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How Texas is bringing human trafficking out of the shadows and into the spotlight

Texas' awareness and education campaigns are fighting human trafficking

HARRISON COUNTY, Tx - Traffic comes and goes each day on Interstate 20 between Louisiana and Texas.

Cars by the thousands.

But some of the people, inside some of the vehicles, have no say so in where they're going.

"They are lured in," says Kim Grabert, Texas' first ever Director of Human Trafficking Prevention. "They are manipulated."

She's talking about victims of human trafficking.

Awareness of the crime was brought to the forefront last month during National Slavery and Human Trafficking prevention month.

But six months earlier Texas took the bold step of hiring Grabert to tackle the issue head-on.

"We do have kids coming from California, all the way across through Texas, through Louisiana," Grabert said.

She heads a unit with Texas' Department of Family and Protective Services and is working to bring together many state agencies, helping them spot the signs of trafficking, which aren't easy to see.

"They can be going to school everyday," Grabert said. "We have kids who are trafficked, who are straight A students."

She says the pimps and gangs lure teens as you would expect, online and through apps.

It starts as a perceived relationship.

"[The teens] lack connections," said Grabert. "Or they are looking for some type of relationship that they feel is missing from their life."

But it morphs, horribly, until the teens are sold on the medium where they were lured.

"They're sold through internet sites and that requires some movement around," she said.

It sounds almost too strange to believe.

Grabert pointed NBC 6 News to the most egregious site, Backpage.com.

The website's disclaimers make it legal. Some of it's content might make you think otherwise.

Transactions made on pre-paid cell phones, which can be discarded instantly.

Dealings made in crypto-currency. Paid for with gift cards, so it's untraceable.

"This is organized crime," said Grabert. "These are trans-national gangs. These are national gangs. They are focused on Human Trafficking now cause it's easier. They're less likely to get caught." 

Texas sees awareness as the only way to even the fight for law enforcement.

If everyone is on the look out for the crime, the odds of it taking place in their neighborhood are reduced. 

"Now that we're shining more of a spotlight on it an educating and bringing together all of those disciplines to aid each other in recognizing what the signs are, then you start to see the recovery rates go up," said Sgt. Jean Dark with Texas' Department of Public Safety.

DPS officers receive training, teaching them how to recognize endangered children who don't seek out help.

"We can no longer think that children are going to cry out and say that they are being abused right then," said Sgt. Dark. "Because of the fact that their abuser might be right there in the vehicle with them."
 
Sgt. Dark say they now have the education, and the public has the awareness to make a difference. 

"Getting the word out and educating people is just incredibly important in protecting our most vulnerable people, our children." said Sgt. Dark.


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