AUSTIN (KXAN) – Texas’ capital city, known globally on scores of ‘best of’ lists for everything from beef brisket and live music festivals to a hub for high tech firms and international auto races is also quietly attracting organized criminals who make it their business to prey on teenagers. City or suburb, it doesn’t matter, authorities contend – domestic child sex traffickers are seeking out impressionable youngsters who are easy to lure into a world of nameless men who will pay for a sexual experience with someone as young as nine years old.
KXAN dug into case files and found examples of local, middle class children lured from outside a school in Leander, from a local park in northern Travis County and from a library near downtown Austin. Often traffickers will offer teens promises of clothes, money and freedom – something even loving parents won’t always do.
Darcy, an 8th grader from a middle-class Travis County home she shares with her mother and older sister tells KXAN at first, she was angry when deputies rescued her last spring. They had broken down the door to the semi-rural property where she had been staying and arrested several adults. The house had been the target of a police drug operation and a 14 year-old girl was an unexpected ‘find.’ Darcy says her anger soon turned to relief and tears after she realized she had been in danger weeks after she ran away from home in a bid to experiment with a world of no rules and curfews.
“He said, ‘You’re 14, right?’ I said, ‘yes.’ And he handed me the blunt and said, ‘Smoke it, it’ll make you relax. You can forget about your past.’ He was right. I wasn’t in my right mind. I wasn’t seeing straight, I wasn’t thinking straight.” – ‘Darcy,’ 14, sex trafficking survivor
This soft-spoken teen had run away after family fights before but always returned home after a day or two. One day last March, Darcy told her mom she would be at a school dance and maybe staying at a friend’s house that night. She ended up walking away from her neighborhood, ending up near a local library where an adult couple befriended her. She was tired, hungry and lonely – a perfect target experts say for those looking for teens to ‘befriend’ then prostitute.
“The couple told me they had clothes for me, they have food. They said: ‘You can come rest, we have a bed for you, you can shower. We have animals and a big yard… you can come and relax.’”
That relaxing place quickly became a dizzying world of drugs, alcohol and repeated sex acts with an unknown number of men, Darcy told KXAN. Now, two of those men are charged with sexually assaulting her.
‘Darcy’, not her real name, is just one Central Texas children among an estimated 20,000 statewide each year dragged into what authorities say is a fast-growing criminal crisis. It’s rooted in a desire among organized criminals to maximize profits by exploiting a ‘product’ that unlike an illegal drug can be sold multiple times.
For Darcy’s mother, Elizabeth, her daughter’s lengthy disappearance was frightening enough where her world turned into days of putting up ‘missing’ posters, talking with police and neighbors. Later learning Darcy had made into an object for someone else’s pleasure was almost too much to bear.
“I think the worst part was when we found her and I realized what had happened… The drugs, the alcohol, the entire picture, I didn’t want to get out of bed for days,” she told KXAN.
Here’s the big picture: since 2007, the FBI’s ‘Innocence Lost Task Force’ in Texas reports 1,057 child sex trafficking-related incidents. Those are just the cases they know about. Texas Youth and Runaway Hotline received more than 9,000 calls in 2012, state records show. Teens can also now text the volunteers there for help and advice.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recorded from January 1, 2004, to June 30, 2012, more than 7,000 possible sex trafficking cases nationwide. Texas accounted for a fifth of those. While about two thirds involved vulnerable or neglected kids in foster care or group home settings, more than a third came from so-called ‘normal’ homes.
Victims not offenders
In recent years, lawmakers in Texas have recognized that crisis and developed legislation to toughen sentences for child sex abusers as well as to better protect the young victims.
“We have laws that say it is not appropriate for adults to force juveniles to have sex with them,” says Sgt. Bob Miljenovich who heads up the Austin Police Department’s Human Trafficking Unit. “At that age kids aren’t ready to make those types of decisions and so it’s our responsibility to protect them from the consequences of that.”
Police say child sex trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery. They say it’s often misunderstood.
“We hear from all kinds of people that say ‘well, she’s 15 she’s made that choice for herself. But as a society, we’ve decided it’s not appropriate for adults to have sex with minors,” Miljenovich says.
