January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, a time for each of us to leave our comfort zone and consider the terrible costs, human and otherwise, of this scourge on our state. Early in his tenure, Commissioner Hank Whitman identified trafficking as one of his top 10 priorities – and he’s followed through with that commitment.
Child sex trafficking is complex, pervasive, and cuts through traditional government/law enforcement jurisdictions. Government agencies and law enforcement agencies must share information, intelligence, and human resources to understand it, fight it, and most importantly, take care of those victimized by it. Amazing and productive collaborations are already happening within our great State, due in large part to Governor Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC), and Commissioner Whitman’s leadership at my agency, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS).
Equally important have been partnerships of local stakeholders coming together; juvenile justice agencies, judicial circuits, the approximately 72,000 law enforcement officers in Texas, the local and regional task forces comprised of the faith-based community, the non-profits, corporations, foundations, and individuals to increase training, awareness, and options for identification, placement, and recovery of some of our most vulnerable populations.
These collaborations and partnerships are critical to comprehend the challenges Texas faces in battling child sex trafficking. A recent study estimated 300,000 human trafficking victims may be located in Texas, including 79,000 minors and youth victims.
Clearly, child sex trafficking cannot be prevented and fought by government alone. This is not a challenge any single agency, or entity, or task force can take on. It requires comprehensive and broad collaborations from entire communities and their citizens.
As the agency responsible for investigating child abuse and neglect, we at DFPS know that we are an important piece of this complex puzzle. Our piece is focused on youth who are alleged to be trafficked by their parent or caregiver; the criminal allegations will then be investigated by law enforcement for any ties to trafficking.
With a grant from Governor Abbott’s office, DFPS recently started a Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation Team with an ambitious agenda, including:
Partnering with the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team to launch an identification tool, the Child Sex Exploitation-Identification Tool (CSE-IT), for DFPS front-line staff to use and assess the risk for youth they serve;
Utilizing Attorney General Paxton’s cutting-edge human trafficking training video to train all 8,000 front-line caseworkers.
Cultivate our own in-house trafficking experts, and continue community collaboration;
Expand treatment options among mental health and behavioral health providers.
One final point: decades of barbaric treatment by child sex traffickers in Texas have left an untold number of victims. Aggressive anti-trafficking laws are one tool, and a good tool, but we must not lose sight of the human devastation of trafficking. Those victims need, and deserve, safe havens and competent, specialized treatment.
We are working with the foster care provider community to develop more specialized capacity for those trafficking victims who are in the state’s conservatorship. However, there is an equal need for access to treatment and services for most trafficking victims who are not involved with the foster care system at the time of their exploitation.
Like so many other issues in our state, child sex trafficking is, at its most basic level, a community issue. And it will take each community’s efforts to fight back.
Kim Grabert is the Director of Human Trafficking and Child Exploitation for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services