Globally, there are more than 30 million people enslaved through human trafficking. Those slaves include men, women and children forced to work in factories, sweatshops, farms or homes as domestic slaves against their will. Millions of others are forced into sex trafficking, working in brothels and strip clubs or being sold and exploited online. Victims of sex trafficking on average live only seven years from the time they are first trafficked due to disease, violence, drugs, suicide and lack of health care.
While many of our readers may have learned about international human trafficking, they may not know that 325,000 children each year, most of them ages 12 to 14, are at risk for becoming victims of sexual exploitation in the United States. Some of these victims live in our community. Who are the “buyers”? A large study showed the majority of buyers are white, educated men between the ages of 22 and 55. Many of them have families. The demand is increasing for younger and younger victims because pornography shows younger and younger children.
Wacoan writer Mary Darden and Susan Peters, executive director of UnBound and chair of the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition, sat down to take a hard look trafficking, the signs that someone is being trafficked, the impact on the lives of those who are trafficked and what is needed to turn the growing tide of this most dangerous and violent form of modern-day slavery.
WACOAN: What is UnBound and the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition? How did it begin?
Peters: UnBound basically leads a professional coalition of law enforcement and community leaders to combat human trafficking. That’s what the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition is.
In early 2000 because of my job, what I do at Antioch Community Church and our network of churches, I went to Thailand, Uganda and India, some other countries. While I was there, that’s when I saw young girls being trapped in sex trafficking and the young men being forced to be soldiers, and so that’s when my heart really started breaking for the issue of modern-day slavery in our world, human trafficking around the globe. I started journaling then, [wondering] what could we do to combat this huge issue of human trafficking in our world. I started researching it, and that’s when I found out there are more than 30 million slaves in the world. This was forced labor or forced prostitution, and so that’s when I really started thinking we’ve got to do something about it.
First, I thought we would do something internationally when we started UnBound in 2012, but then when we started researching what was happening in the United States with the domestic human trafficking, and we knew we had to begin right here at home.
WACOAN: What is the mission of your organization?
Peters: Our mission basically is to mobilize the church and activate local communities to fight human trafficking, and we mainly do this through prevention, professional training and what we call survivor advocacy. Really, our prevention and awareness is where we educate and empower at-risk youth, spread awareness to citywide outreaches and provide presentations about human trafficking to any group or organization that will allow us to come in and train them.
Where we are focused in that is [getting] before kids, to try to keep trafficking from ever happening, educating them on what it is, how to stay safe from the tactics of a trafficker.
WACOAN: You said survivor advocacy was one of the things you did, correct? What is that?
Peters: Yes, so [first is] the prevention.
And the professional training is where we train attorneys or medical professionals, educators, social service providers, anyone that interfaces with kids so that we can equip professionals [so] that they will be able to identify victims of human trafficking.
Survivor advocacy is having the resources to be able to place these victims in the counseling that they need. Most of them do not have the resources to get to a safe place or to pay for the counseling that is absolutely critical for them. We do anything from providing them clothes, to transportation to somewhere safe, to the doctors’ appointments, whatever it is.
When we train, any of the needs I just described, that is when people will emerge. They will say, ‘My daughter is being trafficked,’ or someone may self-identify. And that’s where we really advocate for the victim and survivors, to provide for their needs, get volunteer legal services and medical care, counseling or try to get them connected to an aftercare facility.
WACOAN: What do you hope the influence of UnBound will be? Do you have an ultimate goal you want to accomplish?
Peters: Honestly, we would like to stop sex trafficking from happening in our community. When Senator [John] Cornyn was here a few weeks ago, he said, ‘Success is when we place an ad and no one responds.’ So we want to keep our kids safe from being trafficked. We want arrests to be made so the traffickers know they cannot operate their businesses here so we can keep our kids and vulnerable people safe.
WACOAN: How big is the problem of human trafficking in the United States? You said there are 30 million in the world.
Peters: There are 30 million slaves around the world, and in the U.S., the numbers are really difficult because the crime is under the radar. But there are at least 400,000 at-risk youth every year being exploited in the U.S.
What’s really tragic is the average age of a young person who is trafficked in the United States — this is an American child — is 12 to 14 years old. So these American kids in our schools and our neighborhoods are being manipulated, controlled and lured away by traffickers in our own communities. Many times these kids are still going to school. They’re being trafficked after school, on the weekends, and they still may be living at home. Maybe they’re repeat runaways, they are in the foster care system. Just in 2015, we identified 30 victims within our community, about 20 were identified through our juvenile detention center. Victims have been both male or female.
