AUSTIN (KXAN) — On an average day, you might find Andrea Sparks sitting in a sparse room in a building adjacent to the Texas capitol. She’ll speak into a teleconference line connected to law enforcement and advocacy groups across Texas. The call may last an hour.
This monotonous work can drag someone down if they didn’t have a fire inside fueling them every day. The webinar training is a key aspect to a rarely used and hard to prove word in state government: prevention.
“It is tough to do. It is so tough to prove that prevention works. But we know it works,” Andrea Sparks said.
Child advocates rejoiced when Governor Abbott tapped Sparks to be the director of the Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team. She came up through victim’s advocacy, spent years representing foster children in the juvenile justice system, spearheaded policy at Texas CASA – Court Appointed Special Advocates and became the Texas head for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“We can’t arrest our way out of this problem,” Sparks said. “Even if we arrest this trafficker, if we don’t help that victim find a way out, they will be exploited by the next trafficker.”
Tackling the problem in Texas
The Governor’s Child Sex Trafficking Team became reality in September 2016 when the Texas legislature passed a law. In April 2017, Governor Abbott appointed Sparks.
Her office may never know how many times Texans are human trafficked but calls into the National Human Trafficking Hotline can give a snapshots. In 2017, Texas had 2,459 calls. Most calls came from the Houston area, then San Antonio, then Dallas, then Austin, then Fort Worth.
A December 2017 University of Texas report estimated 79,000 Texans were victims of sex trafficking.
Sex traffickers target young, vulnerable people: victims of sexual abuse, drug abuse, alcohol abuse, homeless, runaway, or a child in the state’s foster care of juvenile justice system.
Child and victim advocates say the state of Texas is much better at catching and punishing pimps than making sure children don’t become prostitutes in the first place. Gov. Abbott assigned Sparks to create a new infrastructure to help victims recover once they escape the abuse.
“We really came in and said let us help you figure what the gaps are in your community and let us fill those gaps with resources that we have,” Sparks said.
Years ago, there was one residential treatment center in the state, in Harris County. The Governor’s team helps fund new centers in Austin, San Antonio, North Texas and El Paso. Now, the team is building a system of “coordinated care” in each area: health, education, safety services.
Helping victims recover, not just arresting traffickers
Sparks says the only way to replace a bad relationship — like a sex trafficker and their victim — is to replace it with a good relationship. That idea drives the focus on wrap-around service.
“We know that healthy relationships, mentors, protective factors like that for vulnerable youth make a difference,” Sparks said.
The Refuge in Central Texas is one of those organizations that are cogs in the infrastructure. The Governor’s teams granted several hundred thousand dollars to help them grow to 48 beds for survivors with wrap-around services, including a UT charter school.
“Now a new generation of law enforcement realizes that there’s someone behind her. No 16-year-old wakes up and wants to be a prostitute,” said Steven Phenix with The Refuge for Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking. “These children are treated as victims, not as criminals. So that’s changed.”
Phenix says Sparks’ team excels in trauma-informed training for state agencies, local law enforcement, and schools across Texas.
“Until they had training from her, they had no idea what to look for,” Phenix said.
In August 2018, coordinated care launched in Harris and Dallas Counties. In 2019, Texas plans to launch the program in Collin, Denton, Travis, Bexar and Jefferson counties and in 34 total counties by 2021.
The focus on victims is now leading to success in law enforcement.
Sparks and the Attorney General’s office reports early signs of success. Victims cooperate more with law enforcement once they’ve escaped, leading to more arrests and prosecutions for sex traffickers.
Later this year, we’re expecting her office to release a report detailing factors that cause the demand for sex trafficking. That fight will come later.