Who will notice? Who will speak up?

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Angela Bulls, MA, LPC-S is STARRY’s Director of Counseling Services and also serves as the co-chair for the Central Texas Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Roundtable in Bell County. Below is a fictional story that provides insight into the world of sex trafficking.

Her family had moved just before the beginning of her sophomore year and Jessica felt a bit uncertain about starting at a new school, but thankfully she made a friend in one of her classes. Together, the girls shared stories and talked about common interests and all the normal teenage stuff. After school, Jessica met her new friend’s boyfriend – he was older and had a car and could take them anywhere they wanted to go. Jessica was skeptical at first, but the boyfriend seemed really nice and took great care of them – he even offered to pay for both of the girls to get their nails done! Best first week of school ever! she thought. The boyfriend started picking them up every day after school so they could hang out for a while before going home. The next week when boyfriend picked them up, he needed to run an errand in a neighboring town. “No worries. It will only take an hour or two,” he assured them. When they arrived, the girls were reminded of how he had been so kind to them, picking them up after school, taking them to dinners, and paying for their nails. “You trust me, right?” he asked. You’re supposed to be able to trust your friends, Jessica told herself. My friend is here with me - she wouldn’t lead me down an unsafe path. Plus, she’s here too and so I must be safe.

Then they were asked to “entertain” the man they drove to meet. Jessica’s new friend didn’t seem to have any concerns with any of this, reassuring Jessica that, “It’s no big deal. It’s nothing you haven’t done before. It’s just a few minutes of your time then we are out of here.” Before they knew it, both girls were behind closed doors with strangers because the boyfriend had talked them into helping him out real quick. As they came back out, the boyfriend praised them, telling them what a good job they’d done and how much he appreciated them. “It wasn’t so bad, right?” he said. “Now we can grab some food on the way home.”

Both girls were dropped off back at home and didn’t miss a day of school. As you can imagine, their help was needed more frequently. Each time seemed to take a little bit longer, but they still made it home every night and the new friend made sure Jessica showed up at school so no one was alarmed. But soon the boyfriend’s praise disappeared and they no longer stopped for food. The girls’ grades dropped a bit, but they’re teenagers – it was easy to think this was just a phase or that their schedule was more challenging this semester. It’s not unusual for teenage girls take an interest in their appearance, so the fact that both girls came to school looking different than they normally did was nothing out of the ordinary. Teenagers are concerned with status symbols and name brands so it was totally normal that Jessica and her friend carried expensive bags and wore expensive name brand clothing and shoes … or so it seemed.

***

At STARRY, we hear stories like this far too often. Approximately 79,000 Texas children were victims of sex trafficking in 2016* and we know that 86% of youth in foster care who run away become victims of sex trafficking.** As you might imagine, the fight against this epidemic is a big battle that must be fought on several fronts.

STARRY is honored to be part of the Central Texas Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Roundtable, which is comprised of 70 organizations including law enforcement agencies, the juvenile justice system, medical and mental health organizations, school districts, and child welfare agencies that are all working together to combat sex trafficking in Texas.

We work with these community partners to help promote awareness and identify potential victims who are caught in the dangerous cycle. At STARRY, we provide a safe place for hope to take root by offering free professional counseling services to youth under the age of 18 and their families, which allows them to begin their journey toward hope and healing. We are able to connect them with other community resources that help them get back on their feet. STARRY also provides a 24-hour crisis hotline that is answered by a professional who works quickly to assess the caller’s need and provide counseling or necessary and appropriate resources.

At STARRY, we work diligently every day to promote a culture of care through nurturing children, strengthening families, are restoring hope in order to create a stronger Texas … one family at a time. Through the services that we offer, victims who have been caught in trap of sex trafficking find a way out of the destructive cycle. For those who once were caught in a hopeless situation, STARRY shines a light and offers a helping hand that guides them toward healing and freedom.

*Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, 2016 Report by The University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work

**National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. www.missingkids.org