Human Trafficking: Houston's Hidden Problem

Houstonians drive by literally dozens of strip centers every week without realizing some of the establishments in those retail malls are fronts for trafficking. And the criminals aren't just peddling drugs or guns — they're selling people. Laurie Johnson reports.

If you live in the Houston area, chances are you've seen at least one of the city's many 24-hour studios, massage parlors or stress management spas.

"Houston has a huge commercial sex industry and there's some quotes that say that there's more SOBs, which is sexually-oriented businesses, in Houston per square mile than there are in Las Vegas."

Steven Goff is the project director for Houston Rescue and Restore Coalition. He says what many people don't realize is the women working in those establishments are often there against their will.

"A lot of people think that trafficking just occurs in seedy places, you know in dark alleys or something like that. And while it does, it also occurs in plain sight. There are places that people in Houston pass by on a daily basis where there's possibly human trafficking — modern-day slaves — inside those places, that are housed there for two to three weeks at a time and then rotated somewhere else."

Which is why Rescue and Restore started conducting a bus tour, taking Houstonians through their own neighborhoods. They point out adult plazas with blacked out windows, and cantinas surrounded by fences topped with razor wire.

Dr. Bob Sanborn is president of Children at Risk, a child welfare advocacy group. He says many of the so-called women in the sex trade are actually children.

"Maybe they're dressed up as adults and we'll say they're adults, but then upon further investigation we find out these are children. And the other thing that's really shocking is we're finding that the average age of entry into this child trafficking, this child prostitution, is about 12 or 13 years old."

And it happens more often than you might think. An estimated 17,500 women and children are trafficked into the U.S.
every year. That's not counting domestic trafficking, which is harder to track. Advocacy groups believe about 300,000 girls are bought and sold in the United States annually. Texas accounts for 25 percent of that business.

Sanborn says law enforcement and non-profits are working together to write laws that will help prosecute these businesses and traffickers. But he says the underlying issue is a culture change.

"We really need to end the demand for this. Guys in our city, guys in our state, thinking that this is a normal thing — that it's normal to go to a sex club, it's normal to call an escort service. Those are the things that really prompt a lot of this demand for children, for young prostituted girls — it's this demand that we perceive as normal in the city of Houston that really is not normal."

Children at Risk and Houston Rescue and Restore will discuss these issues at the state's first international conference on human trafficking. It's being held in Austin this Wednesday and Thursday, and includes the U.S. State Department along with U.N. Ambassadors from Vietnam, the Philippines and Russia.

According to the Department of Justice, Houston is one of the most intense human trafficking regions in the country, with one out of five trafficked persons passing through this city.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...