WACOAN: Who is doing the trafficking?
Peters: Well, it can be just an individual. It can be a sophisticated network, like gangs, the cartels. It can be businesspeople, and it can even be a family member. It can be a drug dealer down the street. They’ve turned to trafficking young people because one girl being sold can make a trafficker over $100,000 a year. It is, unfortunately, a very lucrative business, and it makes a lot of money, and there is very little risk.
WACOAN: What is the punishment, the criminal consequence, for trafficking people?
Peters: I want to say our law enforcement and our [district attorney’s] office is being very proactive about going after traffickers. If you watch the paper, it’s not unusual to have several cases a month now in our court system. They really are going after the perpetrators of the crime. But [a sentence] can be anywhere from 10 to 40 years.
It’s very difficult to work these cases because, usually, it’s not like in the movie where victims are kidnapped. They are usually manipulated, and what we call a boyfriend or pimp, they really feel like they are in love with the trafficker. They will protect him. They don’t usually self-identify as a victim. So it can make it really, really difficult for law enforcement to work those cases, but they are doing a fantastic job.
WACOAN: Is the problem increasing, and if so, why?
Peters: I would say across the United States it is increasing, and it’s because, unfortunately, there is a super high demand. If there wasn’t a demand for bought sex in our culture, then we wouldn’t have the risk of kids, young women and boys being trafficked.
Pornography is so public in our culture, and pornography is showing younger and younger victims. The demand for younger and younger girls is why there is a demand for 12- to 14-year old girls. That’s when they are initially brought into sex trafficking. So maybe 10 years ago, the so-called ‘prostitute’ was 25 to 40 years old. Now they want a 15-year-old. Because it is such a lucrative business and the risk [to sellers] has been low, that’s what is driving the demand for it.
The profile of a buyer is really staggering. In a huge study from Minnesota, it showed that 67 percent of buyers are white, educated men; 66 percent have children; and 52 percent of them are married. This is your normal businessperson that is doing this.
Anybody can be a victim of human trafficking. It can happen to adults, children — male or female — but there are certain vulnerabilities that traffickers look for that make someone an easy target. They look for low self-esteem, where they can work their way into a relationship with a vulnerable young person and try to win over their affection, win over their trust and use that by telling them they are beautiful, buying them things.
Most of the victims have a history of abuse so that makes them really vulnerable to not know what healthy boundaries are. Most of the victims are under the poverty line, so that makes them very vulnerable for someone to buy them things and coerce them. The highest, most vulnerable population is the runaways or the orphans in foster care and the LGBT population because they need a place to sleep and they need food, so traffickers can go look for these kids at the bus stations and malls, places where kids hang out, and work themselves into trying to meet those needs and then lure them into being trafficked.
WACOAN: Wow, let’s step back for a second to the profile of the buyers. Is there any common denominator in this group? Most of these are white males, educated, many with families. Why in the world are they going out there and doing this?
Peters: I don’t really know. It’s a huge issue in our culture. I honestly blame a lot of it on pornography because pornography is an addiction. It escalates to the point of acting out. So when someone gets very addicted to pornography, unfortunately, many will act out and want to go purchase what they are seeing. That is what is really driving it. But the bottom line is without the buyers there would be no sex trafficking.
That’s why I’m extremely proud of our sheriff’s department because they are sending the message loud and clear that our community will not put up with this kind of behavior and that we will protect the young people, the vulnerable young women and boys in our community. It sends out a message that, if you’re doing this, you’re going to be held accountable.
In another study it showed that most people go online to start looking for someone to buy around 2 o’clock in the afternoon. So these are people that are at work, thinking about leaving work, and they think it’s anonymous by going online because that’s where the sellers are.
WACOAN: How many buyers are there in the United States?
Peters: I don’t know how many there are in the U.S. I can tell you that the average age of a buyer is from 22 to 55 years old.
In just McLennan County they have conducted four stings. You can go online and look at the newspaper at these. The first time they did an ad [a sting], they put one ad up for a young person, and I believe they had over 88 hits on it within, like, 12 hours. That is one ad in our community.
WACOAN: Is the main way to catch them through stings like that?
Peters: That’s the main way to catch the buyers, yes, and then they are looking for the traffickers that are dropping off the girls. But in the stings, the first time they arrested [buyers], I believe it was 20, second time 29, third time 45 and this last time 49. So that’s how many buyers they’ve arrested in our community in four stings, and that’s in one year’s time.
WACOAN: What happens to these buyers?
