A local effort is making connections necessary to recognize and fight the complex issues of human trafficking, 74th State District Judge Gary Coley Jr. said.

“You really don’t effectively address these problems unless you have people from every area of the community involved,” Coley said. “It’s not enough to have just law enforcement or CPS (Child Protective Services), or just the courts. It has to be with everyone so the whole community can bind together and work as a resource in these cases.”

Human trafficking, whether for labor or sex, typically involves several related crimes and other issues, and officials are just starting to recognize and address the bigger picture, Coley said. He moderated a Heart of Texas Human Trafficking Coalition symposium Friday that brought 135 officials from across Central Texas to the Baylor University Law School.

“For the longest time, we saw runaways as just kids who were having troubles at home, but it was only after we backed up a little bit that we realized it’s a much bigger issue,” Coley said. “I think with some labor trafficking issues, we have only viewed them through a certain lens, but when we back up a little bit, we realize they are being trafficked.”

Texas, and Central Texas in particular, is a focus for human trafficking because of its proximity to the southern border, Interstate 35 and its strong demand for labor, UnBound Director Susan Peters said. UnBound raises public awareness of human trafficking and offer a variety of services to trafficking victims.

It has recently worked with the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office on several trafficking cases, including at local massage parlors where women were allegedly forced to offer sex acts for money and at a buffet restaurant where workers were allegedly forced to work for less than minimum wage to pay off debts for being brought into the United States.

“We really try to tackle educating our community, community members and leaders about human trafficking, but we also want to focus on labor trafficking,” Peters said. “Many people are aware of sex trafficking, but labor trafficking is concerning a lot more people in Texas as victims of labor trafficking.”

Coley said the size of Friday’s sold-out symposium, which included presentations from local groups, statewide nonprofits and the U.S. Department of Labor, is a good indication of officials taking human trafficking seriously.

Kristin Hoppa has been covering public safety and breaking news for the Tribune-Herald since January 2016. She worked in Northwest Missouri covering crime-related issues before her move to Central Texas. She is a University of Kansas graduate.

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