By Dallas News
WASHINGTON — The shadowy world of sex trafficking victimizes thousands of kids each year nationwide, and up to a quarter of the cases have a Texas connection.
Rep. Ted Poe, R-Humble, announced new legislation to fight such trafficking today.
Poesaid at a House hearing that his bill – called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act — would create grants for state and local governments to develop support programs for victims. It also would focus on penalizing those who pay for sex acts. Sen. John Cornyn will file a companion bill in the Senate, he said.
Poesaid many victims of sex trafficking are lured or forced into the sex trade by people they’ve come to trust, and are kept there by violence or threats that they’ll be arrested for prostitution. He said more focus should be put on supporting victims and arresting those who pay for sex.
“My hometown of Houston, Texas, is unfortunately a hub for this despicable crime,” he said. “Most people aren’t aware that modern day slavery occurs right here in the United States. But the problem is very real, especially amongst vulnerable youth in the child welfare system.”
The hearing focused on these children. A study released this summer found that 60 percent of children rescued from sex trafficking had been through foster care or a group home.
Ashley Harris, who works with the Austin-based nonprofit Texans Care for Children, also testified at the House hearing.
“Children removed from their families due to abuse or neglect, often young girls, run away from the state’s official care and may become victims of child trafficking,” she told lawmakers. “Like other states, Texas is lacking comprehensive services for child trafficking victims.”
Harris, a former caseworker with Child Protective Services, said agencies need stronger tools to bolster the emotional health of foster children, so they’re less vulnerable. She also said better recording keeping and reporting by CPS and similar agencies in other states could help.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Austin is the senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee’s Human Resources subcommittee, which held the hearing. He called the effort to stop sex trafficking bipartisan.
“Our first task in this subcommittee, given our jurisdiction, is to make sure the child welfare system doesn’t become a pipeline to prostitution,” he said. “The system needs to become more cognizant of the problem and develop strategies to stop it.”
Texas lawmakers have been working on legislation to fight trafficking. Poe and Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Austin, introduced bills this year to place new reporting and training requirements on employees of protective service agencies.
Texas was one of the first states to recognize child sex trafficking as a distinct crime, targeting the activity in 2003.
Experts say trafficking is especially prominent in Texas due to the state’s large size, major highways that let traffickers move their victims, and its proximity to the border. They also say many people underestimatethe severity of the problem in the United States.
Precise data on trafficking is hard to come by, due to the secretive nature of the crime. Estimates place the number of trafficking victims in the United States as high as 300,000 a year.