Michael Ryan

Human trafficking: It’s close enough for you to reach out and touch

A Grapevine victim of sex trafficking tells her story

Julia Walsh was rescued from sex traffickers, and her road to recovery continues.
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Julia Walsh was rescued from sex traffickers, and her road to recovery continues.

Chances are you think you’ve heard a good bit about human trafficking but have never seen it.

Chances are you’re wrong. What they used to call slavery is happening right under our noses, right here in River City. Right now.

A U.S. attorney in another state told me last year that, based on his eye-opening prosecutorial experience, he was “certain” he would unknowingly encounter a trafficking victim while out for dinner or just going about daily life.

I recently asked Fort Worth’s Stephanie Byrd if it really is that prevalent.

“It feels like it to me,” she answered. “Of course, I’m right in the middle of it.”

She certainly is that, as the volunteer executive director of Unbound Fort Worth, the local chapter of an international, Waco-based network of agencies working to raise awareness of human trafficking and uplift its victims.

One way to gauge the extent of a problem is to take note of how many people are working on it — and a growing number are fighting human trafficking, which is indeed slavery by any other name. Unbound, which is popping up in various U.S. cities as well as Cambodia, Indonesia and even Mongolia, alleges there are an astonishing 30 million slaves in the world today. One study estimates there are 79,000 underage victims of sex trafficking in Texas alone.

It certainly has Gov. Greg Abbott’s attention. He just called for the creation of six regional human trafficking squads.

For their part, law enforcement officers — there are human trafficking units at both the Fort Worth Police Department and Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office — say we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.

Julia Walsh of Grapevine was 18 and a troubled and depressed college student, she told The Star-Telegram’s Domingo Ramirez Jr. in 2017, when her boyfriend forced her into sexual bondage and a string of coercive traffickers who sold her services across 20 states before an Alabama arrest ironically set her free.

The thing is, Byrd says, trafficking hides in plain sight, and it takes a well-trained eye to spot it, especially when abused and fearful victims are reluctant to seek assistance or even admit their plight. A 20-year-old Fort Worth woman trapped in forced prostitution in Houston until just last month had been reported missing — but a Texas law enforcement officer had earlier been fooled into leaving her in captivity when, in the close proximity of her captor, she understandably told the officer during a traffic stop that she was fine.

Byrd says Fort Worth officers are well-trained in detecting trafficking victims — and the department has commandeered a multi-agency, public-private network called the Tarrant County 5-Stones Taskforce, aimed at underage sex trafficking. But Unbound’s five paid staffers and cadre of motivated volunteers also help medical professionals and teachers — like law enforcement, also on the front lines of this fight — recognize the signs of trafficking. In schools, that can be substance abuse, sleeping in class, or a lost interest in academics.

Shockingly, Byrd says she visited one Fort Worth middle school recently where she was told staffers are certain trafficking is going on. “I hear that wherever I go,” she says.

Unbound’s mission is threefold: prevention and awareness; professional training; and survivor advocacy.

You might be wondering about the “prevention” part of the mission. How, after all, can human trafficking be prevented? Well, one way is self-esteem — which trafficking victim Walsh admits she lacked big-time. Byrd says her folks ask at-risk youths to write down all the bad names they’ve been called in their short lives.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what these kids have been told they are,” Byrd notes, adding that many of the words aren’t fit for a family newspaper.

But then they ask the kids to tear that piece of paper up and write on another one what they want to be and what they really are. What a powerful psychological doorway to usher these kids through.

The most powerful prevention may be mere awareness. On that front, Unbound is about to blow the lid off ignorance and apathy: Its Feb. 28 “Restoring Innocence” luncheon will feature a talk by famous child kidnapping survivor-turned-activist Elizabeth Smart (11:30 a.m.-1 p.m. at the downtown Sheraton: restoringinnocenceluncheon2019.eventbrite.com).

We pride ourselves in this country and this state on caring deeply about individuals. Few are in more distress than victims of human trafficking.

And few of the distressed are so within our grasp.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.