Fighting child sex trafficking in the Amarillo area

Local News

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) — Sex trafficking is happening in our community and children and adults are being victimized, according to community advocates and local law enforcement.

“We do have systems in place because we have, unfortunately, trafficking that is occurring,” said Tracey Morman, the director of counseling at Amarillo ISD.

Morman said often, mandatory reporters like teachers can be the first line of defense.

“So many of our students are just looking for relationships, they’re just looking for someone to accept them and so that makes them very vulnerable, and so we just need to … have conversations, you know, be willing to accept them,” Morman said. “Because sometimes when we’re not accepting of who they are, that makes them vulnerable. So, they’re willing to go to those who, quote-unquote, are willing to accept them for who they are at the time and—understand that it’s happening in our community. It’s happening to boys and it’s happening to girls.”

Morman said AISD teachers and staff are trained to look for certain signs of trafficking. She said they work in conjunction to make sure safety protocols are put in place and kids’ needs are being met, in addition to their social and emotional needs.

“It’s always very much a team effort within our community, and so as we make a CPS report, we might make a police report to APD and we’re going to work together, and so once that’s involved, then they might also be transported to the Bridge for a forensic interview and then there might be case management that goes on,” Morman said. “We’ll work with any outside counselors and social workers that are involved.”

Executive Director for the Bridge, Shelly Bohannon, said one of the biggest misconceptions is that traffickers are strangers lurking around a dark corner.

“Sometimes it’s their own family, that engages them in the trafficking world, which makes it even more difficult for them to escape that,” Bohannon said. “…and another huge [misconception] is that children are to blame and that they are that they’re responsible for that behavior. A lot of times these children have been isolated, they’re looking for acceptance and they’re going to find that in people who recruit children into the human trafficking world.”

According to Bohannon, it is not always easy for child sex trafficking victims to understand they have been victimized.

“A lot of times there are medical needs that need to be attended to and they may be, they may have an addiction issue,” Bohannon said. “So there’s fear, there’s a lot of other things that take priority in making sure that the safety and needs of that child are met, immediately.”

Bohannon said each child’s needs are different, and it’s important to believe the children and not blame them.

“They’re not responsible for being made to prostitute. It’s not their fault, for now being addicted to some kind of substance, they are a victim, as much as anyone else in this process,” Bohannon said.

Family Support Services also helps children who have been trafficked, connecting kids who have been trafficked with resources at FSS and other partners in the community.

“We see it all the time,” said Ashley Knowles, the 806 ACTS Outreach coordinator at FSS. “So, we may do case management with them. We may do therapy with them, we may do safety planning with them. Just depending on what that child needs and what they’ve been through.”

The internet plays a large role in trafficking.

“Our children get on social media, and they’re on gaming systems and so it’s quick to find predators who are going to tell them that life is better somewhere else, and meet me here and before you know it … they’re gone … and they’re runaways,” Morman said.

Knowles said it could get worse—especially as the pandemic continues.

“Our kids are online right now all the time, even more than they were before because they’re not going out with their friends and doing activities,” Knowles said. “So I do believe that once things settle down, we’ll see a bigger outcry than we did before.”

No Boundaries International goes looking for those in danger of being trafficked.

The Executive Director for No Boundaries International, Traci Rogers, said, “We are doing outreach, we’re in the community, we’re doing things that put us in positions, to be able to recognize as victims and, and to be able to help those that really need the help.”

Rogers said it could help to avoid using geolocators, name hashtags, and sharing other identifying information when posting on social media.

“As parents have to be careful of what we post on Facebook and in different social media venues, you know because sometimes we can give predators information without even realizing what we’re doing,” Rogers said.

Texas Department of Public Safety Sgt. Cindy Barkley said there are plenty of signs to watch out for.

“A sudden change in their attitude, such as uncharacteristically quiet or nervous, a change in their physical appearance. They may be withdrawn from family, friends or participating in activities, increased absence from school falling grades, they may have a sudden appearance of luxury items such as designer clothing, shoes, jewelry, cell phones, tablets, they may also be spending an excess amount of time on social media as well as maintaining multiple social media accounts out there,” said Sgt. Barkley.

Rogers believes the average person paying attention could save children from trafficking.

“When they see somebody out, that’s 100% controlled by somebody else, or maybe they don’t have their id somebody else’s holding it, you know, all of those things are, are red flags,” said Rogers.

Rogers said when kids make an outcry, it is everyone’s job to listen and investigate.

“If we know that it’s happening right here in our backyard, then we have to do something you know, and you know, to change that culture and make people realize that, that exploitation is leading into sex trafficking,” Rogers said. “You know, that women are not commodities. Children are not commodities, even men. I mean, we’ve—we’ve had adult men that were trafficking victims, you know, and so anybody can fall into that trap. So we want them to know that they are, they have hope there is life beyond that, you know. That they were created for a specific purpose.”

Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas said he sees the devastation of sex trafficking on the job—and parents should not think this is something that happens in other families.

“It can happen right under your nose, and you’ll never know about it. And sometimes it’s so embarrassing, especially for young ladies, that they’ll never talk about it and it may come out later. It could be at the sitter’s house, it could be at church. You have to stay on top of it and build that trust,” Sheriff Thomas said.

He said the most important thing a parent can do to help their sons and daughters after they have been victimized is to be involved in their kids’ lives, all the time, every day.

“It can’t happen overnight. You have to earn that trust early. If you continue that throughout their life, it’ll make it a lot easier for them to come to you and say this happened,” Sheriff Thomas added. “That starts at that very early age that they can trust mom and dad and I don’t want anything to hurt or happen to you.”

Local law enforcement officers said our location can contribute to more human trafficking.

“We have two major highways that just meet right in the middle. So, there’s always a chance of higher drugs going through here and trafficking of humans, of anybody, of anything,” said Cpl. Jeb Hilton with the Amarillo Police Department.

Both the Amarillo Police Department and the Potter County Sheriff’s Office said child sex trafficking is not something they encounter often, but they have staff members dedicated to fighting it.

“So, our officers look into that. They follow up on everything that comes in and thankfully, we were able to get some of these people out of the trafficking,” Cpl. Hilton added.

Sheriff Thomas said it is a team effort between local, state, and federal law enforcement to stop human trafficking.

“Our guys on the highway are not just out there looking for drugs. So, they do catch stuff like that coming through the road and so they’re well aware of what we’re looking for,” Sheriff Thomas added. “The community that we operate with—the homeland security, the border patrol, DPS.”

The Texas Department of Public Safety largely works with federal agencies handling sting operations but they also rely on tips from the public.

“The public, they’ve always been instrumental in helping law enforcement identify and detect criminal activity and the same principle applies when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable population, our children,” said Sgt. Barkley.

Cpl. Hilton said the biggest takeaway for the public should be ‘see something, say something.’

“If you see something online, if you see something that looks suspicious with a child being involved, or even an adult person being involved with some sort of trafficking, you know, alerting the local agencies,” Cpl. Hilton said. “Being a little more cautious about stuff like that doesn’t mean necessarily calling right away, but just kind of looking into it a little bit more and saying, you know, this is something I need to report or this is something I need to keep an eye out for.”

According to a report by Texas DPS, 451 human trafficking offenses were reported
in Texas in 2019.

Anyone with an emergency situation should call 911.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline can be reached at 1 (888) 373-7888.

You can also make a report at iwatchtexas.org or download the Watch Texas app. Reports can be made anonymously.

Click here to make an FBI report.


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