Burleson mother launches effort to help victims of human trafficking

Deena Graves almost missed her life-changing moment.

It was February 2009, and the married mother of two returned home from her job at Texas Instruments, exhausted and hardly in the mood to attend a church program that night. But she dragged herself out the door.

The speaker was an American woman who had traveled to Thailand and become inspired to help girls forced into the country's sex trade. Her stories and photos documented the heartbreaking abuses.

Graves was horrified. Leaving the service, she told Pastor Darrel Auvenshine that she was glad that didn't happen in the United States.

That does happen here, Auvenshine told her.

"I was stunned," said Graves, who lives in Burleson. "I had no idea it happened anywhere in the world. And it was happening here?"

Her astonishment started her down a path that, five months later, led her to quit her job and launch an effort to create North Texas' first shelter specifically for victims of human trafficking.

Graves and church members formed Traffick911, a 501(c) nonprofit and recently began a fundraising campaign. Graves, the executive director, has spent nine months developing a business plan and educating herself on the slimy underworld of human trafficking.

Next month, she will speak at the Salvation Army's anti-trafficking workshop. "The more I have learned, the more I cannot get the horrors and abuses that victims face out of my head," Graves said. "That is why I decided to do this."

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Graves started her education on the Internet. For months, she immersed herself in reports and studies. She didn't like what she learned:

An estimated 300,000 American children are at risk each year of sexual exploitation.

More calls placed to the National Human Trafficking Hotline come from Texas than any other state.

Authorities consider North Texas a major trafficking hub.

She reached out to organizations familiar with the problem. ACH Child and Family Services in Fort Worth (formerly known as All Church Home for Children) has a street outreach team that finds homeless children. It also operates the only emergency shelter for teens.

Michelle Cowden, an ACH clinical social worker, said she has come across children whose experiences fit the profile of child trafficking, including two girls recently.

Victims range in age from 12 to their early 20s, she said. They are from families of different socio-economic statuses, but their stories are strikingly similar. Most were sexually abused as children and suffered neglect in the home.

Many of the girls run away or are thrown out of the home, she said. This is what happens next:

"She meets a guy who says he loves her and will take care of her," Cowden said. "Then one day, he says he doesn't have enough money and he needs her to go out on the street and make money for him.

"He isolates her, humiliates her, makes her feel like no one else wants them. Before you know it, she is a prostitute on the street."

The worst part, Cowden said, is that the victims still believe they love the guy, now their pimp. The girls refuse to tell authorities who he is and wish only to return to him. They don't feel like victims. It is almost cultlike.

But the girls are "chronically and violently abused," she said. They require special counseling, their trauma so deep.

Help from authorities

Graves said Traffick911 strives to form a close partnership with authorities, who are trying to crack down on trafficking.

Texas legislators created a statewide anti-trafficking task force last year. Fort Worth got funding for its own task force in 2006. But victims' advocates say the system still treats too many victims as criminals.

An example: In 2007, a 13-year-old girl was arrested on a Houston street for offering an undercover police officer oral sex for $20. Authorities learned that she was a runaway living with a 32-year-old man she called her boyfriend, according to media reports. The girl had several sexually transmitted diseases and had undergone two abortions.

The girl was ordered into juvenile lockup for 18 months. Her lawyers and victims' advocates decried the decision to pursue charges against the girl because she was not of legal age to consent to sex.

The Texas Supreme Court is considering the case.

"It's an example of authorities treating girls forced into awful situations like criminals instead of victims," Graves said. "A 13-year-old does not decide to become a prostitute. She is forced to."

In Tarrant County, juvenile-intake staffers are trying to better identify victims, said Randy Turner, the chief juvenile probation officer. The intake director is working with the Fort Worth task force and has had discussions with Traffick911 about how to recognize signs that teenagers are trapped in trafficking.

The number of referrals for juveniles in custody on prostitution charges is "very small," he said. However, signs of trafficking could be found in teen runaways arrested for minor offenses, like theft.

"We're trying to make sure we're asking the right questions," Turner said. "We want to know what is happening in the community."

A challenge

Graves said she is optimistic that the group can raise the estimated $2 million needed to open the shelter. Traffick911 is approaching corporations and private donors for contributions.

Her church, Southside City Church in Fort Worth, will also focus on prevention. It is partnering with organizations to teach at-risk children karate, said Auvenshine, the pastor.

"One of our goals has been to do outreach to inner-city kids on the near south side," he said.

Graves envisions a shelter with three buildings in Dallas-Fort Worth. One building would house an emergency shelter, one would be a shelter for 10- to 13-year-olds, and another would be for 14- to 18-year-olds.

The shelters would have caseworkers, counselors and educational programs on-site, she said. Officials would not publicly disclose the shelter's location to keep pimps from tracking down their victims. Likewise, the shelter would sit off public transportation lines to keep victims from returning to their pimps.

It will be a challenge, she acknowledged. "But I think when people hear the stories, hear what these young people are being put through, they will get behind this," she said. "I'm sure a lot of people are like I was and think this sort of thing only happens in other countries.

"It is happening here, to our children. We have to do something."

ALEX BRANCH, 817-390-7689

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