Texas Senate Bill 20 went into effect Sept. 1 and is set to provide funds to help survivors of child sex trafficking.
Houston-area leaders discussed the issue at a press conference on Wednesday, Sept. 4, at the UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center. Texas has approximately 79,000 child and adolescent trafficking survivors, according to a report from the Statewide Human Trafficking Mapping Project of Texas. And about half of those survivors are here in Houston.
“Oftentimes when these victims are rescued by authorities, then they have new problems from a system that is ill-equipped and ill-funded to meet their specific needs,” said Texas Sen. Carol Alvarado. “These kids need to be seen, they need to heard, and they need to be treated in order to start a long process of healing. And it is for these reasons that we brought this legislation. It was a team effort, a true bipartisan effort.”
She said the bill stands out from past measures because it joins the efforts of higher academic institutions, the medical community, law enforcement and local governments that will be able to help children and adolescents who desperately need it.
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Texas Rep. Sarah Davis celebrated the bill and how it will provide much-needed resources for not just fighting trafficking but helping those vulnerable ones left in its wake.
“Although targeting human traffickers is absolutely critical to ending the crime, we also must help the survivors and the victims,” she said. “And I think Texas has been a leader in really developing the prosecutorial aspects of human trafficking, but what we really lacked are resources and treating the victims.”
UTHealth Houston has been treating young sex trafficking victims for more than a decade, so Pediatric Psychiatrist Elizabeth Newlin, MD, has seen a lot of patients facing that trauma. She said she was encouraged by the benefits the survivors will receive as a result of the new bill.
“With the passage of Senate Bill 20, UTHealth Houston’s Department of Psychiatry, Trauma and Resilience Center and UTHealth Harris County Psychiatric Center have an opportunity to develop a comprehensive continuum of support services for child sex trafficking survivors,” she said.
She added that relationships with affiliated clinics and work with Texas Child Protective Services and the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department help UTHealth be able to interact with victims and take steps toward helping them recover.
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Two other areas of focus Newlin said are important to UTHealth are making sure parents also receive the care they need after the trauma of seeing their children come out of trafficking and taking a “least-restrictive approach,” where only the survivors that really need to be hospitalized are. However, she affirmed that the hospital is always there for those that do need that level of care.
Organizations like UTHealth can apply to receive the grants that will be administered by the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Jim Jones serves over the special investigations command and said that combating child sex trafficking has to be an effort of many if it’s going to be successful.
“But I will say collaboration, education, treatment, they all have to go together. Collaboration, we know the police office departments, we rescue victims. We arrest traffickers, the people that are responsible for the crime,” Jones said. “But we have to get help for the victims, or otherwise they may be subject to prey again, so this is a very important step.”