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Anti human trafficking group meets Republican women, calls on schools and legislators for action
Kelley Chambers/Staff Photo – Traffick 911 Director Deena Graves spoke to the Plano Republican Women’s Club on Tuesday about human trafficking in the U.S. and how Dallas has become a “hub” for kidnapping and selling children and teenagers. The Fort Worth group has helped rescue 22 children in the past several months.
With 27 million slaves suffering around the globe, human trafficking is a worldwide epidemic. But in the United States - specifically in Dallas - it is a hidden one.
On Tuesday, a Fort-Worth based anti-human trafficking organization opened the eyes of the Plano Republican Women's Club to this ever-growing problem, and showed how the state has become a hub for trafficking.
"They are finding kids who are very poverty-stricken, very hopeless, and they're hiring them to be recruiters for them," said Deena Graves, executive director of Traffick 911. "These are what we call 'throwaways' in our society. These guys are preying on vulnerable kids."
Traffick 911 is a team of people driven to stop the sale of American children into sexual slavery. Because the scope of the problem is far too large to tackle alone, the charitable organization meets with groups like the Republican Women's Club to educate and increase collaboration with schools and the local community.
In the past few months, Traffick 911 has fed information to the North Texas Anti-Trafficking Taskforce - which is responsible for 54 counties in Texas. Their leads have resulted in 22 felony arrests involving people selling children, Graves said.
"With every one of those arrests, there's a little girl," she said.
With the Department of Justice naming the I-10 corridor as the No. 1 route for human trafficking in the U.S. and I-45 and I-35 meeting with the interstate in Dallas, Graves said children are moved around constantly using these highways. A trafficker's goal is to get out of big cities like Dallas and into smaller towns or suburbs where law enforcement isn't as threatening, she said.
The average age that children are forced into sexual slavery in the U.S. is 12 to 13, but they can be abducted at an even younger age, Graves said.
Traffick 911 recently identified a 14-year-old Collin County girl as a trafficking victim. The girl - who at the time was being held at the Collin County Juvenile Detention Center - had been sold in six states within a 30-day period.
"American children are being forced into sexual slavery right under our noses," Graves said. "Once a kid is sex trafficked, they lose their entire sense of who they are. These guys take over every single corner of their mental space."
The National Human Trafficking Hotline gets more calls from Texas than any other state except for California, Graves said. With approximately 45,000 missing children in Texas alone, as of 2010, it's easy for missing children to be sold over and over because no one is looking for them, she said.
In some instances, abducted children are actually used to attract children from both poor and affluent families. These recruiters can be planted in local schools via false registration, and are paid by gangs or cartels to befriend a classmate for the purpose of eventually handing her over to be sold, Graves said.
While these recruiters may or may not know the gravity of their actions, they are the first link in the human trafficking chain, she said.
"The truth is, it can happen to any kid," Graves said. "I can tell story after story of kids who have become victims who were just everyday kids."
By and large, many of the people on the frontlines for combatting this - school nurses, teachers, police officers, judges - either don't know the problem exists, or see it as just teens making poor choices, Graves said.
"How can you help a victim of a crime if you don't know what's happening in their life?" Graves said.
Traffick 911 works with schools, organizations and local government to train them in knowing what to look for and what to do if they suspect one of their students is a victim. The training is free and gives them the tools they need to increase both awareness and prevention.
According to the FBI, the average life expectancy is 7 years once they are abducted. This is due to many factors, including drug use, suicide, disease and murder. However, human trafficking can earn very high returns because there's very little investment. Sometimes, all it takes is a cheeseburger to lure a homeless runaway into the car, Graves said.
On average, a trafficker can make $200,000 a year on one child, she said.
Perpetrators can be military veterans, doctors, government and law enforcement officials - virtually anyone, including women and other children. They do not fit the stereotypical description of what most people might visualize when they think of a human trafficker.
Organized crime bosses and gangs also have a strong arm in this clandestine crime, Graves said.
With the normalization of commercial sex and the glamorization of pimping, society is driving this horrific crime against our children, according to the Traffick 911 website. One pimp revealed to the organization, "We don't have to groom girls anymore. Our society is doing it for us."
At any given time, there are 50 million predators on the Internet in search of a vulnerable child, Graves said. Those who exhibit problems at home are typically targeted, as are those who are depressed, neglected or hungry, she said.
Perhaps what is even more shocking is the lack of legal teeth the U.S. has when it comes to prosecuting traffickers. While 99 percent of children are never found, less than 1 percent of the cases involving those who are rescued are even prosecuted, Graves said. Many times, the victims are put on trial for willingly going with these predators. That's why Traffick 911offers outreach programs for teens booked at juvenile detentions centers like the one in Collin County.
State and federal laws need to be tougher in order to protect these children, Graves said.
"These kids are sitting in our jail cells charged with the crime being committed against them, and they are not getting the help they need because of that," she said. "There's something really wrong when we have 45,000 missing kids in our state and no one knows about it. There are some huge, huge issues here that we have to get to the root of."
Republican Women's Club President Stephanie Casson was overcome by Graves' presentation and said she hopes her group can help Traffick 911 and other organizations increase awareness in Plano and beyond.
"It's a difficult subject to bring to the ladies, and I guess none of us had really thought about it," she said. "But we're always trying to educate and brings things out that they might be interested in. And I've been wrestling with myself, finding something that I need to get involved in. I think, actually today, that I've found something. It just breaks my heart."