A drop-in center is an alternative to juvenile detention for law enforcement officers who have picked up someone – perhaps a runaway child _ that they suspect has been trafficked. Fort Worth and Tarrant County was the largest area in Texas without a drop-in center.
The problem is huge.
The Texas Attorney General’s human trafficking website says that at any given time, there are about 234,000 victims of labor trafficking and about 79,000 sex trafficked youth and minors at any given time in Texas.
The drop-in shelter at One Safe Place – the Underground – will open in October.
Such a center has been the missing piece in the local continuum of care for victims of human trafficking, said Brian Byrd, a physician and the District 3 city council representative in Fort Worth. He also is married to Stephanie Byrd, the executive director of Unbound.
He said that a drop-in center will allow social workers to identify trafficking survivors more quickly, something that is important in breaking the chain of enslavement.
Of trafficked youths, 75% have been exploited for two or more years before they are recovered or identified as victims.
“We’re not getting to them soon enough. Half of them are age 14 or younger when the exploitation starts, and 75% of them don’t even identify as victims,” he said.
They may not even realize that they are trafficked because of drug additions and trauma bounding – a phenomenon in which the victim comes to see the victimizer as a protector.
“The price these youth pay is tremendous, and it’s on us, folks, to get to them sooner, to make sure we get to them and get them the services that they need,” Byrd said.
Unbound Fort Worth provides 24/7 crisis response and ongoing case management. Its advocates help meet survivors’ immediate needs, offering support to families and caregivers and connecting survivors with aftercare programs.
The organization works with schools, youth organizations and shelters to empower youth to stay safe from trafficking and exploitation.
Unbound also offers profession-specific trainings for medical professionals, educators, and social service providers to equip them to use their skills to identify and respond to victims of human trafficking in their professional settings.
Just under a year ago, the Byrds were on a walk when they decided that Fort Worth had gone long enough without the drop-in center available in other Texas large cities.
“We noticed that, although we’re doing some great things with human trafficking here in Fort Worth and Tarrant County, we’re not identifying victims as much as we should, as much as other folks are,” Byrd said.
“Juvenile detention centers are needed, and they’re great for what we need them to do. But for a lot of these kids, it’s just not the right place,” Byrd said.
UnBound Fort Worth says its advocates work with kids who have been trafficked by their parents in exchange for meth, by gangs as a form of revenue, by pimps on the street, and sometimes simply by buyers with no third-party traffickers involved.
“All of that falls under the legal definition of sex trafficking. These kids are in our schools, and they are coming into our hospitals – child sex trafficking is hiding in plain sight. A Thorn survey found that most kids were enrolled and participating in school when they were being trafficked, at least initially,” the organization said.
“When we start having law enforcement bring them to the drop-in center, we’re going to identify hundreds of kids that we haven’t identified before,” Byrd said. “It’s a place where the kids can come. They can get some food, they can take a nap or sleep for a while. There’s counseling services, they can take a shower, they can get their clothes washed, they can get a break. And then we have referral services, whether it’s for counseling or residential care.”
Unbound says that many who have been forced into the commercial sex industry do not self-identify as victims. Traffickers manipulate and lie, making it difficult for victims to reach out for help. Fear of retaliation and lack of awareness prevent a victim from seeking rescue.
A history of abuse and/or neglect sets a child up for trafficking and exploitation, and there are people who prey on these vulnerabilities, Unbound said.
“If a child needs a place to stay or a meal, they provide that; if they are desperate for affection, they offer ‘love,’ which turns out to be anything but. If they are looking for a sense of belonging, they offer ‘family.’ That’s why traffickers are called ‘Daddy.’ It’s an evil perversion of the love and affection these children deserve,” the organization says.
Precinct 1 County Commissioner Roy Brooks said the community is blessed by the presence of the Byrds, Unbound and the anticipated opening of the Underground.
“The fact is they have helped us realize over the past several years that there are no throw away kids in this society, that regardless of the circumstances that a child finds him or herself in, it is up to all of us as a community to provide refuge and safety and reclamation and redemption,” Brooks said. “And those are the things that Unbound offers to trafficked kids. We are blessed to have Unbound in our community. And we are blessed to have the businesses and the foundations that support their work.”
Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn referred to organizations like Unbound and ACH as the tip of the spear in the fight against trafficking, saying that just last week his department referred several survivors for help. He echoed Brooks’ comment about throwaway kids.
In fact, he said, there is a large group of children who have simply been forgotten.
“And now we’re saying we do that no more. … But guys, they’re going to need follow up. They’re going to need us to continue to be a community around them. They’re going to need places to go and people to be with,” he said.
“This is an opportunity [where] Fort Worth and Tarrant County can stand up and say, ‘Here and now, we don’t forget our children.’ And we’re going to make sure that we just don’t throw them away into the criminal justice system,” he said.
Instead, the message will be that we have compassion and mercy and that we will give you opportunity, Waybourn said.
He called it a “force multiplier.”
“We are thrilled to be celebrating this milestone with our friends and service partners,” said Stephanie Byrd.
Special thanks, she said, goes to the Amon G. Carter Foundation, VLK Architects, Baird, Hampton & Brown, DoMEO Construction, Christ Chapel Bible Church, and the Office of the Governor child sex trafficking team.
She also thanked the Texas Alliance of Child and Family Services, Ryan Foundation for operational support for the drop-in center and One Safe Place for providing space for the center.
Unbound also introduced Wilbur, a goldendoodle born March 24 and currently in training in Alabama to be the service dog for the Underground.
He’s named for William Wilberforce, the English politician who led the abolition movement in Parliament, ultimately heading to the passage of the Abolition of Slavery bill on July 26, 1833.
“Isn’t he going to do a great job loving on the kids?” Brian Byrd said.
Others present at the groundbreaking included District 97 State Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, District 94 State Rep. Tony Tinderholt, R-Arlington; District 95 State Rep. Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth; Fort Worth ISD Trustee Tobi Jackson; Fort Worth District 9 Councilmember Ann Zadeh; and Lindy Borchardt, who handles human trafficking cases for the Tarrant County District Attorney’s office.
A complete list of the organizations and entities involved in the Underground from the Unbound website:
VLK Architects, Amon G. Carter Foundation, DoMEO Construction, Office of the Governor Child Sex Trafficking Team, Christ Chapel Bible Church, Baird, Hampton and Brown, Winston Services, Bradley Environmental Services, Climate Control Insulation Inc., Cain Electrical Services, Kerry Lewis Plumbing, Matrix Interior Construction, Ennis Glass, Kites Commercial Interiors, Business Flooring Services, Antler Mechanical, APS FireCo, Firetrol Protection Systems, McSweeney Commercial Painting, Demo Specialties, Paramo Plastering, Nix Doors, Wilson Art, Maharam, Shaw Contract, Armstrong Ceilings, Crossville Inc., Bonnie Anderson with BDA Accessibility Services, Roppe/Professional Flooring Supply, and Southwest Solutions Group Inc.