Law to shelter child sex trafficking victims could strain resources

AUSTIN (KXAN) – A new Texas law aimed at better protecting child survivors of human sex trafficking could strain the network of existing shelter facilities designed to help other young victims of abuse and neglect, advocates for child protection tell KXAN.

“[The new law] taxes [that network] even more easily. We’ll have to look at it as a resource community, what else is necessary because the resources for children and families are already extensively needed,” says Amanda Van Hoozer, Director of Program Services for the non-profit Center for Child Protection.

H.B. 418 goes into effect Sept. 1 and allows police, probation officers or child protective workers to act quickly—without a court order—to rush a rescued sex trafficking survivor into ‘a safe refuge’ ideally a secure foster home. That’s for the first 24 hours or until a child can go before a juvenile or welfare court judge who in turn, can order the child removed from his or her legal guardian if necessary and into a longer-term treatment facility.

The problem is, few if any truly secure foster homes exist in Texas today where the adult to child ratio is high and staff is trained to handle the specific needs of say, a 14-year-old runaway who has severe emotional and sexual trauma, is addicted to various drugs and trusts no one. No one case is the same, experts say.

“You’re dealing with kiddos who are figuring out their normal teenaged stuff on top of being a victim of a really difficult crime. Sometimes safety means something that’s more restrictive than our ‘normal’ (foster) house,” Van Hoozer adds these kids can act violent and be malnourished. “So yes, those homes are harder to find.”

Add to that, that teenager might think her sex trafficker is her best option for providing her with clothes and food and tells her she’s beautiful. Running back to him is a stark reality police and other child welfare experts say they encounter with this special set of victimized teenagers.

One Travis County juvenile court judge is concerned if the foster home the child is first brought to is not secure, and the trafficker is waiting outside, the child may never even end up in her courtroom.

“It happens that fast. They find these kids that rapidly and it’s because they’re worth a lot of money,” says the Hon. Darlene Byrne who sits on the 126th District Civil Court in Travis County and oversees child removal cases.

Byrne was recently elected President of the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges. In February 2013, its Board of Trustees resolved to promote the development of “non-detention triage facilities and specialized placement options to address the unique trauma suffered by victims of human trafficking.”

“Child safety is the most important thing,” Judge Byrne tells KXAN. “The question: Is that child being further traumatized by being treated as a criminal?”

“Do I want to lock them up? No I don’t. But this state is behind the eight-ball. We’ve got to get them the services that meet their needs.  Until we build the services that meet their needs we can count on, the traffickers are already ahead of us. And they’re looking for their payday,” Judge Byrne says noting it will be months before anything changes substantively.

The new law gives State Health Services staff until May 2016 to come up with guidelines for licensing such secure homes. No funding is included with the new law. The Health and Human Services Commission (HHSC) expects “there may be additional costs” to one related program – the Unaccompanied Refugee Minors (URM) Program. It provides services to foreign-born child victims of trafficking, but it’s anticipated any additional costs would be covered by federal funds, according to the law’s Fiscal Impact Statement.

“Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS)-licensed URM facilities do not currently meet the level of security required in the bill and do not provide services tailored specifically to the needs of victims of trafficking,” the statement reads.

In the meantime, Judge Byrne says Travis County leaders are talking about how to make room in a separate area of the Gardner Betts Juvenile Center on South Congress Avenue to house sex trafficking survivors, even for a few days.

CPS’ Role?

It’s not clear at this point what role the State’s Child Protective Services (a branch of DFPS) will play in overseeing enhanced foster homes tailored to trafficking victims.

“Since this law is new, we at CPS don’t know the impact,” explained Julie Moody, a CPS spokesperson in an email. “Keep in mind even with the new law in place we don’t expect a lot more trafficking cases (with CPS involvement), but don’t have an estimate.”

And CPS has its hands full. Last year in Central Texas alone, CPS confirmed 7,509 total victims of abuse and neglect. Statewide, 640 kids were placed in emergency shelters intended for stays of less than 30 days, records show.

Adding to the challenge, Texas CPS is in the midst of a recovery plan after years of high staff turn-over which caused caseworker loads to increase. In some cases, abused children slipped through the cracks. As part of its transformation, CPS recently standardized rules to allow caseworkers the latitude remove a child within 24 hours from a home where there’s suspected neglect or abuse. It’s unclear if that will increase the number of new removal cases this coming year.

Records show last year, CPS removed 1,235 children in Central Texas and 17,378 statewide from their guardians. Locally, that averages 23.7 kids every week or 94.8 each month in 2014.

Longer-term solutions are rising

In the next few months, at least two new non-profit ‘longer-term’ therapeutic places will open for sex trafficking survivors — with names like Freedom Ranch and The Refuge. Freedom Ranch is described as transitional housing (small, rural cottages) for survivors older than 18 who have completed a safe house program. The Ranch is meant to assist with education, job placement, and life skills, according to a release from the Austin-area based non-profit group TheKey2Free that developed it as one of only seven facilities like it in the country.

“We want this to be another step in the healing process for these girls to transition back into society successfully as healthy young ladies,” said Amy Davis, CEO of The Key2Free in a news release.