Officials call for necessary uncomfortable conversations about child sex trafficking
FORT WORTH — Fort Worth sits on America’s largest crime corridor courtesy of Interstate 35W, a major transportation route for drugs, human trafficking, and other crimes, Fort Worth Police Officer Wayne Menzies said.
“Texas is the third worst state in the U.S. for trafficking, and Dallas is the second worst city in Texas,” Menzies said.
Menzies and other experts discussed child sex trafficking during a May 2 Not In My Neighborhood conference at St. Peter the Apostle Parish.
“We like to think these things don’t happen in our community,” Diocese of Fort Worth Director of Safe Environment Richard Mathews said. “But we know they do.”
Alliance for Children Director of Programs Lindsey Dula agreed.
“While it’s hard to quantify the data, we know that one in 10 kids is sexually abused by the time they’re 18 and the average age is about 9,” Dula said. “In the sex trafficking cases I’ve encountered, 100 percent of the victims had prior sex abuse in their past. It’s taken decades for us to have conversations about child sex abuse but while those conversations may not be comfortable, they need to be had.”
Which is where Not In My Neighborhood, an organization focused on increasing awareness of sex trafficking issues, comes into play.
“They contacted one of our parishes a while ago about putting this program on for the whole community, not necessarily just the Catholic community,” Mathews said. “I went and thought it was a good program. The more we get people talking about protecting our children and young people, the more vigilant people become.
“Because this impacts not only our Catholic diocese but our entire community.”
Lack of awareness and education contributes to the problem, Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Jessica Schoonover said. The unsavory nature of sex trafficking renders it a topic out of sight and out of mind for most.
The problem is real, however, and more prevalent than most realize.
“You can sell drugs once,” Dula said. “You can sell a child over and over.”
Myths abound, Dula and others said. Incidents of sex trafficking rarely play out like the movie “Taken.”
“People think of people chained to a bed locked in a room,” Mathews said. “But it could be a kid who’s going to school.”
Victims and predators cross socio-economic lines, fitting no particular profile, Schoonover said.
Technology likewise hinders attempts by law enforcement and others to stem the tide, she said.
“Beyond measure,” Schoonover said. “Every time I teach these classes there’s a new website, platform, or app to talk about. You step on one and five more pop up.”
Schoonover said she’s tracked predators through Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and a host of other internet sites. Predators, she said, are just as, if not more likely, to search out potential victims through video gaming systems.
Schoonover and others discussed how predators manipulate, lure, and retain victims into the sex trafficking industry.
“For the child victims, it’s often the case of an exciting world for them at first where they’re treated like grown-ups and able to make their own decisions,” Dula said. “But it goes away so quickly.”
“Sometimes it’s that the home life of these kids is so bad that they see getting pimped out as a better solution,” Schoonover said. “Other times it’s kids who get groomed by these people and find themselves in way over their head.”
The speakers urged attendees to be supportive and patient should they encounter a possible victim of child sex trafficking, and most of all to not get personally involved but rather contact the authorities and let them do their job.
The situation is dire, Menzies said.
“As a Christian myself — with the direction the world, our country, is going — I have a hard time thinking it’s not going to get worse,” Menzies said.
Yet hope prevails.
“The more we’re educating the public through events like this, the more we’re getting word out and getting calls,” Menzies said.
Dula added that law enforcement agencies, medical services, courts, and social service agencies collaborate better now than was the case 20 or 30 years ago to combat the problem.
Dula recommended that attendees donate to agencies fighting sex trafficking or volunteer should they want to help.
“There are amazing programs out there serving children with lots of volunteer opportunities depending on what your comfort level is,” Dula said.
Perhaps the best tool, she said, is simply broaching the subject with family members, friends, and others.
“The more we communicate and educate the better,” Dula said. “It can’t be secret anymore.”
To attend future Not In My Neighborhood conferences or for information, visit nimngroup.com.