Human trafficking is a contemporary form of slavery. It involves controlling a person through force or coercion to exploit the victim for forced labor, or sex, or both. In places like Northeast Texas, it’s not the sort of thing that many people think about or discuss. Not only is the topic deeply disturbing, but evidence of the trafficking underworld isn’t readily visible to people who don’t know what to look for.
Rebecca Jowers is executive director of the Poiema Foundation, a Rockwall-based organization that works to raise awareness about trafficking and help its victims. The organization conducts presentations, seminars and workshops on the topic to help the public understand the complexities of this often misunderstood issue. Jowers brought just such a presentation to Emory on Monday evening.
“Part of my passion and part of the purpose of this presentation is to educate people about what human trafficking is,” Jowers said. “What does it look like? How does it happen? Who’s vulnerable to be a victim? Who are the perpetrators?”
About 20 people attended the presentation, which was organized by the Rains County Republican Party and held at the Rains County Courthouse.
Human trafficking is the second largest criminal industry in the world, according to the Poiema Foundation’s website. Most trafficking involves sexual slavery, which is the focus of Poiema’s work.
“There are labor trafficking cases. Many people are forced to work without pay,” Jowers said. “Our organization primary helps girls who have been victims of sex trafficking.”
Most girls who are trafficked begin to be victimized around the age of 11 or 12, while a typical age of trafficked boys is closer to 15, according to FBI statistics, Jowers said.
“Tonight I’m going to be mentioning girls and women, because that’s the population we help, but I want you to know that it does happen to boys,” Jowers said. Poiema typically provides services for girls and young women aged 17 and older, she said.
At any given time, about 100,000 to 300,000 children are estimated to be involved in the sex trade in the United States, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. That estimate does not include those children in the U.S. who are not U.S. citizens. Jowers also introduced the Polaris Project, a federal initiative that tracks reports of possible trafficking. Among states, Texas ranks second behind California in number of reported cases of human trafficking.
“Part of the reason that I believe Texas has so many calls, is that they’re doing a great job of educating the public,” Jowers said. “And it’s not that it’s not happening in these other places, but it’s not on people’s radars.”
While many trafficking victims come from backgrounds of material poverty, trafficking victims come from all economic and social backgrounds, Jowers said. The most common demographic characteristic of a trafficking victim, she said, is having suffered previous sexual abuse.
“About 90 percent of the girls that I’ve helped, maybe higher, have a history of childhood sexual abuse,” Jowers said. Many of the girls have significant mental health problems related to the abuse, she said.
Jowers told the story of one girl from a wealthy family who came under the influence and eventually control of a criminal group that threatened to kill her siblings if she didn’t participate in forced sexual activities when she was summoned. The family dog was killed by the group as an example of what could happen to her family members, Jowers said. In that instance, the early warning signs of something amiss were not caught by the parents because the father was frequently away and the mother was preoccupied by her own problems. Many traffickers will take advantage of obvious familial dysfunction, Jowers said.
Recognizing trafficking victims in public can be done by increasing one’s awareness of telltale signs.
“Being not dressed appropriately for the weather – we had one girl, it was February, and she was dressed in a short skirt and a tank top – she was walking the streets,” Jowers said. “Bruising, underage with an older man, appearing to be on drugs. An older, controlling boyfriend. Also, not knowing her location – because they move the girls around. So if you’re working at a hotel or a restaurant and there’s an older guy that’s ordering or talking for the girl. And you can usually tell by her demeanor as well. She’s not going to make eye contact. She’s going to look down.”
Other signs include evidence of malnutrition, skin branding or tattoos (such as a barcode, a dollar sign or “Daddy”).
In addition to its awareness efforts, the Poiema Foundation operates a call center and a safe house to provide direct support for those who have been trafficked. The organization provides a restorative path that is designed to rescue these victims from their situation, provide a safe place for rehabilitation, connect people with care services, and ultimately help them transition to self-sufficiency and independent living.
Jowers became familiar with the issue while a student at Dallas Theological Seminary. After deciding to commit to creating an organization that would help victims and promote prevention of trafficking, she started the Poiema Foundation in 2013. In 2015, the organization acquired a safe house thanks to the generosity of a Dallas-area donor.
“Human trafficking is one of the biggest problems we have in our nation,” Rains County Republican Party chairperson Debbie Nelson said. “Rains County is obviously a small county, a lot of people do not know about the issues that go on in other areas.”
Texas Governor Greg Abbott has identified anti-trafficking efforts as a priority for his administration.
“The governor has provided $22 million to law enforcement to provide for education for the folks in training,” Nelson said. That allocation to the Texas Department of Public Safety was announced by the governor’s office in January as part of a broader initiative aimed at fighting sexual crimes of all natures, including human trafficking.
Abbott also called for tougher laws on people who force others into prostitution.
“Under my plan, criminals who engage in promoting prostitution will no longer get away with probation or community supervision,” Abbott said. “They will be forced to serve time behind bars. And to protect more innocent lives from being exploited, these criminals will be forced register as the sex offenders that they are.”