When I first ran for a seat in the Texas Senate, it never entered my mind that I would one day listen to testimony from a human trafficking survivor.
Human trafficking is a growing problem, it's happening in our backyard, and it includes American citizens.
On June 26, I attended a meeting in San Antonio of the Joint Interim Committee to Study Human Trafficking, on which I serve. The committee's job is to study the services available for victims of human trafficking provided by federal, state and local agencies and non-governmental organizations.
The hearing included discussion of the long-range need for safe houses and shelters and the best practices for public/private partnerships providing services to victims.
We also reviewed procedures and services available for youth who have been identified as sex trafficking victims, including analysis of the appropriate criminal penalties associated with prostitution.
This modern-day slavery strikes both U.S. citizens and immigrants alike. It often involves children and young people forced into prostitution. Past legislative efforts focused on prosecution of the criminals, including mandatory felonies for those who use and sell children for sex, but this committee is looking at ways to help the survivors.
The most heart-breaking testimony came from a woman identified only as Debbie. She told us her story of being traded to men at the age of six by her own mother for drugs and money.
Debbie dropped out of school in the fifth grade, and was a mother at age 12. Her mother gave her to a man who remained her "husband," abuser and heroin supplier for decades. No one, not the school or the health care providers, asked her questions that would lead to the truth.
She stayed in that situation out of fear. She had no family to turn to because it was her family who sold her.
We heard from experts and agency officials, social workers and law enforcement officers. We were told that shelters and treatment beds are lacking for rescued victims such as Debbie.
We heard that we have funds and services available for international victims of human trafficking, but not as much for U.S. citizens.
One of the biggest problems is identifying the victims. They have been abused, may be afraid to ask for help, and they have no place to turn.
The Polaris Project is a national organization committed to combating human trafficking. Their toll-free hotline to report a tip, connect with anti-trafficking services in your area, or request local training and technical assistance and general information is 1-888-373-7888.
For more information on this problem, please visit the Web site at www.polarisproject.org.
This joint Texas Senate and House committee will continue to hear testimony at another meeting in Houston this summer. In the fall, the committee will formulate recommendations for the 83rd Texas Legislature that convenes next January.
If you have any suspicion of human trafficking, please ask questions and get involved.
This column is written by State Sen. Jeff Wentworth.