Successfully fighting human trafficking isn’t a job law enforcement can do alone. In fact, because many victims are afraid to talk to law enforcement officers, the help of community groups who specialize in assisting victims of human trafficking is essential.
In 2016, the Fort Worth Police Department formed the Tarrant County 5Stones Task Force to work more closely with community groups and share resources, events, and efforts, said program coordinator Felicia Grantham.
They’ve definitely seen the benefits.
Rebekah Charleston, executive director of Valiant Hearts, knows first-hand what it is like to be a victim of human trafficking. She grew up in the quiet community of Keller in a “very normal family.”
Human trafficking includes “sex trafficking in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age,” according to the United States Code.
Charleston, who had been raped at 14, was then victimized by traffickers at age 17 after she had run away and was living with anyone who would take her in.
“I was homeless and desperate. First, they made me work at a strip club at age 17 and give all of the money to them, then they prostituted me in Dallas,” Charleston described.
She was caught in the exploitation for a decade, but she was able to escape because someone called the police. Even though she served 13 months in prison for conspiracy to commit tax evasion, Charleston is thankful.
“Turn them in. Report it. You never know whose life you might save,” she urged.
One emphasis of Valiant Hearts is to fight the demand for and exploitation of sexually trafficked women.
They are working with the Tarrant County Community Supervision and Corrections Department (CSCD) to make the “Stopping Sexual Exploitation” curriculum a condition of probation for men who have engaged in purchasing sex.
They also work with law enforcement to help women overcome the barriers to escaping sex trafficking and exploitation by providing emergency shelter and a stabilization program.
“It isn’t easy. People think women are choosing to stay, but they are terrified. Once you have that mark on your record, you face so many barriers to escape.”
Charleston had a felony record and almost $1 million in debt.
Now she has a 6-year-old son, both a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in criminal justice, and is a nationally recognized survivor and leader. She is celebrating 10 years of freedom this year and is committed to helping other exploited women to achieve the same.
Unbound Fort Worth is an advocacy agency that partners with law enforcement and has received a grant from the Governor’s office to further its strategy in fighting human trafficking and bringing justice to victims.
One important aspect of Unbound Fort Worth’s work, according to its website, is to provide free training to medical professionals, social workers, and educators on how to “identify and respond to victims of human trafficking.”
“I suggest members of the public attend training of some kind,” said Grantham, explaining that it is important to know some of the tell-tale signs of trafficking, which can be similar to intimate partner abuse.
Another key to anti-trafficking work is to guide and mentor vulnerable populations of children.
The NET is working to do just that at Ladera Palms apartments every Wednesday afternoon. Mentors work in small groups of 3 to develop relationships with the kids. Between 40 and 60 refugee children attend each week.
“We want to develop healthy, confident leaders with the emotional tools to handle any adversity they encounter,” explained Ty Bowden, program director. He said the children can be vulnerable to trafficking because of cultural differences, lack of self-confidence, and the fact that many of their parents work night shifts.
“When you see problem kids, run after them. They are sounding alarms. They are at the most risk of being trafficked,” Charleston added.
And there are plenty of opportunities to do so through many of the organizations at work in this area like Traffick 9-1-1, Cheryl’s Voice, Not in My Neighborhood, and Alive at Last.
Kim Roberts is a reporter for the Texan in the DFW metroplex area where she has lived for over twenty years. She has a Juris Doctor from Baylor University Law School and a Bachelor's in government from Angelo State University. In her free time, Kim home schools her daughter and coaches high school extemporaneous speaking and apologetics. She has been happily married to her husband for 23 years, has three wonderful children, and two dogs.