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Fighting Human Trafficking

By Adam Bennett

With major events coming up in Austin, and nearly one out of four victims in Texas, law enforcement officials are bracing for an increase. According to a state task force created by the Legislature, 554 investigations into human trafficking were opened between 2007 and 2011. Law enforcement was able to get 113 indictments out of those, but they say they found 369 victims under the age of 18.

Police and survivors say it's a crime that's hidden in plain view. ADP says ACL and other music festivals and events typically bring a big increase, but it's the upcoming F1 race that's been circled on the calendars of those fighting trafficking for months.

"It's always huge whenever there's an event like Formula One," says Jessica Richardson, a survivor of domestic sex trafficking and founder of Freedom's Breath, a website dedicated to helping other survivors.

"Thousands would not surprise me in the least."

Richardson, who was trafficked for more than a year, starting when she was 17, says big events mean big money for human traffickers, with the sex industry often acting as a cover. Richardson says traffickers move victims around from event to event on a constant basis.

"I would go city to city so fast I wouldn't be able to tell you where I was yesterday."

An undercover APD officer involved in fighting human trafficking says they've been planning for F1 for several months, working to bring in other agencies from across Central Texas in with the fight. They're expecting an increase, but as for how much, they aren't sure. While many victims are brought in from across Texas and the nation, they expect international trafficking could be an issue during the race.

The officer told us close to 90 percent of trafficking is now done online. ADP monitors a growing list of sites looking for potential underage victims. Richardson says the shift from hotels and streets to cyberspace has happened rapidly over the last 10 years, and it's a trend that's going increasingly mobile.

"It's a lot safer for the traffickers because they're not being noticed as much," said Richardson. "There are even apps that you can get for your phone to order girls and boys just like you order a pizza."

When asked what law enforcement should do differently to fight it, Richardson said, "Be the allies to the people being exploited rather than the enemy by continuing to criminalize them."

ADP says oftentimes sex workers they come in contact with will often lie or not answer their questions, so officers are forced to make a judgement call: treat them as a suspect or a victim. Body language, a look of relief, injuries: all signs they look for in deciding whether or not to get them help.

Richardson says there are other telltale signs.

"It can be that charming nature, it can be a look of shame or guilt, it can be confusion, maybe not knowing what city they're in or where they came from or they just came to town."

But she says ultimately the major key to shutting down human trafficking lies with the public, because without demand, there'd be no supply.

ADP's seen three trafficking cases in the last month resulting in criminal charges, all involving minors. The officer says their plans for F1 are about 90 percent done. They're keeping specifics under wraps until race week.

Non-profits are stepping up too: Restore A Voice, which helps survivors of human trafficking, is working on providing temporary housing and resources for those rescued during race week.

If you think you know someone who could be a victim of human trafficking, call the national hotline at 888-373-7888.