a pimp offering an underage girl.
Websites like Backpage have become a symptom of the greater issue: the thriving market for humans. But as awareness rises, the system begins to break down.
As one of Traffick911’s survivors writes, “There is a light at the end of the tunnel.”
The United States Department of State considers human trafficking a form of modern-day slavery.
According to the International Labor Organization, it is a $150 billion annual criminal industry worldwide.
Our plane lands before her story ends. While it screeches back to earth, she stops mid-sentence to grip my hand, praying through the turbulence.
As we taxi to our gate, she tells me about reconciling with her mother who sold her so many years ago. “I go to see her sometimes. I’ve forgiven her. I know she didn’t know what she was doing. I’m a strong person. I survived, I got out and I am living my life.”
We go our separate ways, swept off to baggage claim with clinical airline efficiency. She slips into a taxi, cigarette burning between her fingers, and I never see her again. But I see her everywhere.
National Trafficking Hotline
SMS: 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”)