Events aimed to raise awareness of human trafficking ahead of Super Bowl

Gwendolyn was 8 when a close family relative began offering her as a party favor to men attending weekly poker games at his house.

She remembers being touched and kissed in places where she should not have been, and vaguely remembers being raped, but said she has blocked many of her painful memories.

At 10, she started using drugs -- smoking marijuana and sniffing Liquid Paper -- until she discovered crack, her drug of choice. At 16, she decided to run away and get paid to do what she was being coerced to do for free.

"I knew I was going to die on the streets before I turned 21," said Gwendolyn, who asked that her last name not be used to protect the identities of her three children. "I had no family, no one I could turn to. I didn't trust God, because he was a man, too. Why would I call on someone who sickened me to my stomach?"

Gwendolyn, now 41, became drug-free 11 years ago and got out of the sex business after being introduced to New Friends New Life, a Dallas-based anti-trafficking group. But for those still involved in the sex industry, the degradation has gotten worse, said Deena Graves, executive director of Traffick911, a North Texas organization that works to stop sexual slavery.

Traffick911 is inviting the public to a town hall meeting today in Mansfield to discuss the issue. The meeting is weeks ahead of one of the country's biggest draws for sex workers, Super Bowl XLV on Feb. 6 in Arlington. Regional law enforcement experts are expected to attend the meeting.

The things that happened to Gwendolyn are common among sex workers, and ideas on how the region can address those problems will be reviewed, Graves said.

"The average life expectancy for these kids is seven years," she said. "The kids run away from home to escape what they are enduring, and they are forced into this activity."

Graves' group focuses on domestic trafficking, which she said directly affects more than 100,000 children nationwide. One of the organization's goals is to build a regional shelter for children trying to escape the sex industry. Graves estimates it will cost $2 million. Graves also expects that private donors will have to step up because of state and city governments' budget shortfalls.

"This problem is too huge for any entity to tackle alone, including the government," she said.

Chris Burchell, president of Texas Anti-Trafficking in Persons, said pimps use drugs to control sex workers. And sex workers say they use the drugs to blot out their experiences. Men in their 40s are fathering multiple children with girls as young as 13, Burchell said.

Street, prison and international gangs are getting into the picture. When a gang member proves himself as a pimp, gang leaders let him handle larger drug loads, Burchell said. When police raid the places where sex workers are housed, they typically find teddy bears by the beds.

"This 13-year-old girl was held in a crack house for a week two blocks away from where her parents lived," said Burchell, a meeting panelist. "They kept her tied up in a little room in the back and fed her drugs. Anyone who came to buy drugs could pay an extra $25 to go in the back and have sex with her."

Linda Smith, executive director of Shared Hope International, will be at the Mansfield meeting to talk about her interviews with several young women involved in the domestic sex trade. In 2008, Shared Hope chronicled the area's inattention to human trafficking, looking specifically at Fort Worth and other North Texas cities.

The area has made some strides since 2008, child advocates say, but law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups still have a long way to go to effectively grapple with the challenges.

"We are at the place where we were when dope first came on the scene," said Daniel Meza, a Fort Worth investigator assigned to the North Texas anti-trafficking task force. "This has been happening for years and years, and no one wants to hear about it."

Mitch Mitchell, 817-390-7752