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New Law Focused On Fight Against 'Modern-Day Slavery'

Christopher Connelly
Texas Sen. John Cornyn meets with representatives of service providers who work with human trafficking survivors, as well as local law enforcement leaders, in Dallas.

Texas ranks second in the nation for human trafficking cases, and Texas Sen. John Cornyn was in Dallas Tuesday to highlight a new federal law he co-wrote to provide resources and funding to fight traffickers and support victims. It’s called the Abolish Human Trafficking Act, though Cornyn acknowledges there’s still a lot of work to be done to end what he calls “modern-day slavery.”

Human trafficking is considered widespread but is often hidden, so it is hard to quantify. The International Labor Organization estimates about 25 million victims worldwide. About a quarter of victims are minors. In Texas in 2017, the National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 805 cases of human trafficking, though the organization says its statistics likely reflect a severe underreporting of the crime. Trafficking refers to forced labor through fraud, coercion or violence. That includes commercial sex work, which is the focus of Cornyn’s legislation.

“Young women, primarily, who are being held against their will, being required to provide sex to people who purchase those services,” Cornyn described, “under the supervision of pimps who beat them, threaten them, rape them, abuse them.”

At a roundtable meeting at Promise House, which runs a drop-in center for adolescents who’ve been trafficked, Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall said she’s focusing department resources on finding runaway teens as quickly as possible because traffickers target and trap vulnerable young people to exploit them.

Both Hall and Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said there’s been a shift in law enforcement toward arresting and prosecuting pimps and those who buy sex, instead of the people being trafficked.

“What we want to do, to be quite honest with you, is if we could never prosecute a prostitution case again, that would be my goal,” Creuzot said.

“I couldn’t be happier to hear our Dallas County DA and the Dallas police chief sit here today and tell us they don’t want to go after the prostituted people because they realize they’re the victimized party,” Rebekah Charleston, who runs the North Texas nonprofit Valiant Hearts, which offers support and housing for women escaping from exploitation.

Charleston says it’s nearly impossible for trafficking victims to find and plan a way to extricate themselves from their pimps. She says that simply surviving the day is a struggle. She knows first hand; Charleston survived ten years of exploitation.

“I was forced to work 20 hours a day, every single day, every birthday, every holiday,” Charleston said. “And I was labor trafficked at businesses during the day and sex trafficked all night. Our trafficker would slap us out of our sleep, he would stick his hand in our mouths, and he would deprive us of the little sleep that he did get.”

Charleston says most women who are being trafficked don’t see themselves as victims, and it can be hard for them to seek help, especially when services can be difficult to access.

“I can tell you personally how terrifying it was for me to even think about leaving,” she said. “And all the brain washing and the coercion and the manipulation left me feeling like I chose it and I was the one to blame for what happened to me.”

Cornyn co-wrote the Abolish Human Trafficking Act with Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and it attracted bipartisan support. President Trump signed the legislation into law in December.

The law requires mandatory restitution for victims of commercial sexual exploitation so they have resources to begin rebuilding their lives. It re-authorizes and expands programs aimed at combatting human trafficking and helping victims, sets up an advisory council to recommend better ways to fight trafficking, and targets federal resources to better understand and target traffickers and reduce demand for the commercial sex industry.

Charleston says the new federal law will help in the fight against trafficking, but she says a lot more help is needed for survivors to rebuild their lives, including the ability to clear criminal offenses related to forced labor and sex work from their records, job training and housing assistance.

Christopher Connelly is a reporter covering issues related to financial instability and poverty for KERA’s One Crisis Away series. In 2015, he joined KERA to report on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. From Fort Worth, he also focused on politics and criminal justice stories.