Domestic human trafficking has been misunderstood and overlooked. The FBI named Dallas and Houston as two of the 14 cities in the nation with the highest incidence of commercial sexual exploitation of children.
The majority of the adolescent females, ages 13 – 17, who come into contact with Dallas County law enforcement live in homes where chaos is rampant. Physical, sexual and emotional abuse and domestic violence are the norm and girls receive little respect or trust. These girls have no control over their lives. They never know when the next outburst or abuse will happen. For them, life is unpredictable and terrifying.
Living in an environment which is dangerous affects girls’ self-perception and behavior. They respond by developing their own substance abuse problems, running away from home, skipping school, fighting with others and committing more serious offenses. Nearly 50% of these girls meet the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Ninety percent of girls who run away are repeat sexual abuse victims.
Because there are no caring adults protecting them, these girls are isolated and alone. Many run away from home. Long-standing Juvenile Justice Programs focus on victims under 13 and offenders who commit more serious crimes. These girls are not young enough or “bad” enough to attract attention. No one is watching over them or searching for them. They are “invisible.” On any given day, the Dallas Police Department, Letot Center and Texas Department of Family and Protective Services officials can identify approximately 250 of these girls in our community.
Exploited Invisible Girls = Teen Prostitutes
Invisible girls are extremely vulnerable of being exploited by criminals who provide food, shelter, protection and emotional support. These girls are recruited into prostitution at two critical points in time: 1) before they leave the chaos of home and 2) after they have run away and are living on the street.
Astute pimps seek invisible girls and seduce them with affection and security which fulfills girls’ cravings for emotional connections. Girls become emotionally and physically dependent on pimps and are manipulated into “the life” of prostitution, sometimes after physical abuse.
The other point in time when girls are recruited into prostitution is after they have run away and are attempting to live on the street. “Bottom girls” of prostitution rings reach out to girls on the street expressing concern and offering food, shelter . . . and a way to make money.
Girls move into the prostitution houses and are welcomed as newcomers. They believe they have entered a peaceful home with a father figure who loves them. However, girls are expected to turn “tricks” 365 days a year and give all their earnings to their pimps.
Interestingly, most teen prostitutes are not habitual drug users. Girls have no money to purchase drugs and pimps will not fund their girls’ drug habits. Rather, girls are controlled through emotional security and kept in prostitution through love and violence - beatings, cigarettes burns and death threats. In addition, pimps post “look-outs” to prevent girls from running away.
Despite the abuse they experience and the “tricks” they must turn, life is predictable for teen prostitutes and, consequently, preferable to the chaotic home environment they escaped. Sadly however, life expectancy for teen prostitutes is predictable – only seven years from the time they enter “the life.”
Teen Prostitution in Dallas County
Dallas County has one of the biggest teen prostitution problems in the United States with an estimated 400 girls on the street at night.
Ten years ago the prevailing thought was that if teens did not want to be in prostitution, they would get out. Teen prostitutes were labeled as bad, troubled girls. They were arrested as offenders and jailed. Runaway girls were returned home. Like many law enforcement units across the country, Dallas Police saw teen prostitutes as offenders.
However, in 2005 Dallas Police officials realized that arrests of teen prostitutes is ineffective. Teen prostitutes are both dependent on pimps and afraid of being killed by them. Because girls will not testify against pimps, arrests stopped teen prostitution temporarily and did not lead to the prosecution of pimps. After their first, second, third and even the fourth arrests and releases from jail, teen prostitutes headed straight back to their pimps.
Officials realized that they needed a new approach to help teen prostitutes get out of “the life.” Police officials began to look into what caused teens to become prostitutes. They found that 80% of the girls had run away from troubled, fatherless homes. More than 93% had been sexually abused, 96% physically abused and 87% had been abandoned. Family risk factors included very high levels of parent physical and sexual abuse, divorce and single parent homes.
As a result, Dallas police began giving teen prostitutes a new label: High Risk Victims/Runaways, and they formed the High Risk Victims and Trafficking Unit under the Child Exploitation Squad.
The High Risk Victims and Trafficking Unit
The High Risk Victims and Trafficking Unit
The Unit's goals are to:
- Curb or prevent repeat runaway incidents by:
- Identifying any prior incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation, and
- Redirect the girl from any future delinquent conduct, and
- Bring to an end or curb the victimization of children through prostitution and sexual exploitation.
This Unit has responsibility for searching for runaway girls and teen prostitutes and, as a result, processes 250 – 300 identified high risk victims a year. Once they are found, officers begin conversations to help runaway girls and teen prostitutes understand that 1) they are not at fault, but have been manipulated victims, 2) officers are part of the largest “gang” in the world who will continue to seek, find and protect girls again and again, if necessary, and 3) with the help of the High Risk Victims and Trafficking Unit, Letot Center and more than 90 community-based services they can avoid or choose to leave prostitution and rebuild their lives.
A key element in the effectiveness of the High Risk Victims and Trafficking Unit is the education and training they provide to the entire Dallas police force. This unit regularly educates police officers about the causes of teen prostitution and how to identify high risk victims and runaway girls before they become prostitutes. Officers understand that instead of returning the runaway girls to their homes, early intervention is critical to preventing teen prostitution, removing teens from “the life” and arresting pimps.
Twice a month Unit officers, along with volunteer missing persons, vice and undercover officers, conduct overnight sweeps to search for runaway girls and teen prostitutes identified through their database of underage runaway girls. Sweeps result in locating girls and taking them to Letot Center for a short-term stay.
Another key element in the effectiveness of this Unit is the partnerships officers have built with community-based support services. Officers have emphasized strengthening existing connections within the community as a way to identify and locate invisible girls, rather than creating a new entity or nonprofit organization. This Unit’s work was showcased on the National Geographic Channel in 2008 and officers are approached weekly by law enforcement and community leaders from around the country who are seeking an effective model for preventing invisible girls from becoming teen prostitutes.
A Partial Solution
Dallas is unique in having a High Risk Victims & Trafficking Unit within the Police Department, which identifies and locates runaway girls and teen prostitutes, and Letot Center, which conducts assessments, creates individual treatment plans and provides short-term shelter. However, removing runaway girls and teen prostitutes from the street and placing them in a short-term shelter is only a partial solution.
Over the past several years, however, the number of long-term residential service providers available for contracting with the Dallas County Juvenile Department has declined significantly. This decline, along with the fact that Dallas has two residential treatment programs for adolescent males with a total of 184 beds and none for females further exacerbates the situation.