Peters: There are different charges. It depends on what kind of evidence they were able to get. It can be anything from a misdemeanor to a felony, depending on what the buyer was trying to negotiate when they were trying to buy someone. They want to get the buyer (the ‘John’ is what we call them). I like to call them the buyer. I think ‘John’ is too dignified for them.
Law enforcement is trying to go after the trafficker. They are brutal. I’ve never met a girl who hasn’t been brutalized, beaten, locked up. It is a horrific, horrific industry to be a part of. They may sell [the idea] to a young person, telling them they are going to make a lot of money or that they are important to them. There are things in our culture that can glamorize something, like movies or a rapper’s song, but the truth of it is that it is extremely brutal. They are made to have sex with 10, 15 or more people a day. They get diseases, they’re beaten, there’s a high suicide rate, there’s even murder. It is a very, very dangerous life to be a part of.
WACOAN: What is the typical life for a victim of trafficking?
Peters: A typical victim that we see is probably a young person, 15, 16 years old, that was in a single [parent] home. Maybe the parent isn’t there very often or they are working.
Possibly, if it is a hard family situation, an older guy will pursue that young person, making them believe that they are trustworthy. They will take care of them, maybe even posing as a boyfriend. They will many times introduce them to drugs, sexualized behavior and then wean them away from their normal surroundings, keeping them away from home, away from their old friends. Then after that sexualized behavior is introduced, they will start coercing them to have sex with their friends and eventually, selling them out of hotels. That is usually what it’s like.
WACOAN: Are there ways to identify a victim of human trafficking? I’ve heard tattoos might be a sign. Is there any other outward sign of somebody who might be trafficked?
Peters: Yes, there are many signs. Mostly when you see a young person’s behavior drastically change. We had a call from a mom today — normal happy kid gets involved with an older boyfriend, and all of a sudden [she is] extremely defiant and angry.
A lot of times they will start isolating themselves from their normal activities. If they were in sports, choir, they stop doing that. They start doing erratic behavior. We’re really concerned when we see a young person with a much older boyfriend or older friend, friends that are not connected with the school.
There are unexplained absences from school, a sudden decline in academic performance, possibly falling asleep in class because they may be working during the night and sneaking back in at home afterward. They frequently change schools — [either they] are not getting along with a peer group or they want to change schools.
Gang affiliation is a red flag because gangs are getting into trafficking young people. The use of social media for sexual advertising, unusual tattoos or branding, especially if it’s a money sign, money bag, a pimp’s name, a gang symbol, barcode or new expensive clothes or other accessories that their socioeconomic status doesn’t warrant. Who’s buying that for them? Especially if they are frequently running away from home because a lot of times they are taken away and sold out of town.[Other signs are] classic signs of physical and sexual abuse, STDs, high-risk behavior or self-injury, use of sexualized language or street language. Maybe starts to wear a lot of sexualized clothing that they didn’t do before or sexual activity that’s acting out.
We had a girl that — first day of school — she acted out sexually. Of course, the school suspended her, and they should have, but they didn’t ask any more questions. When we got involved, we found out she had been trafficked all summer. She had been brainwashed by the trafficker that that was all she was good for.
WACOAN: Are there specific areas in Waco that have been pinpointed as destinations for human trafficking?
Peters: [Interstate] 35. They call it the Texas corridor. Being on the highway makes us not immune to trafficking. We also have a high poverty rate in Waco, which makes our young people very vulnerable to someone coming along and asking them to get involved, to make money. The highway system that joins Dallas, San Antonio and Houston is the Texas triangle, and right in the middle of that is Waco.[Interstate] 10 is the number one corridor for human trafficking. Houston and Dallas are among the top. In a large study it showed that 20 percent of all of the U.S. trafficking victims will go to Texas at some point. They can be at our truck stops or gas stations or anything along the highway.
WACOAN: You mentioned that young men are also victims. What are their numbers compared to young women?
Peters: We primarily see girls. We know that there have been several boys trafficked here in Waco, and their traffickers have been sentenced, but boys are less likely to make an outcry. Often boys are recruited off of gaming. They will meet a friend, maybe an older man, and he will lure them into friendship by buying them things or sending them games.
WACOAN: This is online gaming?
Peters: [Yes], whereas with girls a trafficker will send them a message via some kind of social media — Facebook, Instagram, Kik. Saying they are pretty and start making a friendship.
WACOAN: Are young children victims of trafficking?
Peters: There have definitely been reported cases of very young victims across the whole nation. The youngest I’ve had call me was a 12-year-old.
WACOAN: So are all of the human trafficking victims young, or are some older people too?