Miljenovich says APD’s Human Trafficking unit now operates on a ‘victim-centered approach’ where his team of officers is trained to recognize someone who may be underage and held against their will. Those young people are often questioned differently and treated as victims; not offenders.
Austin Police are also working closely with Travis County prosecutors to make sure girls like Darcy are not punished if they’re arrested for minor offenses like theft or caught in a prostitution sting, but are often directed to treatment for trauma and addictions.
“It’s written into the code, our job is to do justice. And if a child is being forced into prostitution, justice to me isn’t tagging them with a conviction.”
— Mark Pryor, Travis County Juvenile Prosecutor
Mark Pryor with the Travis County DA’s Office says in the past, a teen arrested with marijuana might be directed into out-patient drug treatment. While that remains a concern, additionally there are questions such as are they carrying drugs for someone else?
“There’s a much deeper implication because of what they’ve done and what they’ve been through,” he explains. “Are they medicating themselves with drugs because of the situation they’re in? If so you want to treat the underlying situation which is to remove them from being trafficked. So in the past when a child is tagged with criminal responsibility I think we’re trying very hard to look past that and see what the deeper problem is.”
New laws also allow juvenile court judges to lengthen the detainment period for offenders under the age of 18.
“There’s a real tension that the judges feel I think (particularly pre-trial when they haven’t been convicted of anything) between holding a kid who’s obviously scared and upset, who wants to be out and free, and letting them go which could be potentially very dangerous… We (in the court system) are still trying to strike that balance I think,” Pryor says.
While the young victims of America’s domestic sex trade are more often receiving treatment options instead of jail time, convicted child sex traffickers in Texas are experiencing more time behind bars. In September 2014, Travis County prosecutors indicted the first adult arrested and charged under a heightened human sex trafficking law – as of 2011 a first degree felony. Other indictments and plea deals have followed. Other counties with a larger number of child sex trafficking cases have stepped up resources to try and curb the problem. In Bexar County, home to San Antonio, there are two dedicated, full-time prosecutors. The Harris County’s DA’s Office is also taking a similar approach.
KXAN checked with various DA’s Offices around the state and found none keeps track of total convictions. That’s in part because of how criminal cases can often be bundled together with one offender being prosecuted on multiple counts or on various different charges such as compelling prostitution, child sex assault as well as human trafficking. And cases can cross county lines. For example, Austin Police are working one case they say with ties to a north Texas county. It’s possible the case will be handled by federal authorities, they say.
Joint efforts like that can help net convictions as can ongoing conversations between law enforcement agencies. KXAN found Austin police are in contact with colleagues in quiet, family-oriented suburbs like Cedar Park and Round Rock to the north where sex trafficking links have sprung up in recent years.
“It’s not limited to the freeway corridors. All our partner agencies are all having similar problems. They are pooling resources to combat this together,” said Sgt. Miljenovich adding traffickers often transport their victims to different cities so a young teen missing from Austin might turn up in Dallas or San Antonio and vice versa. However in Texas, child sex trafficking convictions can still be secured even if the minor is not moved around for commercial sex.
Even so, since 2012, the Department of Public Safety reports ‘rescuing’ 105 so-called ‘recruitaways’ from unplanned highway traffic stops in Texas. So far in 20014, there have been 37 rescues.
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports in 2013, there were nearly half a million (462,567) entries for missing children into the FBI’s National Crime Information Center.
“When I left my mom’s house I was a virgin. But when I came back I had slept with many men and I wished that did not happen,” Darcy told KXAN. “Everybody keeps saying a grown man should know better, especially since they knew my age. Every single one of them knew my age.”
She is now back in school as well as extensive trauma therapy in a bid to recover what she can of her lost childhood. She is confident though she will find happiness again, and trust of adults again.
