As public awareness about the horrors of human trafficking grows, McLennan County is gaining statewide notoriety as a leader in the fight against the dehumanizing sex trade.

Lengthy prison sentences, including 12 consecutive life sentences for a Waco pimp who enslaved a young girl, regular sex-buyer stings by the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office, dogged detectives in the Waco Police Department’s Crimes Against Children Unit and unique cooperation among a variety of agencies and nonprofit groups all have statewide leaders looking at McLennan County as a war-zone model.

On the front lines in the human trafficking struggle is UnBound, a nonprofit mission of Waco-based Antioch Community Church that raises public awareness, provides services to trafficking victims and plays host to meetings of the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition.

The coalition, formed two years ago, is made up of local, state and federal law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, Child Protective Services workers, educators, church leaders and nonprofit groups. Up to 70 officials share ideas and case information and devise ways to improve communication among agencies that all share the common goal of saving trafficking victims and punishing offenders.

Andrea Sparks, director of a Child Sex Trafficking Unit in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, said the efforts in McLennan County are getting noticed around the state.

“I think they are doing an extremely good job of bringing the community together. I have been very impressed with the level of collaboration and just the amount of community members in the coalition,” Sparks said of the local group. “We only have 20 coalitions and task forces around the state, and theirs is very robust. I would say they are one of the top areas in the state that we work with in terms of collaboration, as well as in victims services.”

The U.S. Justice Department awarded the Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition a $1.5 million grant in October to beef up its fight. The money will be shared by Communities in Schools and the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office and will help pay for a case manager, a human trafficking counselor, victims services and for an investigator.

Joseph Scaramucci, a sheriff’s office investigator who has conducted a number of sex-buyer stings in and around Waco, is filling the grant-funded role as human trafficking investigator.

Sheriff Parnell McNamara and Scaramucci announced earlier this week that McLennan County ranked fourth nationally in a three-week National Johns Suppression Initiative by arresting 44 men who met deputies at a motel instead of the prostitutes they had hoped for.

‘A very prevalent problem’

“Ranking fourth in the country, when you have large metropolitan agencies participating, is clear evidence the sex trade in our county is a very prevalent problem,” Scaramucci said at the time. “The sheriff’s office has made it very clear we will fight this monster.

“We will continue to address the demand for sex and the people who prey on and exploit these women and children. I look forward to continuing this fight with my co-workers, partner agencies and community.”

Sparks, a former staff member of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, said Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton are seeking additional funding from the Legislature to assist with services for victims rescued from traffickers.

Sparks and others agree that Texas needs placement facilities for women and children victimized by the sex trade. Many have troubled pasts, have been in CPS placement, have been physically and sexually abused and are addicted to drugs.

Many have been on their own for some time and have the tendency to be mistrusting of others and to run away and start the cycle anew.

“Lack of placement facilities is one of the big dilemmas we face,” Sparks said. “We want to provide secure facilities to keep them from running. Not lock them up but keep them secure so they can’t run.

“But at the same time what we are hearing from survivors is that they feel re-traumatized when that happens. We don’t want to put them in detention. We want to give them a chance so they can get the help they need by staying.”

In a couple of local trafficking cases, prosecutors and Waco police have gone to the extreme steps of charging victims with crimes. Officials clearly knew that both young women were victims, but charging them was the only way to find them a safe, secure place from which they could not flee and then be sent to other states for drug treatment and counseling. The charges later were dismissed.

One of the victims had turned the corner and decided she was ready to get clean, go back to school and spend the rest of her life helping victims like herself. The other was not ready yet and ran away from several facilities, including the home of a Waco family that took her in.

Waco police Detective Kim Clark has spent the past 15 years in the Crimes Against Children Unit and has attended numerous training sessions on human trafficking. She knows the struggles of rescuing victims from abusive and controlling pimps, but also faces the problem of what to do with them once they are freed.

Placement center a priority

“I would say a priority would be a mandated placement center for juveniles,” Clark said. “Not that they are in trouble, but we need some place to get them into that recovery process, whatever that takes. You need to mandate they go to school every day, go to drug treatment, go to counseling, because most have underlying issues that need to be addressed. But we don’t mandate that treatment.

“We have taken on the parental role for these kids as wards of the state. We, as parents of these children, need to mandate they do these things.”

Waco police Sgt. Jason Lundquist, who heads the six-member Crimes Against Children Unit, said despite the lack of placement facilities in the state, Waco is more fortunate than some areas because officers rely on the help from UnBound and other resources in the community.

“If this happened with your teenage child, any reasonable person would do everything within their power to get that child out of that situation,” Lundquist said. “But these children typically are not in a position to where those resources are available. So they just fall back into the same cycle of abuse. There is a tendency to think these are bad kids and to blame the victim. Regardless of what you think of the victim, there are people out there buying and selling children, and that is what we need to focus on.”

McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna said in a statement that prosecutors “are the last link in a long chain of professionals trying to help survivors see a safer path for their lives.” He credits the local coalition, UnBound, social workers and law enforcement for making prosecutors’ jobs easier.

“The key to these cases has been helping survivors recognize that they have been exploited. It’s not easy for anybody to come to terms with their own vulnerability,” Reyna said. “The vast majority of these survivors have been exploited many times before they were trafficked. It’s easier for some to believe they were always in control rather than exploited. This emotional rationalization can be difficult to overcome.

“It takes a lot of people to help survivors along a path to a healthy life. The district attorney’s office has been successful because we have such broad community support when faced with the task of presenting this dark world of trafficking to jurors.”

Reyna said the communication, coordination and cooperation among members in the coalition translates into better strategies in the courtroom.

“Any success in the courtroom is directly attributable to the first link in the chain and every one thereafter,” he said. “I believe that the synergy between all of our Human Trafficking Coalition partners makes McLennan County one of the best places in Texas to try a trafficking case and, therefore, the worst place to commit this despicable crime.”

UnBound’s work

Natalie Garnett, a Baylor University graduate and assistant national director of UnBound, said Antioch started the mission five years ago.

“Antioch is a global mission church,” she said. “We send a lot of missionaries overseas, and they would see red light districts in Cambodia, boys trapped as workers in fishing villages, huge major injustices, and we wanted to do something about it. We realized it would probably be good to start in our own community.”

Besides raising awareness and providing financial resources to assist victims on the road to recovery, UnBound passes out pamphlets alerting motel workers and store owners about the warning signs of human trafficking and what they can do to help.

Last week, Unbound workers gave a presentation about human trafficking to 75 CPS workers in Georgetown because many of the children who end up in the sex trade have had contact with CPS, Garnett said.

“Human trafficking is the biggest injustice,” Garnett said. “This is exploiting humans for your own financial gain. It is so dehumanizing. You can provide food and education, and there are so many good causes. But when somebody’s humanity is being stripped away from them by another person, that is something we need to intervene in.”

Staff writer at the Waco Tribune-Herald covering courts and criminal justice. Follow me on Twitter @TSpoonFeed.

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