“Think about how many times you drive by that place on a daily basis,” said Matt Osborne, of New Friends New Life. On a Tuesday morning more than five years ago, he said motioning to the building, law enforcement busted a sex trafficking operation and rescued a girl from a second-floor hotel room.
On its monthly “Sex Trafficking Awareness Excursion,” New Friends New Life tries to bring awareness to the prevalence and scope of trafficking in Dallas. The anti-trafficking agency serves nearly 400 women and girls annually who have been exploited.
The abduction earlier this year of a 15-year-old from a Dallas Mavericks game at American Airlines Center brought renewed attention to human trafficking in North Texas. She was seen leaving with a man on surveillance video, spurring national headlines about what experts and advocates say is an all-too-common but all-too-covert crime. She was found days later in Oklahoma City.
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“If you’re looking for a white van in a parking lot, you’re missing it,” Bianca Davis, chief executive officer of New Friends New Life, said in an interview. “That’s the movies and the sensationalism. … What we see in Dallas, it’s much more subtle. A lot of times it’s someone that they know or trust or love.”
The mid-level hotel was the first of four stops on a recent afternoon for the tour group of more than a dozen community members, including volunteers, counselors and a transportation official.
A few came in response to the American Airlines Center abduction.
“I don’t think I really realized how prevalent this problem was and how local and how close it was to me,” said attendee Esther Choi, 48, of University Park.
There are an estimated 313,000 victims of human trafficking in Texas, according to a 2016 study by the University of Texas’ Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault. Of those, roughly 79,000 are children, the study says.
“The numbers are pretty eye-opening,” said Bruce Kellison, director of UT’s Bureau of Business Research and co-director of the institute that conducted the study. “We estimate that there are a lot of victims in Texas at any given time who are in need of services. And there are a lot of perpetrators out there who are in need of being brought to justice.”
It can happen anywhere
The tour bus slowed to its second stop, outside an upscale hotel near Interstate 635. Osborne, who is a liaison for the organization’s Men Advocacy Group, explained that a tip led authorities to a missing 14-year-old girl and a man who groomed and trafficked her, as well as other women in another state. New Friends New Life asked specific places on the tour not be identified because the companies and employees aren’t accused of trafficking.
The third stop, a storefront in a cluster of businesses inside an office park, was allegedly the site of an active trafficking ring known to local law enforcement. Parked out front were police cars with blackened windows.
A cluster of strip clubs, lewd advertisements and stores off the Northwest Highway was the tour’s final stop.
“There’s a lot of myths of where trafficking happens,” said Agent John Perez, who oversees the North Texas Trafficking Task Force, a Homeland Security Investigation-led collective of law enforcement agencies that combats human trafficking through proactive operations. “Everybody thinks of gentlemen’s clubs, strip clubs, they think of Harry Hines. That is a piece of it, but trafficking can happen literally anywhere.”
Kellison, co-director of UT’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said sex trafficking is more prevalent in major population centers.
He also said while there’s no “model victim,” children who have experienced abuse, a “major disruption” in their home life or who have run away may be at-risk for trafficking. Perez said traffickers are drawn to “where the money is,” like large events or urban cores.
Another study by the University of Texas in 2019, which interviewed child sex-trafficking victims, found the average age for first victimization was 15. Many people who have experienced human trafficking may enter and exit victimization multiple times, spending much of their lives — an estimated 35% — being exploited. About half of the participants who experienced sex trafficking reported being forced into commercial sex by a romantic partner.
Traffickers, experts say, exploit vulnerabilities to victimize people. Davis of New Friends New Life said traffickers look for young people who are “out of place,” like a teen who should be at school on a weekday afternoon but is instead at the mall.
Some traffickers will seek out young people on social media — out of parents’ purview — or use relationships to groom and manipulate them, Davis said.
“The lure is so subtle,” she said. “A lot of times it’s going to feel like a relationship, it’s going to feel like a friendship. … By the time he flips the switch, she feels like she’s already in too deep. She doesn’t have the wherewithal or the resources to then escape that situation.”
The women New Friends New Life — a nonprofit funded partly by grants and contributions — serves are, on average, 32 years old with criminal records, multiple children and little to no education, Davis said. Many have been trafficked for decades.
While the group serves women, sex traffickers also exploit men and boys. About 7% of at-risk cisgender, heterosexual men surveyed in UT Austin’s 2019 study were victimized.
‘Like a life sentence’
When the girl was abducted April 8 from the Mavericks game after going to the bathroom and never returning, her father told Dallas police and American Airlines Center officials she was missing. Police treated her as a runaway and punted the case to North Richland Hills, where she lives.
Dallas police said an off-duty officer working at the basketball game was notified of the missing teen, and a search ensued that evening. However, in a statement, the department said Texas Family code “dictates that missing juveniles are investigated as runaways unless there are circumstances which appear as involuntary such as a kidnapping or abduction,” and that such cases are investigated by the child’s home jurisdiction.
Dallas police said there are no pending investigations by their agency into the kidnapping.
The girl was seen on surveillance video leaving the arena with an unknown man. Zeke Fortenberry, an attorney speaking for the girl’s family, said Dallas police ignored the signs her disappearance was an abduction, noting she left without her phone and was on good terms with her father. The girl had run away once before.
“This young girl’s life is forever changed,” Fortenberry said. The Dallas Morning News is not naming the teen because she is a juvenile and the victim of a sex crime. “It will take a lifetime of recovery. The damages from that are like a life sentence.”
Oklahoma authorities were tipped off by the Texas Counter-Trafficking Initiative, which found illicit photos of the teen online advertising her for sex, according to an arrest-warrant affidavit. Oklahoma City police rescued the girl, who was being held at a hotel, on April 18. Eight people face charges ranging from human trafficking, manufacturing and distributing child pornography, to rape.
Fortenberry said that while the family is focused on the girl’s recovery, they are frustrated with the “systemic failures that ultimately led to the daughter being a victim of human trafficking.”
“This isn’t the movie ‘Taken,’” said Perez, of the North Texas Trafficking Task Force. “Kids are recruited not at the grocery store picking out candy in the candy aisle. They are recruited on social media, they are (recruited) on places where Mom and Dad are maybe not as aware about what their kids are doing.
“So what I always tell parents is: You can be respectful of your child’s privacy, while still protecting the child.”
Standing outside the New Friends New Life headquarters in Old East Dallas, Choi, who just disembarked the bus tour, called for more education and advocacy: “The more we know what are the red flags for this kind of thing, I think we can all as a community kind of help out.”
Davis said the state and city are at the forefront of the fight: Texas is the first in the nation to make buying sex a felony and Dallas matched statewide legislation, upping the age for working in a sexually oriented business from 18 to 21.
“This isn’t just a black hole where you’re tossing your resources into something that’s not changing,” Davis said. “But we are making strides and the awareness efforts and the education is really saving lives.”