How hollow rhetoric and a broken child welfare system feed Texas’ sex-trafficking underworld
by Morgan Smith, Neena Satija, and Edgar Walter
When Mia was 16, she walked out of a Houston children’s emergency shelter. She had to go, she told the staff. Her pimp was waiting.
It was 2013, the day before Thanksgiving. She was almost 200 miles from Corpus Christi, where she grew up.
Mia had been raised by her grandparents and, after they died, by her drug-addicted mother. When her mother went to prison, other relatives took her in.
By the time she was 10, behavioral problems landed Mia in a psychiatric hospital. That’s where a state-appointed lawyer told her, as gently as she could, that the aunt and uncle Mia had been living with no longer wanted her.
She entered Texas’ long-term foster care system. For the next six years, she cycled through 19 different homes and institutions. She was brutally punished in some of those places — thrown to the ground and restrained, made to stand on milk crates for hours — and sexually assaulted. She attended nine different schools. She wound up in the emergency room twice for suicidal thoughts.
After Mia ran from one foster care facility, police found her in a park; she told them she had been having sex for money. She ran away again, and authorities sent her to the Houston emergency shelter. That’s where, 15 minutes later, she ran for the final time, back into the arms of her pimp.
Like too many kids in the state’s care, she disappeared into the underworld of sex trafficking.
Mia was still missing a year later, in 2014, when a massive class-action lawsuit against the state’s long-term foster care system went to trial. Lawyers had named Mia the lead plaintiff on behalf of all 12,000 children in the system. Federal District Judge Janis Jack would later rule the state had mistreated those children so severely that it violated their civil rights.
Buried in Jack’s 2015 decision — and largely missed in subsequent discussions about foster care in Texas — was the fact that Mia was a victim of a crime that top Texas leaders have been publicly battling for more than a decade.
Sex trafficking is “one of the most heinous crimes facing our society,” Attorney General Ken Paxton told reporters at a January news conference, flanked by posters with pictures of kids that read “I AM NOT FOR SALE.” Gov. Greg Abbottmade the fight against sex trafficking — which he calls “modern day slavery” —one of the 10 key issues of his gubernatorial campaign, and he previously spent years focused on it as attorney general. Neither Abbott nor Paxton agreed to an interview.
Yet for all the energy the state’s leaders pour into anti-sex-trafficking rhetoric, most of their focus has been on arresting and convicting pimps, not rehabilitating their prey.
They’ve devoted hardly any resources to the victims whose testimony is essential to putting sex traffickers behind bars. They have also failed to confront the role the child welfare system plays in providing a supply of vulnerable kids to criminals waiting to exploit them.
Eighty-six percent of missing children suspected of being forced into sex work came from the child welfare system, national data show, and a state-funded study estimatedthat the vast majority of young victims in Texas had some contact with Child Protective Services. Interviews with law enforcement and child advocates around the state tell a similar story.
Now retired Dallas Police Detective Michael McMurray worked child sex-trafficking cases, many involving foster children, for more than a decade. He used to believe that going after criminals would be the most effective anti-trafficking strategy. He called it the McMurray Theory.
“We’ll put all these pimps, all these traffickers in prison, and the word will get out, and people won’t be doing this anymore because they’ll be too afraid to go to prison. And that’ll solve the problem,” he said.
But after 10 years of locking up sex traffickers, the lack of progress frustrates him.
“The McMurray Theory is not working out too well,” he said.
A common story
Stories like Mia’s are tragically common: Recent estimates suggest Texas is home to some 80,000 child sex-trafficking victims, kids who — in one way or another — end up being sold to adults for sex.
The Texas Tribune uncovered dozens of these cases buried in criminal files and unfurled in interviews with prosecutors, caseworkers, police officers and victims’ advocates in 2017.
There’s Jean, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who at 16 turned to a Dallas pimp for food, shelter and affection amid a slow-burning crisis in the state’s foster care system.
And Lena, a foster child who at 17 became one of the youngest inmates in the Harris County Jail, even though authorities knew she was a victim of child sex trafficking.
And Yvette, who was convicted in San Antonio of trafficking a minor two days after her 23rd birthday, despite suffering at the hands of the man who pimped them both out.
And Sarah, a 16-year-old from Austin who gave police a rare cause for hope after landing a spot at the state’s only treatment facility for sex-trafficking victims.
Each of their pimps was punished under the law. None of the girls got the help they needed.
Empty laws, hollow programs
State officials say they have taken steps to address Texas’ sex-trafficking problem. Texas was one of the first states to pass a law defining human trafficking, in 2003. Lawmakers have piled on with additional legislation — and great fanfare — in virtually every legislative session since.
They’ve made it easier to prosecute men and women who exploit minors, as well as the buyers who seek to purchase sex with them. They’ve established a special team inside the attorney general’s office to help unravel sex-trafficking rings.
Top state leaders routinely trumpet the law enforcement stings that round up suspected traffickers. Most recently, Paxton’s office claimed a minor role in arresting the chief executive of Dallas-based Backpage.com, one of the largest online advertisers of commercial sex.
Thousands of state government employees have received training to help them identify potential sex-trafficking victims. Child welfare officials also say they are doing a better job of tracking down runaways like Mia, who are among the most vulnerable to sexual exploitation.
But the state’s child welfare system — overseen by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services — needs $1 billion over the next two years to shore up its operation, department officials say. State lawmakers have proposed spending just under one-third of that amount.
Lawmakers have also passed few policies aimed at directly helping victims, and they have balked time and again at providing the money to pay for them. That has left a laundry list of empty laws and hollow programs.
“I try to be upbeat about the Legislature, every time I come here,” said state Rep. Gene Wu, a Houston Democrat who’s worked on anti-trafficking laws. “But my little joke is, sometimes the Texas Legislature is like the guy who’s really insistent on taking you out to lunch, but when the check comes, he’s nowhere to be found.”
Bills but few dollars
Among legislators’ unfunded efforts over the past decade:
- A 2009 sex-trafficking law calling for a victim assistance program to distribute up to $10 million a year in grants to provide housing, counseling and medical care for trafficking survivors. The Legislature never appropriated the money. Eight years later, the program’s coffers remain empty.
- An anti-trafficking measure passed in 2011 meant to establish a stream of funding for victims by requiring convicted child traffickers to pay them restitution. Restitution depends on a defendant’s ability to pay, which is often limited. None of the victims the Tribune interviewed said they received any money after their traffickers were imprisoned.
- A 2013 law authorizing judicial diversion programs for juveniles caught selling sex. Lawmakers provided no money for those programs.
- A 2015 law allowing police to take “emergency possession” of sex-trafficking victims, as long as they place them in secure facilities providing everything from 24-hour supervision to counseling. But no such facility exists, and no funding has ever been allocated to create one.
In the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers created a child sex-trafficking unit in the governor’s office and gave it a two-year budget of $6 million. That money will go toward coordinating services for victims across the state, but not toward addressing the lack of places for them to go.
There is only one facility in the entire state that is licensed specifically to treat victims of sex trafficking, and it can only fill 20 beds at a time. Not one of those beds is available for an “emergency” placement, meaning victims in immediate crisis, like those picked up by police in the middle of the night, don’t qualify. And no beds are available for boys.
The end result is that during the precarious period when victims first come into contact with authorities — adults they should be able to trust — they often end up in handcuffs instead. Nearly one-third of trafficking victims recovered by the state’s child welfare investigators are sent to juvenile detention.
“The state needs to step up and be prepared to protect these kids,” said Ann Johnson, the former lead prosecutor for Harris County’s sex-trafficking unit. “If we don’t invest wisely in the front end, we’re going to pay for it more later.”