Child advocates hope money for state’s sex trafficking team continues

Governor Greg Abbott speaks to his Child Sex Trafficking Team at their four day workshop in Austin.

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Brainstorming and coming up with ways to tackle sex trafficking is one thing. Getting the ideas funded is another obstacle.

For more than a decade, the fight by Texas lawmakers to end child sex trafficking has focused on catching pimps. A new team in the Governor’s office met Tuesday to bring services to what’s predicted to be 79,000 sex trafficked minors and youths in Texas.

“As a father, it just crushes my heart to think about what’s happening to these young girls,” Gov. Greg Abbott said speaking to a crowded room at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Austin.

Popular international events, numerous major freeways and a struggling child welfare system makes Texas a haven for pimps and prostitutes.

“It’s not limited by city limits or county lines or even state lines,” said Abbott.

For decades, a major hurdle has been getting law enforcement, the justice system and service providers to coordinate among themselves. In 2015, the legislature approved and paid $6 million to fund the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team to encourage “collaboration.”

Andrea Sparks, who organized the four-day workshop with national partners, says for the first time, they’re hopeful for funding despite a tight budget session.

“Right now, our focus is on getting services for victims. And it’s tough and it’s probably why it hasn’t happened so far. But we’re here this week with these teams and we are having some courageous conversations,” said Sparks.

Regional squads of law enforcement, non-profits and judges gathered to coordinate programs meant to find sex traffickers and provide help for victims.

“Find more placements and fund more non-profits who are able to provide the resources we need to get to these victims,” said Travis County Judge Aurora Martinez Jones. She hopes that grant money will eventually find its way to local programs in her area. “It is a huge deal because without those resources we really aren’t going to make progress in this problem.”

This team has asked the legislature to continue the $5.7 million program. Currently, the Texas House and Senate budgets both propose putting $4.4 million towards the team. Another $8 million are available for matching grants from the federal government.

Seventeen grant applications have been turned in, totaling $16 million. Applicants will find out whether they get some of that money by June. The fact that there’s money available at all is a significant change.

Texas lawmakers have a long history of passing sex trafficking programs without any funding. According to our news partners at the Texas Tribune, a 2009 law called for a victim assistance program with up to $10 million in yearly grants that never came.

In 2011. they required convicted child traffickers to pay restitution, the Tribune could not find any victims who received any money. In 2013 they set up judicial diversion programs for juveniles caught selling sex but did not authorize any money for it.

A 2015 law allows police to place sex-trafficking victims in secure facilities with 24-hour supervision and counseling. But no such facility exists and no money has ever been allocated to create one.

It’s also important to note some child advocates have expressed concern that these grants could be caught in a political tug of war between Travis County and Gov. Abbott over Sheriff Sally Hernandez’s new jail policy regarding ICE detainers. 

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