It’s neither Cambodia nor Las Vegas – seemingly far from it, actually – and its streets appear clean. It’s a place with America’s safest cities and pervasive wealth.
But all it takes is 48 hours: a window to be sucked in, innocence stolen, hopes dashed. Traffickers come swiftly and, in areas like Collin County, almost invisibly.
That’s starting to change, though, particularly in recent months. Agencies, local officials and law enforcement have banded to form the Activism for Empowerment (AFE) Task Force. They’re dedicated to bringing to light – then snuffing out – a problem too often ignored.
“My No. 1 goal is to get us all together so we can lead out and find these children,” said Stephanie Henry-Ricchi, task force founder and director. “Our focus is on laws to protect them from being exploited.”
True to its designation, its task is to force the issue of awareness of factors related to human trafficking: abuse, domestic violence, homelessness, sexual exploitation and neglect. They’re not just Third World problems.
Federal law states that any person under age 18 provoked into commercial sex, whether through force, fraud or coercion, is a victim of sex trafficking, according to the Polaris Project, a U.S. nongovernmental organization that studies trafficking.
Data from two FBI Innocence Lost Task Forces – one based in Dallas and one in Houston – and Human Trafficking Reporting System showed 957 reported victims and 1,057 reported human trafficking-related incidents from Jan. 1, 2007 to Jan. 9, 2014, according to a Texas DPS report.
The average age at which girls become victims of prostitution is 12 to 14 years old, and one out of three youth in the U.S. are at high risk for being approached by a pimp within 48 hours of running away or getting kicked out of their home, according to Traffick911, a Dallas-based organization dedicated against human trafficking.
So, that’s Dallas, the big city and part of the “Texas Triangle” of human trafficking. What about its nice, quiet, affluent suburbs? They’re certainly quiet and affluent, but not innocent.
The most recent data pits Collin County with nearly 3,000 homeless children, meaning a pimp – or trafficker – may have approached about 1,000 of them. McKinney ISD reported more than 1,500 registered homeless students, according to Colette Copeland Williams, a Traffick911 advocate who trains counselors and school administrators on the issue.
“It’s here,” said Detective Cody Webb with McKinney PD’s special victims unit. “It’s in our community.”
And people are doing something about it, together. The AFE Task Force held its first meeting earlier this month in downtown McKinney. City and state officials linked up with volunteers, advocates and heads of agencies devoted to related issues. Their goal: become a main resource recovery network.
“I was blown away by the number of people who attended,” Williams said. “People from all different aspects are coming together to attack this problem.”
Each respective organization – CASA of Collin County, Children’s Advocacy Center and Hope’s Door, to name a few – plays a role in helping victims, or potential victims, of sex trafficking. Local police watch motels and convenient stores at night, and schools try to monitor at-risk students.
But, for Henry-Ricchi, too many times when a situation arises, there’s a plea for outside resources – ones nearby but isolated. “I realized there was some kind of a hole, a gap between these groups,” she said. “It’s like connecting the dots.”
Those dots, united in mission, are now meeting quarterly to talk about how they can work side-by-side on every level – every layer of a somehow hidden problem. Trafficking is the second-largest and fastest-growing criminal activity in the world, according to Traffick911, and that includes the U.S. Texas is plagued by it more than any state except California, the Polaris Project recently reported.
Its American presence was shown through the documentary, “In Plain Sight,” during a fundraising event Thursday at McKinney Performing Arts Center. A panel of Henry-Ricchi, Webb, Williams and security expert Jon Wolfe spoke about its Dallas-area prevalence.
The event raised about $2,500 for Traffick911, which plans to purchase a van to transport residents, trafficking victims, from its recovery home and safe haven, Triumph House, outside Dallas.
“We’ve just seen awareness start to explode,” Williams said.
Collaboration is necessary to attack it. Police often nab the pimps, johns and prostitutes, but their impact is limited, according to Webb. Their focus is on arrests and charges; many of the prostitutes go right back to the street life.
“We’re going after the criminals,” Webb said. “After we do our job, we need the resources, places these girls can go.”
Henry-Ricchi envisions a central facility in Collin County with all those resources, a “place where everybody knows where to go.” She wants to bring to the county a rally similar to Dallas’ ManUp, a uniting against domestic violence.
Until then, as the groups mesh and contacts intertwine, her main purpose is public policy. The task force can be a powerful voice in legislators’ ears for revising and drafting laws to better protect children, she said.
“So many feel like there’s nothing they can do,” she said. “There’s something everyone can do.”