AUSTIN (KXAN) – For the first time, local juvenile and family court judges are getting high-level training on recognizing and getting help for Texas children who have been sexually trafficked.
“Domestic child sex trafficking…has very often been described as being hidden in plain sight,” said the Hon. John J. Romero Jr., a board member on the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges which brought its training institute to Central Texas.
“We get tunnel vision (as judges),” said Romero Jr., a presiding Children’s Court judge in New Mexico. “We have a delinquency case like loitering or something more serious, but we don’t ask ‘what’s the rest of the story?’”
The two-day series of workshops follow a recent University of Texas study estimating 79,000 Texas kids are victims of sex trafficking. Those numbers include cases of children or youth who have run away from home and are often quickly lured by people intent on using them for profit, experts say.
Four Travis County Juvenile Court Judges attended this week’s workshop. One, Travis County’s CPS Associate Judge Aurora Martinez Jones says a high majority of kids in the Texas foster care system have been traumatized by sex traffickers. KXAN recently reported a third of runaway foster kids in Texas remain missing.
Martinez Jones says a current challenge for her is how to find the right language to encourage foster parents to undergo voluntary training to give ongoing stability to such wounded souls.
“They need to be in a family home and to learn the kind of love they are searching for… from people who really want to help them for benevolent reasons… (People who will) put the effort into getting trained and the education on what these children really need,” Martinez Jones said.
There’s no such thing as a child prostitute. They can’t consent to being exploited.
-Travis County Assoc. Judge Aurora Martinez Jones
Martinez Jones says she is (also) trying to find the right language she can use with the law enforcement, social workers and probation officers. Growing practices in Texas youth courts include treating young trafficking survivors as victims not criminals.
Meantime, non-profit, residential shelters like the Refuge are taking root near Austin and recent laws have increased penalties for convicted traffickers. But observers say those efforts are only a start.
The head of Governor Abbott’s Child Sex Trafficking Team is in the midst of refining a made-in-Texas strategy to curb an underground economy that can percolate at faraway truck stops and as close as your neighborhood corner store.
“We really need to raise awareness that there are kids out there that are being trafficked and exploited right under our noses,” said Andrea Sparks who has been Director of the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team for about a year. Prior to her appointment, Sparks was Executive Director at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“That (Texas solution) includes getting the judges the training they need and the leadership training they need to know they can take a stand on this issue in their courtroom,” Sparks said, adding her team could take the judges’ training deeper into Texas in the near future.
Also, next month in Austin, Sparks said the Governor’s Office is funding a meeting of six regional sex trafficking teams. Those teams include law enforcement, prosecutors, social workers and others. The get-together is aimed at coordinating local responses between those players as well as those between cities and districts since child traffickers don’t always pay attention to county borders as they ply their trade.
Sparks also said gangs are recruiting and victimizing more teenagers – since unlike drugs or guns the human ‘product’ can be reused over and over.