Sixteen minors were reported to have been trafficked for sex in Lubbock from January 2017 through mid-December.
The youngest was 8 years old.
Dr. Mimi Zumwalt and Dr. Melinda Schallow said even one is too many. So the Lubbock County Medical Society’s Socio-Economic and Legislative Affairs Committee, which is co-chaired by Drs. Zumwalt and Schallow, is leading a campaign aimed to put a stop to it.
“This will hopefully grow bigger,” Zumwalt said. “We want to start in Lubbock.”
Sex trafficking of minors is a growing problem, said Schallow. Too often, victims slip through the cracks because their first line of defense doesn’t recognize the signs and few speak up for themselves.
“It’s hard to get a victim to self-identify,” said a special operations detective with the Lubbock Police Department who asked to remain anonymous due to the nature of the officer’s job. And the signs are subtle. A child involved in sex trafficking may: start dressing differently — likely older, start traveling more often than usual, speak of working excess hours or show a drastic change in socioeconomic status.
There could be other factors, the detective said. But each factor alone is not enough to know if a child has been involved in sex trafficking.
It’s the same case in a doctor’s office.
According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center, signs of sex trafficking in a healthcare setting can include disorientation, inconsistent or scripted history, high numbers of sexual partners, sexually transmitted infections, inappropriate clothes, branding tattoos and numerous other factors. But victims may or may not exhibit any of the indicators.
“One indicator taken into isolation is not necessarily human trafficking,” said Laura Pratt, executive director of One Voice Home, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping victims of sex trafficking. “If you start to see multiple indicators and you listen to a victim, you start to hear a story that actually fits what human trafficking is. That’s when the work the medical society is doing, I hope, can be put into practice.”
Through the campaign, the doctors hope to help other healthcare providers and future providers recognize the signs and understand how to approach victims in a way that makes them feel safe.
“It’s a public health issue,” Zumwalt said, but it goes beyond healthcare.
Schallow said their message through the campaign isn’t just aimed at those in the medical profession.
“We want to promote community awareness and get the community involved,” Schallow said.
The medical society has been working with businesses to reach victims, speaking with city leaders to gain support for its campaign and working to facilitate education opportunities for the community, she said.
Later this month, the Lubbock City Council is expected to make a proclamation recognizing January as trafficking month.
The committee will also host “Lubbock says NO to Sex Trafficking of Our Children: The hidden epidemic in Lubbock” at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 29 at the Junior League of Lubbock headquarters, 4205 84th Street.
“The more people we have look out for (sex trafficking), the better chance we have of ending it,” said Kim Stark, executive director of Voice of Hope, a community resource for victims of sexual violence.
Texas had the second highest number of reported human trafficking cases in the country, behind California in 2017, according to the NHTRC. Of the 4,460 cases reported nationwide, 3,186 of them were sex trafficking, 689 were labor trafficking, 411 were not specified and 174 were sex and labor trafficking.
NHTRC shows 433 of those human trafficking cases were reported in Texas — 306 sex trafficking, 82 labor trafficking, 23 non-specific and 22 sex and labor cases.
According to human trafficking numbers from Voice of Hope, 70 people were sex trafficked between Jan. 1 and Dec. 14. Sixteen of those victims were 17 and younger.
Stark, Pratt, Zumwalt, Schallow and the LPD detective all said those numbers are underreported.
Pratt said there is an estimated average of 79,000 child victims of sex trafficking across the state at any given time.
“This is one of those issues that as you get deeper into it, there is so much more than you’d initially thought” she said.
Places like Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth see a lot of the states’ sex trafficking activity, Pratt said, but Lubbock is a local hub.
The LPD detective said the average age of minors who have been sex trafficked is 13. Victims are often females pimped by parents, friends, boyfriends or other influential adults. Males are victims too, the detective said, but those numbers start to decline when they hit puberty.
Statistics from the NHTRC show 3,698 of the human trafficking victims reported in 2017 were females.
Hollywood often portrays victims as introduced to sex trafficking by being kidnapped, bound, gagged and dragged around foreign countries, the detective said. That happens occassionally but they’re more often home-grown.
“The reality is, it occurs right down the street,” the detective said. “She’s at the hotel. She’s at the business park. It’s happening here in Lubbock.”