Slavery still exists in Texas – it just isn't always easy to see. But a new project hopes to bring awareness to a problem that often hides in plain sight.
The Texas Slavery Mapping Project is a two-year initiative to gather data about human trafficking in the state. The project, a partnership between the Institute of Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault at the University of Texas at Austin and Austin-based Allies Against Slavery, just received a $500,000 grant from the Governor's Office to research existing data and compile resources for survivors.
"We're really doing it to uncover the problem, to really understand modern slavery for the state," says Noël Busch-Armendariz, director of the IDVSA at the University of Texas. "To uncover it in a way that helps us understand it to develop programs, policies and services, to bring accountability to traffickers and services to victims."
Current data from Polaris, an nonprofit that operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, shows that nearly 1 in 11 calls to the hotline are from Texas – a frequency second only to calls from California.
John Nehme, CEO of Allies Against Slavery, says that the number of reported cases of human trafficking in Texas is over 400, but that's likely well below the actual number of instances.
"We can piece together some of the data to help understand the scope, but quite frankly, we don't know," Nehme says. "That's part of the intention behind this mapping project, to empower stakeholders to have a better grasp of just how much is going on."
"I think it's a hidden crime we don't understand the true scope of," Nehme continues. "What we're hearing from law enforcement or service providers leads us to believe this is actually happening at a greater scale than we originally estimated. But our hope is to really be able to determine that through this research."
Nehme says that one reason they believe that the actual number of occurrences is much higher than reported cases is the prevalence of "red flags" spotted by authorities and service providers.
"We would encourage teachers to look for kids who are truant, we would encourage people who are working with kids in foster care to understand if kids are always running away, or potentially have an older boyfriend who seems to be especially in control of their resources or their cell phones, somebody who may be experiencing abuse – those are underlying risk factors that we would look for in youth."
But it's not just sex trafficking with children. Forced labor is another prevalent form of human trafficking Nehme advises to be aware of.
"If you're going to your favorite restaurant and you're seeing a bus full of people show up, go into the back of the restaurant, work, and at the end of the shift leave together as well … start keeping your eyes open for those sorts of red flags, and ask those hard questions." Tips can be made to the National Human Trafficking Hotline, at 1-888-373-7888, or online.
Busch-Armendariz says she hopes the findings will not only help policymakers, law enforcement and survivor programs, but also bring awareness to citizens.
"It's all of our responsibilities to have that information," she says. "Not just researchers, not just law enforcement, but all of us, the everyday citizen. For all of us to be given that knowledge to better us as citizens."
Texas Standard intern Alexandra Hart contributed to this post.