While many were reminded of how much they are loved this Valentine’s Day weekend, Antioch Community Church was filled Friday night with people gathering to learn what they can do to help girls forced into sex trafficking.
Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) opened up the event by sharing his sadness with the audience, and discussing the recent legislation he authored, called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act.
“This will help law enforcement also crack down on trafficking rings, and go after the so called ‘Johns’ who exploit these victims,” Cornyn said. “To make sure that, instead of a slap on the wrist and a fine, the perpetrators are treated like the common criminals that they are.”
UnBound, a Waco based international organization dedicated to advocating and fighting for victims of sex trafficking, organized the event. Attendees spanned from community leaders such as congressional candidate Ralph Patterson to members of the motorcycle group Bikers Against Child Abuse, or BACA.
Tables were set up selling merchandise sported shirts and books spreading awareness on sex trafficking at the event. Another table allowed attendees to buy bags reminiscent of Valentine’s Day gifts filled with toiletries and essentials for trafficked girls.
Elizabeth Tews, executive director of She is Freedom, a new Waco-based safe house for girls, also had a table at the event.
Tews recalled a 17-year-old girl who told her, “When I’m with a date, I know I’m worth something, because at home I’m not worth anything. But at least with him I’m worth fifty dollars.”
Supplying a sense of value and belonging are only a few of the many goals of She is Freedom, and UnBound.
And the sentiment expressed by the 17-year-old is not uncommon among trafficked girls. One of the keynote speakers, a woman named Rhonda, shared the story of her daughter’s enticement and eventual trafficking into the sex industry.
Rhonda, whose last name was not shared for the sake of her daughter’s anonymity, found a note on her daughter’s dresser addressed to her 19-year-old boyfriend.
“The note said, ‘Josh, I’m so sorry, but this is all the money I made tonight.’ And there was $40 on top of that note,” Rhonda said.
Later, Rhonda learned that a man had “forced pills down her, and violently raped her at gunpoint.” Despite this, Rhonda’s daughter still insisted she get in contact with her boyfriend.
These cases are not isolated. A panel discussion led by Channel 25 Anchor Ann Harder revealed what McLennan County law enforcement has been doing to combat sex trafficking in Waco.
Detective Joseph Scaramucci for McLennan County Sheriff’s Office has performed four stings, a type of strategic operation involving deception, which has amounted to 93 arrests.
One of the offenders was caught trying to purchase sex with a 2 and 4-year-old from a preschool teacher. The offender was unaware that the posing solicitor was actually Detective Scaramucci and his team.
“You know, every time we did [a sting], we got more. And our goal is to have a sting where nobody shows up,” McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said.
Unfortunately, getting information from the girls is not as effective as through the buyers and sellers. 74th District Court Judge Gary Coley, an activist for the elimination of sex trafficking, said girls are not likely to share the most horrifying moments of their lives to one person.
“The reality is, you’ve got to have multiple layers of people trying to speak to these girls to try to gather this information,” Judge Coley said.
After the panel discussion, a Q & A was opened to the audience. The questions ranged from how the community can get more involved, to what can be done to prevent buyers from ever feeling the need to purchase sex.
“Honestly, I think we have the best community around,” said UnBound National Director Susan Peters.
Peters’ efforts, along with the other activists present at the event, has revealed how large of an issue trafficking is in Waco. But like a detective’s sting, the process of ending the trade comes in waves. Like a mother’s love for her trafficked child, the cause must remain relentless, undaunted, and steadfast.