County Helping Sex Trafficking Victims Become Survivors
A day after her 17th birthday, Maya was arrested, and it was the best gift she could have gotten. Last April, for two and a half months prior to being found by the Beaumont Police, pimps forced Maya to have sex with adult men all across Texas and into Louisiana.
"I didn't sleep. If I went to sleep, I would get into trouble. And when I started falling asleep and they found out, they started giving me meth. So I would be up. Always working. And I barely had time to shower and eat, sleeping with hundreds of people. "
Maya, whose name we changed at her request, was a victim of sex trafficking. She had a history of running away, a long history, so she was on probation when young men she says she knew from her time on the run drove her across town and sold her to a trafficker.
Her disappearance took its toll on her family as well.
"You don't eat. You don't sleep. You're up all times of night, trying to find your daughter. Hotel to hotel, looking in gutters. It is very traumatic...it is unbelievable," said Maya’s adoptive father.
Unbelievable, but unfortunately not isolated. The numbers on this underreported crime vary, but the Polaris Project says 100,000 children are trafficked a year for sex in this country. The Polaris Project maintains the national human trafficking hotline. Texas ranks second in the number of calls to that hotline.
"I didn't sleep. If I went to sleep, I would get into trouble." - Maya
Since 2009 Bexar County’s Juvenile Probation department has identified 122 victims of sex trafficking. In the past two years Bexar County has taken an active role in assisting juveniles who have been trafficked for sex.
Bexar County Juvenile Judge Laura Parker said sex trafficking was a crime that affected every demographic.
“There’s not a profile for a trafficking victim. It could really happen to anyone--a young person who finds themselves runaway from home for good or bad reason and gets in the company of people who want to exploit them,” said Parker.
Judge Parker, along with Bexar County’s Juvenile Probation Department, created two programs to help the growing list of victims under the age of 18.
One was a specialty court just for victims of human trafficking that Judge Parker runs. It’s called the Restore Court, and it’s one of only a handful like it in Texas.
The county created the Mission Roads Center (MRC) inside its juvenile detention facility. It’s a 12-bed, residential treatment program for girls who have been sexually traumatized. Girls on probation like Maya are put in the program when sexual trauma is discovered.
According Restore Court documents, girls go through three levels of screenings and assessments a number of intensely personal questions. They begin with frontline probation officers, then the gang unit is consulted to see if the young women were gang affiliated. Gangs across the country have been increasingly active in the sex trade. They are then referred to the Rape Crisis Center, if trafficking or trauma is identified.
Before 2009, they didn’t conduct these screenings.
Denial, shame, and guilt surround sex-related traumas, but victims of trafficking are different. They often don't believe they are victims says John Moon, a licensed clinical therapist for the Mission Roads Center,
"They genuinely believed they were in control. They genuinely believed they chose to do this; the insidious nature with which they are seduced, exploited, co-opted into doing the things they have done. And as you strip through those layers you can get to some of the guilt and shame we talked about.”
"They genuinely believed they were in control. They genuinely believed they chose to do this" -John Moon
This is one of the reasons why the MRC program operates independent of a hard deadline. According to Moon, a young woman’s therapeutic progress is the main consideration for when they are released.
While the average time in the MRC is 10 months, it can go on as long as it needs to, ensuring that young women participate and get the help they need. There are usually a number of issues to work through. According to documents from the MRC a July 2014 snapshot of current client needs showed that half the girls exhibited mood disorders, more than half had PTSD and 83 percent were on some kind of psychotropic medications.
The only real deadline is a girl’s 18th birthday.
While the MRC helps young women with intensive therapy, Restore Court builds on that therapy. Specialty courts like this offer extended one on one time between judges and juveniles, the tenor of a conversation on progress changes a great deal when you are talking about a judge vs a therapist or a probation worker.
“She is the highest authority on the food chain,” said Restore Court Probation Officer Rosalie Vogt, “And the kids know that.”
Every other Tuesday, the Restore Court meets. On one of these Tuesdays Maya was on the schedule. When she arrived from the MRC she was wearing standard issue apparel, blue polo and khakis.
After 10 months inside—6 of those in the Mission Roads Center—Maya was two weeks away from being released. She would still be required to come back to Judge Parker’s court regularly as part of Restore Court.
"I hear your date to get sprung has been scheduled” said Judge Parker drawing a laugh from Maya.
“Can’t wait,” the teen responded eagerly.
The air of the court is informal. Judge Parker wears a suit instead of robes. Maya sits across a small table from Parker. Her parents along with her probation worker and therapist are all at the table as well. She updated Judge Parker on her progress through Restore Court. They talked about her grades, as well as her after-care plan, a plan detailing how she will deal with different situations and who she can turn to for different issues--like the temptation to run away again or use drugs.
Maya appears to genuinely like Judge Parker and enjoy her time in court.
“Most of the girls see it as an incentive. It’s the upside of things because they get that one on one time with the judge,” said Maya’s Probation Officer, Rosalie Vogt.
Parents and kids voluntarily join Restore Court but both are required to sign a contract. Among the more than 15 things they pledge to do, parents abstain from drugs and ensure their child follows the rules. Youth like Maya pledged to continue going to therapy, eliminate all social media, and submit to drug testing.
Ultimately restore court wants Maya to be able to identify risky situations, set goals, and stand up for herself…skills that prevent relapse.
Judge Parker believes Restore court gives parents additional resources when kids go home.
"I think a lot of the parents feel at a loss for how to help their child. They've been trying and I am not saying it is easy they have to accompany their child to court every week and help their child with the compliance requirements. Not every parent is as into it as others, but the ones that get into it and work as partners with us, I think really see big changes with their kid"
Restore Court doesn’t end at the courthouse door. They have specially trained probation workers who are active both in MRC and once the girls are back in the home. They check in with teachers monitoring grades and visiting the home.
Restore court has graduated 5 juveniles from its program and expects another to complete it soon. Upon graduation the juvenile’s record is sealed, avoiding an expensive process in Texas.
“That’s Huge” said Maya’s mother for her daughters future job prospects, “because as soon as she checked ‘have you ever been convicted’ or anything like this and she has to check ‘yes’ they would come back with a ‘no.’ And she would be forced to do something illegal or wrong or immoral”
Maya’s father credits both programs with saving his daughters life, changing her from the angry and confused young woman she was.
"She changed to see how happy she is, how much she has learned. The program worked."
Maya agrees, but knows she has a lot of work yet to do…which makes her glad restore court is around.
“They said even after I am 18, they still help you. They still talk to you. They’ll never close the door on you, and that is what I like about it.”
It is support she someday hopes to pay back to other youth when she finally achieves her goal of becoming a teacher.