The Dallas Examiner

This year, there were 1,570 calls to the National Human Trafficking Hotline and 499 human trafficking cases reported in Texas, according to the Hotline’s website. Out of 499 trafficking cases in the state, 340 are related to sex trafficking and 172 of the victims are classified as minors.

The average age a teen enters the sex trade in the U.S. is between 12 to 14 years old, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights reported that NHTH receives more calls from Texas than any other state, with 15 percent of those calls being from the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

Parents are unaware of the growing hidden epidemic of child exploitation and sex trafficking in the area. It is becoming more difficult for parents to protect their children due to social media, peer pressure and lack of communication.

Recently, the Nest Foundation launched a three-year pilot program at Skyline High School, Irma Rangel Young Women’s Leadership School and the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy to educate young boys and girls about the dangers of child sex trafficking and how to prevent themselves from being recruited into sex trades.

On Dec. 7, the foundation hosted a student forum at SMU to bring these students and local policymakers together to discuss solutions for ending sexual violence and exploitation of children.

“We have to realize that this is happening in our own backyards,” said Judge Amber Givens-Davis, one of the event’s panelists. “This isn’t some remote situation we just see on TV. This is happening in real life.”

The panel discussion, moderated by former state Sen. Wendy Davis, covered many topics associated with trafficking, such as how to avoid being exploited and the roles social networks and television play in exploitation.

Camille Kraeplin, SMU journalism professor, said different forms of media such as video games, movies and commercials greatly affect young girls’ self-esteem issues due to how female body parts are often perceived and used as selling points for products.

“New media is highly sexualized,” she said. “You have children movies that show female characters with large breasts and small waists as the perfect bodies, and then you have phallic images in commercials where they may have a long soda bottle resting between a girl’s legs.”

Bryan Flores, a BOMLA student, added to Kraeplin’s point, stating that sexual imagery in movies, television and advertisements affect how men and women respond to body issues.

“It not only teaches men to objectify women, it teaches women to objectify themselves,” he said.

Skyline senior Kierra Jones explained how young girls process the media’s perception of the “perfect woman.”

“We were all told to be happy with what you are and with what you have, but it’s hard to be happy with what you have when you see a lot of objectified images in commercials and their opinions of us at a very young age about what we should look like and how we should be in the near future,” she said.

The conversation then shifted to who the panelists believed were the most vulnerable for trafficking and exploitation. The student panelists believed that victims who are most susceptible to these issues are those who come from broken homes or are in desperate need of love, food, money and shelter.

“The victims that are being sex trafficked are primarily women and young girls,” Jones said. “They are being baited in, and this usually happens when they don’t have anyone to rely on. A lot of girls use fatherless-ness or being without [resources] as a reason to accept any of the bait.”

Runaways, homeless youth, foreign nationals and individuals who have experienced violence and trauma in the past are the most vulnerable to exploitation, according to a NHTH report.

The expert panelists viewed the trafficking issues from a more legal and governmental perspective. State representative Chris Turner said multiple services designed to help children such as Child Protective Services and the foster care system have failed them in recent years by exposing them to more neglect and abuse and violating their 14th Amendment rights.

“Texas has done an abysmal job at protecting our most vulnerable children,” he said. “We have a federal judge who has ruled, through extensive trial and testimony, that the foster care system is unconstitutional.”

Aside from social services, many children are being recruited to sex trades through the internet and social networks. FBI special agent Deborah Michaels said it’s harder to arrest sex traffickers now than before because most suspects are able to mask their identities online and are from outside of the United States. Foreign suspected traffickers are beyond the FBI’s control and can only be detained if they are willing to turn themselves in or if more victims report these crimes.

“Victims don’t like [to] identify themselves as victims,” she said. “They don’t want to admit that they are in love with their abusers. They don’t report or testify, [and] they don’t want them to go to prison.”

Givens-Davis openly spoke against social media use and urged the student panelists and the audience to refrain from talking to strangers over their social networks.

“A lot of my complaining witnesses are between the ages of 11 through 14, and it all started based on something that was going on in their lives, and they weren’t comfortable speaking to their parents or counselor,” she said. “[Until] a random individual said, ‘I care. I’ll listen.’”

Jones partially agreed with Givens-Davis stating that most girls are afraid to go to someone for help and become very defensive when offered help from their abusive situation.

“Some people won’t see advice as help; They would see it as you being jealous or trying to take their love away from them,” she said.

Jones urged that all young girls and boys seek help for their friends, despite how they feel, before it’s too late.

“If you are a true friend, you don’t just leave them,” she exclaimed. “You should go tell someone in order to get them help out of a situation.”

As the forum came to an end, a mother of a Rangel student from the audience gave a final remark addressing the stigma that girls that are raised by single parents have low self-esteem and broken families.

“I’m a proud divorced, single parent mother, and I gave my daughter plenty of love,” she said. “I raised my daughter to be vocal and to take care of herself. Just because you come from a single parent home doesn’t mean you’re sitting in the corner crying or that your family is broken.”

Jones applauded the mother and agreed with her comment. She said girls who come from single parent homes don’t have to fall into the stereotypes associated with them, and girls who don’t have that type of support system at home can still achieve success and supportive peers.

“If you want something bad enough, you can get it,” she explained. “They always say put your mind to it, but, sometimes, your mind isn’t enough. You do need the support of others but look for it in the right people.”

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