Recognizing the victims: help for parents and teachers
The state Attorney General’s Office released training manuals for law enforcers as well as and educators and foster parents to recognize the signs a young person is being sex trafficked:
- Academically unengaged
- Performs noticeably under grade level
- Exhibits sudden changes in academic performance
- Avoids eye contact
- Inconsistencies in story
- Gaps in memory
- Unexplained or regular absences from school
- Resists being touched
- Branded / tattoos, scars, or bruises they cannot explain or are hesitant to explain
- Appears malnourished or dehydrated
- Shows signs of drug or alcohol addiction or abuse
- Has a sexually transmitted infection or disease
- Pregnancy – especially if they hesitate to mention who the father is
- Shows signs of physical abuse
- Sudden change of attire or material possessions (i.e. has clothing or items they cannot likely afford)
- Appears to lack basic medical attention
- Has a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” significantly older than them
- Lives in unstable or abusive home environments
- History of running away or homelessness
- Inability to look people in the eyes when speaking with them
- Has overtly sexual online profile
Possesses sexual knowledge beyond what is normal for their age group
- Tells inconsistent stories or provides scripted answers
- Hesitant to change clothes in front of others
- Uses terms relating to prostitution such as “daddy,” “John,” “trick,” or “the life”
- Teased by other students for being sexually active or being associated with commercial sex
- Has expressed need to pay off debt
- Sudden changes in interests or friend groups
- Changes in the way the child treats others
Other key identifiers
- Gang affiliation
- Has a history of living in many locations
- Does not have control over their schedule
- Possesses large amounts of cash
- Possesses hotel keys
- Possesses fake identification or no identification
Safe Houses opening up in Austin
Darcy and her mother appreciate they are lucky she was able to return home – at least for awhile. The day KXAN’s report aired we found out from her mom, Elizabeth Darcy had run away again the previous Monday and was again involved with drugs and alcohol. Detectives were looking for her Thursday.
Child sex trafficking experts say a significant number of young runaways vulnerable to sex traffickers come from less stable home environments and may be already in the foster system. They can be lured into a forced relationship with a trafficker ending up in other cities or states – far from anything resembling home.
That’s where safe houses come in – now even in the Austin area. Their locations are not publicized in case traffickers come looking for the teens they profited from. But police say there are far too few for the need. It’s estimated of the 100,000 child sex victims around America, there are 200 safe house beds.
“One of the biggest frustrations is that there’s… a shortage of shelters that we have available to take many of these juveniles to,” says Sgt. Bob Miljenovich with Austin Police.
Around Austin KXAN found several shelters and ranches where sex trafficking victims can get the help they need to get past the horrors of being forced to live as a commodity – and somehow surviving in a world of highways, hotel rooms and truck stops sometimes for years.
“Many of the juveniles we come into contact with whether it’s through operations or referrals, they’ve been involved with drugs,” says Miljenovich. “Perhaps they’ve been abused, sometimes with traumatic incidents so they require a detox they need to go through or they’re not getting out of that lifestyle willingly.”
KXAN met one young woman who was trafficked from age 14. Now 21, ‘Melanie’ – not her real name has been recovering at a newly-open safe house in Austin several months after accepting an offer of housing from a newly-formed charity group called Key2Free Texas. Prior to that, she knew of one life.
“I was taught nothing else. And I felt ‘this is it.’ There’s no going to college, there’s no going to high school I missed all that, there’s no prom date,” she says.
The only ‘dates’ Melanie would get were men who paid her ‘boyfriend’ for the time with her. He would keep the money, she says.
“So I get here to Austin and I was shocked. I wanted to walk out several times but from that point to the point where I’m at now, I am changed so much, it’s an amazing thing,” she says.
For a fortunate few like Melanie who went after the freedom to recover their lives – safe house volunteers offer ongoing support, a home life of sorts with groceries and clean sheets as well as counseling.
By December, a new law will ensure these kinds of safe houses in Texas maintain minimum standards – a sign they are a permanent part of our communities as long as there is a demand from men who will pay for sex with children. Now some like Melanie in Austin are getting a chance at a life after trafficking.
“I’m not perfect, I’m not a saint, but I’ll tell you this much, I have a hell of a back-up team to help me out. They care about me,” Melanie said smiling.
Texas Teen Runaway hotline number is 1-888-580-4357. The texting line is 512-872-5777. There’s also an online chat at www.texasyouth.org. Advocates are available 24/7.