January is National Human Trafficking Awareness Month — a presidential proclamation created back in 2010 to raise awareness and educate the public about human trafficking worldwide.
The Blue Heart Campaign is an awareness initiative run by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to fight human trafficking. A blue heart is the official logo for the campaign, representing both the United Nations as well as the sadness of trafficked victims.
To join in the Blue Heart campaign and show support for the initiative, many wore blue on Jan. 11 — including the staff at the Paluxy River Children’s Advocacy Center.
In 2020, the PRCAC was approached by the Texas Human Trafficking Prevention Task Force created by Governor Greg Abbott.
“They put together a team and their ideas to prevent commercial sexual exploitation of children," said Margaret Cohenour, executive director of the PRCAC. “They were trying to reach out to different communities to start talking about it. Child advocacy centers make perfect partners because there's 71 of us throughout the state of Texas. Maybe we don't provide all the services that a child would need if they were recovered, but we can coordinate that care.”
Since then, staff at the PRCAC have partnered with several local organizations and have worked diligently to educate the community about human trafficking.
“The idea is that we would bring together different agencies and partners in the community and develop a plan on what we're going to do if a child is discovered that's been trafficked," Cohenour said. "We already have a multidisciplinary team that works with child sex abuse. We partner with child protection services, law enforcement, and Cook Children’s Pediatrics Granbury.”
Cohenour said staff decided to focus on bringing information to the community as its first approach, and have already held training seminars for the public as well as for school counselors and law enforcement.
"We brought in someone who had been in the field for years to work with law enforcement and kind of go through some different scenarios with them, and then we did a community-wide human trafficking awareness training in July,” she said. “The idea was just to further the education.”
Traci Cooper-Ives, director of community education and engagement at PRCAC, said during the training she provides, she emphasizes the importance in getting away from known stigmas associated with child sex trafficking.
“All of the people that I've had training from, they're trying to even get away from the phrase, ‘child sex trafficking’ and go more towards ‘commercially sexually exploited youth,' (CSEY) because when you hear the term ‘child sex trafficking,’ we think it's a prostitute,” she said. “There's no such thing as a child prostitute. Any child under the age of 18 cannot consent to commercial sex acts, so they are a victim. I'm really trying to get people to not see them as criminals.”
Cooper-Ives said implicit bias — having attitudes toward people or associating them with stereotypes without conscious knowledge — is another type of stigma that can affect judgments, decisions, and behaviors.
“It's trying to change people's perceptions and realize that these kids are probably victims; they aren't just bad kids,” she said. “They've suffered some type of abuse already, and most all trafficking victims have already been sexually abused.”
According to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, 70% to 90% of commercially sexually exploited youth have a history of child sexual abuse.
In addition, trafficking usually begins with a family member like a parent, grandparent, cousin, aunt, or uncle, according to Shared Hope International.
“A really scary, sad statistic is that 45% to 55% of the time, traffickers are parents,” Cooper-Ives said. “One of the parts of our training that we teach is that somebody can stay in one place and still be trafficked. We need people to understand it's not just ‘be careful outside of (a grocery store, as an example) because you might get taken away,’ which can happen, but it's also something that you wouldn't ever think of; it's not just somebody kidnapping somebody.”
Males are just as likely as females to be trafficked by their family, and although 14-16 is a common age for victims to be trafficked, the abuse typically starts at a younger age when it comes to familial victims, according to Shared Hope International.
“It's 80% female and 20% male, around the average age of 14, and usually there's a history of abuse up to two years prior to them being trafficked,” Cohenour said. “There’s a lot of statistics people aren’t aware of, like the fact that at any given time, there are 79,000 children in Texas being trafficked — and those are pretty staggering statistics.”
In Hood County alone, there have been six confirmed cases of human trafficking over the last five years.
“We haven’t had a lot of confirmed cases, but we’ve had enough to know that it does happen,” Cohenour said.
Cohenour said the staff at the PRCAC have been trained on a CSEY screening tool that will help identify potential trafficking victims. The screening tool will be used for every child interview and will also collect data for the governor’s office.
"Juvenile detention here is getting trained on the tool so they can start to screen as well,” Cohenour said. “The idea behind the data is that it helps develop more programs. It doesn't mean every child's going to come out as a clear concern, but it helps you identify risk factors. If there's someone that scores high that hasn't made an outcry about trafficking or abuse, we can at least refer for some services and try to get some extra support.”
She said the PRCAC now has a family advocate for human trafficking victims, but they will not be able to provide all the resources that a youth would need following their rescue.
“Eventually, we hope that we have our own programs here, but for right now, we can just continue to provide as many resources as possible,” she said.
The whole process in helping the victim, Cohenour said, can take up to two years or longer for them to provide everything that the child is going to need in the future, like counseling, housing, job skills, and food.
According to Shared Hope International, most kids who are sex trafficked don’t consider themselves victims and many of them have been conditioned to normalize their situation.
“Most kiddos don't even understand they're being exploited,” Cohenour said. “They've been totally dependent on this person, and they tend to want to go back into that life.”
Cohenour said several local organizations like the Rancho Brazos Community Center, Ruth’s Place, YMCA, and Mindful Decisions (formerly called Hood County Substance Abuse Council) have all asked to be more involved in the governor’s task force to combat trafficking.
"I'm also going to be collaborating with another person from Cook’s care team and we're going to do a sex trafficking training for them, which is cool, because she'll be sharing more from a medical standpoint,” she said.
Cohenour said their team is heavily focused on awareness. She said she’s talked to different clubs around the community and that another training seminar for the public will be held in June.
“It's called Interdiction Training for Law Enforcement, and it helps train them on what to look for like at a normal traffic stop, or what we can look for at the grocery stores,” she said. “We’re just trying to raise awareness and share information because it is concerning, and it's growing. If we are keeping our eyes open, maybe we'll see something.”
Cooper-Ives said there are eight indicators that a child may be a victim of trafficking: unstable housing and caregiving; prior abuse and trauma; declining physical health and appearance; harmful environmental exposures; signs of current trauma; coercion from a partner; exploitation, like exchanging sex for money or material goods; and being involved in unhealthy, inappropriate relationships.
“If we're really paying attention and people in the community are confident to recognize the signs (of trafficking) and say something, then we'll be able to spot them because I think it is hidden in plain sight,” Cooper-Ives said. “It's right there in front of us, but if we don't know what to look for, we'll miss it.”
“For all of us, it’s just working with the families in the community to recognize what’s going on,” Cohenour said. “We will present and educate anyone (on human trafficking), and partner with any medical facility, school, or any other child service organization.”
To report on a suspicion of any sex crime in Hood County, call one of these three investigators from the child exploitation unit out of the Hood County District Attorney’s Office: Katie Barton at 940-445-0104, Pete Wilkerson at 682-279-4368 or Dan Bradshaw at 682-279-4391.
Individuals can also call the Texas Abuse Hotline at 1-800-252-5400 or the Sex Trafficking Hotline at 1-888-373-7888.
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