- Katie Hall American-Statesman Staff
There are likely more than 313,000 victims of labor and sex trafficking in Texas, and roughly a fourth of them are children and people under the age of 26 who have been forced into prostitution, based on estimates from a University of Texas study.
These estimates “remain a conservative understatement of the prevalence of human trafficking in Texas,” wrote the team of professors and others with UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault and the university’s School of Social Work who authored the report, published last month. They also concluded that labor trafficking is a significant issue in Texas that “is woefully under-studied and perhaps ignored as a policy area.”
The study focused on people of all ages who work under involuntary servitude or debt bondage
According to the study, an estimated 234,000 people of all ages work under involuntary servitude or debt bondage in Texas. Meanwhile, about 79,000 children and young adults are coerced or deceived into prostitution, the study found.
The authors said their study is so comprehensive that they hope it will serve as a point of reference for law enforcement as well as other government agencies as they seek to reduce human trafficking in the state.
Officials at a recent press conference with state Attorney General Ken Paxton said that Texas is a hub of human trafficking in the United States, and Houston specifically has the highest number of human trafficking victims in the country.
“Many think this is just international victims, but it’s not,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said at the press conference earlier this month. “It’s all our children, of every race and both genders. It’s all around us.”
In Austin and throughout the state, sex trafficking is reported far more often than labor trafficking, according to the study and Austin police Sgt. Maria Calagna, who leads the Austin Police Department’s Human Trafficking and Vice Unit.
“It’s not that the labor trafficking cases don’t happen, it’s just that they don’t get reported as often,” Calagna said.
Calagna agreed with Huffman’s statement that the victims and perpetrators she deals with can be from Austin, from Texas or from another country.
“When you think about the terminology ‘human trafficking,’ it makes you think of movement from one place to another,” but that’s not always the case, she said.
According to the study, children and young adults who are homeless or in the foster care system have the highest risk of becoming involved in sex trafficking.
“We like to say we’re victim-centered,” Calagna said of her unit. “Everything we do is based on how we can help them and make sure they get the resources and the help that they need to get out of their situation.”
For people not familiar with these kinds of cases, it can be hard to understand why sex trafficking victims don’t just run away, Calagna said.
“There can be several different ways the suspects will, in a sense, trap the victims psychologically. … Sometimes they’re promised a better life,” she said.
As for labor trafficking, the industries most likely to harbor these kinds of victims are cleaning services, construction, farmworkers, restaurant kitchen workers, landscaping or groundskeeping workers and nail salon workers, the study said.