For the past five years Texas has ranked number two in the nation, behind California, in reported trafficking cases according to the National Human Trafficking Hotline.
Southeast Texas is not immune to the underground industry that is turning a profit in local streets, hotel rooms and apartments.
Lisa, an advocate with Harvest House, is determined to help victims of this stomach-churning crime.
She’s not using her name due to the dangers that come along with her work at the non-profit, which has been around since 2008.
Child sex trafficking is one of the ugliest fights the upcoming generation will face according to Lisa.
In one case of trafficking in Southeast Texas shared by Lisa a girl met a guy online and developed what seemed to be a romantic relationship.
The two decided to meet, according to Lisa, and she was dropped off at a local school where she walked out the back door, down the block and was picked up by her “boyfriend.”
The “boyfriend” ended up being a trafficker.
“He took her cellphone and immediately said ‘this is what you’re going to do’,” Lisa explained.
“He sold her [for sex] for five days. She was found walking down Dowlen Road five days later. I don’t know how she was able to get away from him but she was … very traumatized,” Lisa said.
The Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault reports that about 79,000 minors are victims of sex trafficking in the state of Texas.
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In the last year and a half, Harvest House has worked with 26 victims of sex trafficking in Southeast Texas.
Lisa estimates that is only about two percent of the children who are being trafficked in our own neighborhoods.
“You have to think about all the kids that aren’t getting help. All the children that are threatened and they never tell. Then they end up staying and are never seen again. Or they’re listed as a runaway,” she says.
Harvest House is the only child sex trafficking resource in Southeast Texas.
Right now advocates work with Beaumont probation officers, the Minnie Rogers Juvenile Detention Center, police departments, family and protective services and other agencies who call on the non-profit for help.
Advocates have education or intervention meetings with victims or suspected victims.
“We sit down with the girls and we ask them, have you ever heard of sex trafficking. Most of them say no,” said Lisa.
“We … paint the picture of the lures of sex trafficking, how these boyfriend-pimps pull them into it, really educate them on what it looks like.”
There are different stages of manipulation that progress from year to year, Lisa explains.
She estimates the trafficking usually stops at the seven-year mark.
“In seven years, they’re through with you. You’ve been used up. You’re so diseased that they don’t need you anymore. The life expectancy of a trafficked victim is seven to ten years,” she says.
Child sex trafficking brings in big bucks. Urban Institute estimates traffickers earn as much as $32,833 per week.
The group’s 2014 study showed that the underground sex economy ranges across the country.
In Denver, Colorado, it’s estimated at $39.9 million.
In Atlanta, Georgia, the payout is $290 million.
“Child sex trafficking … is the number two money maker in the entire world,” said Lisa.
“If we do not educate our children about child sex trafficking we are leaving them at a disadvantage to fall into something that is so easy to fall into nowadays. [Traffickers] are master manipulators and they are taught how to manipulate your child into this,” she says.
Lisa encourages parents to educate themselves about child sex trafficking before speaking with their children.
She also encourages a family meeting on the topic take place in junior high, explaining that sixth graders are prime targets.
“They’re young enough to be vulnerable, to fall for these tactics that these traffickers use,” said Lisa.
Some of the signs Lisa says parents can watch for include cell phones that have been given to the child and expensive gifts like nails, tanning salon memberships and high-priced items.
Gifted cell phones are a major warning sign your child may be being lured into danger.
“That is the main way that they make appointments,” she explains.
Parents should also watch for emotional signs, new behaviors, withdrawal or separation from family, such as your child spending time with a new group of friends you haven’t met she says.
Southeast Texans should be aware that, according to many published reports, social media is a key tool in the sex trafficking trade Lisa said.
“When you’re a parent it’s our job to be in their business. It’s our job to look at their cell phones. Kids that have these passwords, parents need to know their passwords and at any time be able to ask for that phone."
"We have a zone for the computers, if you’re on the computer it’s going to be in a room where family members are in and out walking through, where we can at any point see what’s on that screen,” Lisa said.
There is a great need for more resources in Southeast Texas for victims of child sex trafficking.
Very few safe houses or even long-term care options are available for girls in the area seeking help according to Lisa.
Harvest House is looking to expand and open up a safe house for local victims.
“This is something that our community needs desperately and the state of Texas needs desperately. We need our community to step up and say I am not going to allow child sex trafficking victims to not have a safe place for rehabilitation and for their lives to begin to be put back together,” said Lisa.
The Harvest House advocate challenges state representatives, county commissioners, city council members and the community to back efforts to provide resources to girls who need rehabilitation from such a traumatizing situation.
“We need the resources of our community to be able to provide this house, to be able to provide the care that they need and it’s going to take the resources of our community because no one organization can do this by themselves,” Lisa said.