Better system needed to support human trafficking survivors in Texas

Toni McKinley with The Refuge for DMST staples reading packets with survivors' stories. (KXAN Photo/Steffi Lee)

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The Human Trafficking Unit within the Texas Attorney General’s Office is training specific industries on how to identify this crime in their communities.

“Every time we train, we tailor our training to that particular audience or group,” Kirsta Leeburg Melton, who leads the unit, said.

During the 85th legislative session, lawmakers passed laws aimed at fighting human trafficking. Gov. Greg Abbott signed a measure in May requiring training for truck drivers and commercial vehicle operators. It requires all public junior colleges with these training programs to include education on identifying and preventing human trafficking. The work needs to stretch beyond prevention, Melton said.

“What are we doing on behalf of victims that we do locate, that we do rescue and we do set on the journey to becoming survivors?” she said.

Melton says most recently, they held a “coalition build” with members of the oil industry and Truckers Against Trafficking. It was hosted by ConocoPhillips and included law enforcement agencies as well.

“The training there was specific to what they would see potentially, whether it’s their drivers, whether it’s their people in the fields and saying to them, ‘Hey, you want to help your employees understand what this crime is and prevent it,’” she said.

The unit also trained the Texas Workforce Commission last year on how to identify who may be a trafficking victim and ways to best share the agency’s resources with them to use.

“If you don’t identify them, if you don’t direct them toward those programs, then they can’t take advantage of them,” Melton said.

Toni McKinley, a sex trafficking survivor, serves as the director of therapeutic services for The Refuge at DMST. It’s an organization currently building a 48-bed long-term shelter for victims.

“We can provide ways of escape for these girls to get out, but who helps them after that?” McKinley said.

She says there’s always a need to support the services survivors rely on. A 2017 study by the University of Texas at Austin estimates there are more than 300,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas.

As part of her recovery process, McKinley learned the importance of building trusting relationships and having mentorships. Starting strong mentorships early can be critical for preventing children from becoming victims, she said.

“Once you build trust, then you’re able to be more open with [survivors],” she said.

On Jan. 18, the Human Trafficking Unit will be premiering a documentary it worked on about prevention and raising awareness about ways to support survivors at the Austin ISD Performing Arts Center. Melton says she hopes it’s shared among all state employees.

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