Peters: Oh yeah, there are definitely older people. We placed a 40-year-old in a safe house last year. We’ve placed probably five women between the ages of 24 to 41 in safe houses, and we had a college graduate be trafficked. If you have a vulnerability and you run into the wrong person that can manipulate and maneuver their way in, it can happen to almost anyone.
WACOAN: If you believe that someone is a victim what is your course of action?
Peters: We tell people in the public to not approach a victim or a potential trafficker, but to get the information and call our law enforcement or the human trafficking hotline number because [traffickers] can be sophisticated gangs or cartels, and it can be dangerous. Law enforcement will respond very quickly.
Yesterday, one of our law enforcement [officers] got a call on a robbery case. When they [arrived], the robber was actually a John. They got the trafficker and the John and rescued the young girl. Law enforcement knows what to look for and what to do.
If it is in a private setting, like a doctor’s office, hospital, counseling office, a school, then you can isolate the person from the trafficker and ask them if they are being forced to do something they don’t want to do, [if they’re] in need of assistance and offer help. At the same time, law enforcement needs to be called to get involved.
WACOAN: How is trafficking impacting our society?
Peters: Unfortunately, it’s bigger than we think. It’s impacting all of our communities, our school systems. Victims are going to our medical facilities, so it’s something that all of these professionals need to be able to understand and identify so that we can help more and more victims. The more our communities are educated on the issue, we can send the message out that we want it stopped and that both [traffickers] and buyers will be held accountable.
It is an important thing that we do. I think that solutions are that everyone in our community is educated on the scope of human trafficking and they understand particularly the sex trafficking, the manipulation, the control tactics the trafficker uses. Because our general public is going to be on jury cases and they may not understand why the victim’s story goes back and forth, why [she is] disoriented. At one point she is talking about being tied up and brutalized, and the next moment she’s saying her boyfriend is good to her? [The jury] may see this guy dressed up in a suit, and he’s a buyer who looks like their dad or uncle, and they don’t want to hold him accountable because it’s very confusing. They may see the girl that looks really rough because she has been made to have sex 10 to 15 times a day for a long time. You can imagine how confused she is.
WACOAN: What can the average citizen do to help stop trafficking?
Peters: They can give financially towards organizations like ours. They can volunteer with organizations like ours, CASA, Crimes Against Children [Conference] and the Advocacy Center.
Anything that you do with kids, being a Sunday school teacher, a Big Brother, a Big Sister — those are things are incredibly important today because you are building up their self-esteem. We go into the juvenile detention center every week and talk to these kids about human trafficking and the tactics of the traffickers. We also give them skills about how they have intrinsic and great value.
We have met kids we know were trafficked. They wouldn’t present it, but we tell them about how they have value, how love is not getting beat, being berated, being forced. We had two victims who went back to the trafficker, and when they were getting beat, they remembered those words, and they picked up the phone and called law enforcement and got out. So being a voice in children’s lives and lifting them up is super powerful.
And being educated on the scope of the issue so we can be that voice of intervention. We do trainings. I had a counselor after the training say, ‘I have missed several victims because I didn’t ask more questions.’ The victims usually only present with maybe one rape situation or one abuse situation. It’s very shameful and painful to describe what has happened to them, that the person they thought they loved and was going to protect them was brutalizing them. Those are very difficult things especially for a young person to verbalize. We have to be better at asking more questions.
Let [law enforcement] know that we are really proud of the work that they’re doing to make our county a hostile environment for human trafficking.
WACOAN: What are two or three questions that we should be asking these young people?
Peters: If they have a certain tattoo, ask them if the tattoo means anything. Who paid for the tattoo? Is it connected with a gang or a group of people? Asking someone if they go by a nickname because that’s what often happens. [Traffickers] will dye [the girl’s] hair, change their clothing because they’re stripping them of their previous identity.
Asking have you ever been in a position where you had to trade sex for food, housing or some need that you had? Are you being made to do something that you’re uncomfortable with by a boyfriend or an older adult?
WACOAN: Are most of these victims living in fear for their life?
Peters: At some point, yes, but many of them are not going to self-identify because usually a trafficker will coerce the individual over a period of time, and they may think that their ‘boyfriend’ is taking care of them, so they may not feel fearful at the moment.
For example, this girl went away with her boyfriend, but he ended up selling her for two weeks until this law enforcement [officer], this detective, was able to rescue her. And in getting her statement, it’s very difficult because she is extremely fearful of [her boyfriend]. He threatened her family and her. Most of the time he will threaten their family or something that’s important and dear to them. That’s how they keep them under control.
