Fort Bend County judge hosts human trafficking panel ahead of Operation Freedom anniversary

Sandra Sadek | Times Editorial Intern
Posted 7/13/20

With the approaching first anniversary of Operation Freedom, Fort Bend County Judge KP George hosted a Facebook Live panel with several community members and elected officials to discuss human and …

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Fort Bend County judge hosts human trafficking panel ahead of Operation Freedom anniversary

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With the approaching first anniversary of Operation Freedom, Fort Bend County Judge KP George hosted a Facebook Live panel with several community members and elected officials to discuss human and sex trafficking on July 9.

Operation Freedom was a joint investigation conducted in the summer of 2019 by 22 agencies at the local, state and federal level that resulted in the arrest of 64 people involved in human trafficking in Fort Bend County. Five adults and two girls aged 15 and 17 were rescued.

According to Micah Gamboa, executive director of Elijah Rising, human trafficking often involves force, fraud, and coercion to exploit the victim’s vulnerability, drawing them into the commercial sex trade.

“It's basically an exploitation of vulnerability, and there are many different types of vulnerabilities that can lead someone into this type of situation, both for labor and for sex trafficking,” Gamboa said. “And this happens all across our region all across our nation, and to both minors and adults alike.”

FBI Houston Special Agent Richard Rennison emphasized that force, fraud, or coercion are not necessary for victims under the age of 18 – even if the victim participates voluntarily, it is still a crime.

One of the recent, more popular tools in attracting victims into the human trafficking cycle is technology, which has become a common way to communicate and recruit victims.

“It's just the prevalence of the internet in these types of cases. And so that's not just going to be people posting advertisements advertising sex online, which is still happening, but it's also going to be how a lot of our victims end up meeting the people that are pimping them,” said Claire Andresen, Fort Bend County assistant district attorney. “So that's going to be a lot of people meeting social media or people using social media in order to recruit girls and boys into this lifestyle.”

The increasing usage of technology has made the search and arrest of perpetrators harder for law enforcement. Rennison said the increasing number of ways for victims to be approached by perpetrators has forced law enforcement to sometimes play catch-up.

“The advancements in technology have been something that all enforcement's been facing since the invention of the vehicle. But we got to stay on top of it and really parents being familiar with the communication apps that their children are using is key,” Rennison said.

Another way perpetrators influence their victims is by dragging them into a cycle of exploitation and re-exploitation, focusing on vulnerabilities, therefore, making it even harder to break free.

“Many of these victims are exposed to drugs and alcohol. And then they become part of this cycle where they're addicted to drugs and alcohol. Females may even be impregnated so they become reliant on someone else,” Fort Bend Precinct 3 Constable Wayne Thompson. “By that time, they're often in another areas, they've been removed from their family and friends, and so that becomes the life that they know it, terrible as it is.”

Since the start of COVID-19, Fort Bend County has seen a 20% spike in spousal, child, and pet abuse, according to Judge George. However, Fort Bend County Lt. Bradley Whichard said it may be too early to tell whether the pandemic has led to an increase in human trafficking due to a lag in reporting. So far, the number of incidents reported has been consistent over the past three months as compared to the previous year, Whichard said.

“It may be a while coming before we're able to accurately estimate how (the pandemic) has impacted the occurrence of human trafficking,” Whichard said. “The legislature also recognizes that because they extended the statute of limitations for these types of offenses for that very reason.”

There are several signs parents can look for when it comes to potential human trafficking schemes. Rennison recommends parents pay attention to any new friends the child may have, especially if they are older. Another thing to look for is unexpected gifts such as a new phone or sudden money. Tattoos, running away, or a sudden change in appearance are also a sign of human trafficking.

“There's a lot of them and on the surface, they sound very common sense like ‘oh I would I would see that, I would notice that’ but a lot of times, it's like the trickle effect, you don't notice it because it happens over a period of time,” Rennison said.

Gamboa also emphasized the important role the community plays in combatting human trafficking. He said the best way to tackle the issue is to have a multidisciplinary approach; education is important, even if you may not have children or children who fall within the targeted age range.

“Get educated. There are a ton of incredible resources out there,” Gamboa said. “You can do a lot of things; you can activate your voice and advocate for a whole host of issues. If you don't want to get engaged or maybe volunteer or advocate, specifically in human trafficking, you can advocate and you can mentor, and you can lend your strength as a community member.”

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