One of the best laws that we have is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act [TVPA]. That law describes the trafficking victim and sex trafficking. It says sex trafficking is ] commercial sex act which is induced by force, fraud or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is not 18 years of age.
We had a victim I worked with through the sheriff’s department awhile back where the girl was 18, really smart, graduated from high school in three years. She answered an ad for a modeling job, and she ended up being trafficked. That’s fraud. [She was] tricked because she thought she was doing one thing, and then coercion is in the law because our court system recognizes that you can be coerced into this life and not even know it because you’re so manipulated. Then the really important part is any child under the age of 18 in the commercial sex industry — that’s stripping, pornography, prostitution — is classified as a human trafficking victim and should be protected. There is no such thing as a child prostitute.
WACOAN: What are the hooks that traffickers use, such as in the modeling ad? What are some of the things they might say that people could be alerted to?
Peters: It’s usually fast money, too good to be true, not a reputable company, out of town. We’ve had someone call us and their sister was fixing to fly to New York with a modeling company. We looked it up, and it wasn’t there. Saying, ‘Come interview at this hotel for this modeling job,’ [or] ‘Give me all of your identification.’ You never turn over your identification. They’ll take your license, telephones and things like that. You don’t give that to someone.
WACOAN: Is there an increased mortality rate for victims of trafficking?
Peters: Yes, actually, there’s a study that shows the average age of a victim of sex trafficking globally, if they do not get out, will only survive seven years because of disease, drug addiction — either [accidental] overdose or purposeful overdose — being killed by a buyer or the trafficker. So it’s a dangerous, dangerous field to be in.
Almost everyone I’ve brought to safe house has thought that she was going to be killed at some point. Traffickers can trade you off to another trafficker that’s more brutal.
WACOAN: How can people help UnBound? What does your organization need the most?
Peters: Money. Right now I am raising $55,000. I need to hire another case manager. You can go to UnBoundnow.org [to] donate online, or you can send a check to UnBound, but we need another case manager. We can’t keep up with all the demand. We have moms calling us every week about their daughters, and it’s a lot to keep up with.
If we had an annual budget of $350,000, then we would continue to increase our prevention awareness efforts, keeping thousands of youth that are at risk for being trafficked. We’ve already conducted hundreds of professional trainings, but we would continue to enhance that. Just general operations, personnel, continual media presence to keep it before the people on billboards, any kind of media ads.
WACOAN: What is your budget right now?
Peters: We are just under $200,000.
WACOAN: How much would it take to solve the problem in McLennan County?
Peters: Oh lord, that’s a great question, wow.
In McLennan County I think our law enforcement agencies need a special task force. We need funding for our Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition, [which includes] our sheriff, our assistant chief of police, our DA, detectives, Baylor professors, the Advocacy Center, the juvenile detention center. The collaboration in our community is unprecedented. I’m super, super proud of it.
Support for the HOT Human Trafficking Coalition is a whole other budget area. We want to get a safe house for kids in our community, which we’re working on, so there’s a lot of work that can be done. You really have to have specialized people who understand the trafficking component. There are not enough places. We don’t like sending [victims] away when we don’t know if it’s going to be good for them. We know that we have great people here that can really make a good therapeutic place for them. So if we had a task force, if UnBound was fully funded, and if the Heart of Texas Coalition was funded, and then someone could get behind the new safe house, then we would be definitely well on our way to end it here.
WACOAN: Can you give us a story of a typical person you have worked with?
Peters: We had a 16-year-old. Someone Facebook messaged her happy birthday and introduced himself as an 18-year-old boy that she didn’t know. He kept saying, ‘Oh, you’re so pretty, and I’m looking at your pictures.’ [He] built up a relationship with her over three months through social media, unknown to her mom, and by the time they met, she thought she was in love with him. She’d go anywhere he wanted to go. He ends up being 33 and a pimp, and he sold her at gunpoint.
WACOAN: And this was in Waco?
Peters: Yeah, this was in our community. Those are the stories that keep you up at night.
WACOAN: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Peters: It’s been amazing, honestly, the favor that we’ve had in the community. The sheriff’s office calls us, Waco PD calls us. If they have a case, we all work extremely collaboratively together. The coalition, the protection and prosecution committee with the U.S. Marshal [Service], several attorneys, the DA’s office and law enforcement from all of the different agencies, [they all] care about this issue. Everybody is really working together because they are passionate about not letting this happen here.
If you would like to help UnBound turn the tide of human trafficking, visit their website to volunteer or make a donation at unboundnow.org. The national hotline number is 1-888-373-7888.